Reactive dog? – just another label


So, reactive dog? It seems to mean over-reacting to something many other dogs can calmly handle, like other dogs walking by or being in a yard or being left somewhere and either becoming very worried or destroying things because of being scared or anxious, or not being willing to greet people and barking and/or lunging towards them or away from them. A kind of higher than average aggressiveness or spookiness that ratchets up very quickly and upsets the owner.

We want reactivity, but only on our terms; their quickness at discovering things, their warning systems, their ability to find game, find the scent, find the victim, find the sheep/cow/rabbit/squirrel/birds/rats, go over, through, under obstacles … they are supposed to be quicker than we are athletically and in awareness level. Their senses outstrip ours for scent (X1000 or more), hearing (75 percent better and more range) and seeing in dim light or for movement at a distance (especially longer-nosed dogs).

Pretty much every dog has something that arouses him/her, something that they really want or really are upset about. In order for this to not be the things like other dogs or people or cars or being alone, early socialization and practice with good experiences is the easiest, but even easiest takes effort – months of effort, as they grow and their awareness changes. Some pups end up in the perfect place to grow up because it matches their needs and their people’s plans for them includes appropriate things for them to be reactive about. But sometimes no-one notices until it’s real obvious the reactivity is for the wrong things or this is a second hand dog we’re talking about.

However if you started with a puppy, just because a puppy was fine in puppy kindergarten doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way without practice. And the ones that weren’t quite comfortable in puppy kindergarten, well it’s good they got better, but they probably need the good socialization experiences even more as they grow. And get these started right away.

Regular practice isn’t one time per week (although that’s better than no times per week) and volume of good repeats is important. Just like in music or art or anything else, bad repeats aren’t helping. Ian Dunbar recommends 50/50/50 good meetings with new people women/children/men in the first year and socialization in a well run puppy kindergarten and puppy play dates weekly; Susan Garrett suggested the same number of exposures weekly. If a dog is more worried, more aggressive, more fearful then practice on things to resolve that during each interaction and use classical conditioning (i.e. Pavlov’s bell means food’s coming — so in this case whatever the issue is when it’s present in some way means good stuff/food… will happen.)

So instead of solitary confinement or ‘he doesn’t leave the place’ – For dogs who are easily frightened and tend to want to hide, lack of regular positive incremental exposure to new or different kinds of things will cause them to be more fearful, they seem to set stronger boundaries on their comfort zones and it becomes lesser if they don’t keep doing and trying stuff.

Or thinking about it differently; if you were anxious socially and so you quit going to any kinds of gatherings. it becomes harder and harder to convince yourself to go to parties where there will be a group, or to drive alone to a new place or join a new club. And if the experience of going somewhere or doing something is much too scary that would  inhibit you more – causing greater fear or agitation about the situation. So it’s an observation balancing act providing continued exposure, but not overwhelming exposure. A good gauge of ‘too much’ is if the dog won’t eat his favorite food treat, get him some space and try again.

Things that cut fear and fear-based aggression are: physical competence (strength and speed games), space to retreat or move, pressure clothes (swaddling-type like Thundershirt), body work relaxing, arousal games like tug, conditioned behaviors (having a behavior or series of them to do that are ingrained enough that it is easy and comforting), compensatory behaviors like looking away or chewing, soothing aromas, classical conditioning to alter emotions (person=food, dog=food, certain place=food), calm dog friend and  using positive reward based training so that your relationship and trust level is very high. Drugs – anti-anxiety medications. How many of these do you need to use? It depends on how fearful and which things connect best with the dog’s personality and the event/activity.

Things that stall/stop or even reverse the reduction of fear/aggression: adding punishment (yelling, jerking, electric shock, etc. Note: fairly often people are unaware of how they are reacting or don’t count things like the electronic underground fence), avoidance/limiting dogs exposure to anything that might be worrisome, or overwhelming them with exposure (too much stress is bad, but none isn’t good either), letting the dog rush at the thing he’s worried about (adrenalin rushes are rewarding especially when the target responds by retreating), repeated bad experiences (aggressive dog/person), not giving the dog space (feeling trapped or forced), lacking the high value rewards that would make person=food=good or dog=food=good, not having tools like head halter to help the dog in looking away from whatever he’s targeting to attack, inadequate exercise/physical conditioning as a healthy strong body increases feelings of competence, not training in low stress places enough to have certain cues so well learned that they are muscle memory, lacking strong game part like tug, traditional training model using corrections. What if I’m unprepared? Then I will get/give space, retreat calmly but steadily and find a less worrisome area to do some things with the dog so he earns rewards.

Then there are person mechanics of handling that make a huge difference and understanding your dog’s body language and other dogs’ or people’s ways of approaching. Both with people and approaching dogs, often you as the handler can change position to be a barrier or to get more space, loosen the leash to avoid tension or snug it up to prevent charging or request things from people to make the situation work better, or be silent instead of yelling no! or relax and laugh and offer food.

Most of the dogs I’ve raised, through a long series of terriers and herding dogs, and that I’ve trained for others have had certain times in their lives when they were ready to challenge other dogs, or were rushed by a pushy dog or were worried about certain people or situations. There are key times and incidents that can be tipping points.

Some of their owners thought their dog’s unruliness/aggression/fear/reactivity would be permanent … and often a degree of it is, but the level is often because their handlers continue to react the way they always had and didn’t or couldn’t do the practice and were never ready with the tools (didn’t have rewards on them the dog really liked, didn’t carry a tug toy, didn’t regularly go to visit places where they would see people and dogs, didn’t use a head halter in times when it would likely be needed, didn’t get a Thundershirt, continued to let their dog do bad action rehearsals – in the car, in the yard, at the front door).

Almost any dog can be primed (or re-primed after they learned new behaviors) for the reactive label. One bad experience can initiate altered emotions, but just because there’s been one or two or more bad experiences doesn’t mean growly, barking, upset, crazy freaking is the way it will have to be. But it does mean get ready, set up the environment to prevent the kinds of doggy reactions you don’t want and promote the ones you do want all the time. Each bad rehearsal makes it longer before it’s resolved, each good one builds a stronger and stronger bridge to the behavior you do want.

An excuse? Calling a dog reactive isn’t like a diagnosis which then can be billed for and the protocol for treatment then followed, it often just means “Oh well, he’s reactive, he’s a shelter dog,” an excuse for limitations and sympathy. I’m for empathy, not so much for sympathy.

Blaming it on another dog that’s always on the walking path? I’d call this an opportunity, because here there’s a pattern, not a surprise, and preparation is easy to plan. I’d actually search for these after I had some good initial training and tools (head halter, food rewards, games to play) in place.

If the labels meant that a training, handling and environmental protocol would then be followed I’d like labels. The current system of labeling I don’t like. I like clear explanations of what happens play by-play prior to, during and after whatever the problem activity was. Those I can use to compare to what I see. Labels become a burden for the dog, a way they are seen and how they are treated. They blur reality and the possible resolution of whatever the issues might be.

Before you label your dog, or let anyone else label them become aware of the assumptions the label carries, the fears, the disdain, the aggression of some people towards the dog, dismissal of resolving the problems, the sympathy for the owner… all the traps involved with the pattern of thinking that goes with it.

Have you unintentionally labeled your dog and had people react weirdly towards them?

Do you need help because you are afraid of what your dog might do if you try to go to public places? You can certainly contact me for help.

As far a places to use in our area to practice the local veterinarian clinic is quite welcoming, the library walking area is good for distance observations of people walking, traffic and occasional dogs and the ____mart stores both have nice large parking areas for practice at a distance from people. To upgrade the level of stress the Riverwalk has a good number of dog walkers depending on time of day and the shelter often has dogs outside in kennel runs available to bark at you and your pooch. You’ll have to head to Wausau to find a pet store that allows inside dog traffic.

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One thought on “Reactive dog? – just another label”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and wise post; I’d recommend it to anyone with a fearful or anxious dog. It’s a great reminder that reactivity is always a work in progress (and not a socialization death sentence).

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