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What Causes Reactivity?

**This is an excerpt from my next book on the topic of overcoming leash reactivity**

The Fearful/Anxious Dog

Dogs can become fearful of their trigger for a multitude of reasons. The most obvious of which is that they had a bad experience. A dog that was monstered, bullied or attacked at the dog park, for example, has a high likelihood of developing fear of other dogs of that specific breed or size, or of all dogs in general.

Dogs that have had limited experience with their trigger, particularly during their critical period of development (< 4 months), may also develop fear-based behavioural issues.

In both cases, the dogs learn through trial and error that they can make their trigger go away by using aggressive behaviour. This is called defensive aggression, and it tends to be very loud and scary. It doesn’t take long for them to then learn that they can make their triggers stay away from them altogether by acting big and scary before they even come close. This is called offensive aggression.

While dogs that display fear-based reactivity may have no intent to do harm to their trigger – their behaviour is designed to make them stay away – if push comes to shove, and they’re physically or metaphorically cornered, they may actually bite. They do this not because they’re a bad dog, but because they felt that they had no other choice.

Some dogs also have a genetic proclivity towards social aloofness/shyness. This may be directed specifically towards strange dogs, strange people, or both. Often, this is the defining factor that causes dogs that have had a bad experience or a lack of experience into becoming reactive. If they were genetically gregarious, resilient and confident dogs, they’re less likely to do so.

Contrary to popular belief, many genetically aloof dogs do very poorly in a conventional socialization system that prioritizes lots of direct interaction with strange dogs, puppies and people. These are the puppies that really struggle in puppy classes and can be seen shying away from the attention of others. Some trainers will encourage owners of shy puppies to bring them more often to better ‘socialize’ them, and sometimes this may even appear to work for a while and the puppy gains confidence. But, often, they regress as they reach sexual (9+ months) and social (2.5+ years) maturity.

In attempting to make a shy dog social, we’re often just confirming what the puppy’s DNA is telling them; social situations are stressful/being near dogs is stressful/being around people is stressful. The dog learns that they need to advocate for their space around whatever triggers their stress, and reactivity is born.

Dogs that are reacting to a trigger due to fear often resort to the most impressive displays of aggression. Teeth bared, hackles up, chest puffed out, lots of vocalization. But, again, they’re not genuinely out to hurt anyone – though they might if they’re cornered. A dog that does intend to do harm tend to make little noise so that they can get close to their target, just as any predator would.

The behaviour is often contextual. In situations where the dog is freely able to make the choice whether to approach or not, they may be perfectly fine. But if their options are limited, or they believe their options are limited, they may react inappropriately.

Without intentional behaviour modification training, fear-based reactivity will get worse. If we allow them to continue their aggressive displays and their trigger goes away (regardless of whether the trigger was going to leave anyway), the behaviour gets reinforced.

Think about dogs that habitually bark at passers-by from behind their fence. To the dog, their behaviour is the thing that made the threat leave, and it’s thus reinforced… even though the people/dogs were walking by and would have kept moving regardless. When we pull our reactive dog away from their trigger, or if their trigger continues on their merry way oblivious to their role in perpetuating our dogs’ skewed picture of reality, they’re learning that reactivity is the thing that’s needed to keep themselves safe.

Likewise, if we try to ‘fix’ the reactivity by forcing the dog to face their fears, we’re often just confirming them instead. Trying to show a suspicious dog that strangers are nice by sticking our hands in their face, bribing them with food only to booby-trap it with an invasion of space, or forcing dogs into close proximity of another that is clearly struggling… all likely to make the behaviour worse.

So, on the one hand we may be rewarding the behaviour, and on the other hand we may be confirming the need for their unconscious emotional reaction.

Overcoming reactivity that is based on fear and anxiety is often the most straight-forward process of the lot, though it sometimes means we have to change our perceptions on what our shy dogs actually need to be happy in life.

The ‘Well-Socialized’ Dog

The conventional model for socialization aims to create ‘social’ dogs by providing a multitude of opportunities for our puppies to meet and play with other dogs (and people, but for now we’ll just discuss dogs as this is more common). Puppy classes and ‘play parties’, along with doggy day cares and dog parks are frequent haunts for those that subscribe to this model. It’s based on the idea that good dogs are social, and that ‘social’ equates to the ability to interact and play with everyone they meet.

Unfortunately, conventional socialization tends to benefit the minority of dogs, while adversely affecting the rest in a few different ways. For one, if we’re dealing with a genetically aloof dog, we may exacerbate their misgivings about other dogs because they’re continually put in stressful situations. This may develop into fear-based reactivity. But, what about the genetically social? Surely it benefits them?

This is rarely so. More often, genetically gregarious puppies raised in the conventional system of socialization become social pests. They’re unable to read the room and dive right into obnoxious attempts at meeting others that routinely breach the rules of social decorum. Their owners are often left confused because their dog was ‘well-socialized’.

The ‘well-socialized’ dog may do really well in some contexts, such as when they’re off-leash in an open space with others, but behave terribly when on leash or behind any type of barrier. The reason for this is normally that they’re really excited to get to see other dogs, and they anticipate that they’ll be able to. When they’re suddenly constrained by a leash or a fence, we suddenly throw some frustration in the mix. The combination of excitement, anticipation and frustration often culminate into an explosive overreaction.

Though sometimes it can start off small. Our little puppy realizes he can’t get to his playmate so he tries even harder. He might whine a bit. Over time, that behaviour gets a bit worse and now he’s bigger and the whine is a high-pitched bark. Now he’s non-stop barking, and he sounds like a dying cat as his straining on the leash constricts his airways.

Like the dog reacting based on fear, the ‘well-socialized’ dog may also get into a fight with their trigger when they manage contact. It may be due to the other dog being overwhelmed and trying to establish boundaries, and rightly so. Or it may be due to the fact that the dog that’s reacting is so worked up that they’re not in control of themselves anymore and cannot make rational decisions.

The two most common methods of dealing with the ‘well-socialized’ leash reactive dog is to pull them away from their trigger or to allow contact. Both will make the behaviour worse over time. On the one hand, if we don’t allow contact, we’re exacerbating the frustration (which is driving the behaviour). On the other hand, if we allow contact, we’re rewarding the behaviour.

The process of overcoming leash reactivity with the well-socialized dog may not be as straight forward as those doing so because of fear. Though, it also often entails shifting an owner’s perception of how to make their dog happy and fulfil their needs.

The Trigger-Happy Dog

The trigger-happy dog is almost always one belonging to the stereotypical working breeds, and very often from working lines. What’s different about the trigger-happy dog is that the ‘trigger’ is not the source of their emotional turmoil, but it’s what they use to vent it.

There are two key features that normally present with the trigger-happy dog: 1) their reactivity is inconsistent in that they will direct it at random targets. Sometimes dogs, sometimes people, sometimes the rubbish truck. It’s hard to predict what will set them off. 2) Once they react, they’re unable to settle down. They’re high on adrenaline and become hyper-aware and sensitive to any environmental stimulus. Owners of adrenaline-junkie-type dogs find that, once their dog reacts, the only they can do to settle him down is take them home.

It's very common for owners of trigger-happy dogs to determine that the behaviour is caused by a lack of stimulation. And they’re correct! Their dogs are using triggers in the environment as a means of venting excess energy, and as a way to give themselves a ‘job’, so to speak. The problem is that many decide to resort to physical exercise as a way to fix the issue.

In the short term, this can work. If their dogs are too tired to react, they won’t.

Long term, however, all we’re doing is creating a neurotic athlete that needs an impossible amount of exercise to make them happy. It’s a band aid solution, at best. And ultimately, these dogs are bred to work, work, work and are easily able to overcome a level of physical activity that was previously sufficient at preventing an outburst.

Trigger happy dogs are either simple or complicated, and there is no in-between. They tend to need a great deal of structure, a biologically appropriate outlet for their drives, as well as an element of compulsive training (thus far I’ve been unable to work any through a purely rewards-based approach).

Complicated Dogs

If you’re struggling to pin your dog’s behaviour on any of the aforementioned categories, it’s likely due to the fact that it’s being driven by more than one.

Dogs that are genetically aloof and intolerant of strange dogs, of which the majority of dogdom belongs, when forced into the puppy-mosh-pit method of socialization, are often the hardest to work with. Their upbringing has told them that when other dogs and puppies are around, they’re free to go absolutely insane. They associate other dogs with a level of arousal that is impossible for us to compete with. And for many dogs, the line between arousal and aggression is very small. But their genetics are telling them that close association with strange dogs is not good. That they need more space, and they need to be in control. And that when another dog shows anything other than deference, they need a lesson on the status quo.

These dogs often do great throughout their puppyhood and early adolescence, only to suddenly develop serious reactivity and aggression once they reach maturity. This can happen without anything objectively negative happening to them, but they show clear signs of anxiety due to the internal conflict they’re suffering.

Still other dogs may be genetically gregarious, but if their puppyhood lacked experiences with other dogs, they face a similar case of internal conflict. Their genetics are telling them to interact, but their lack of experience is making it impossible for them to do so in a socially competent manner. These dogs lack social etiquette, and can inadvertently cause other dogs to lash out due to a breach in that etiquette. A few of those experiences results in a genetically gregarious dog whose experiences are telling them that dogs are actually pretty unpredictable and potentially scary.

How confusing for them! And us!

I’ve had dogs that arguably started out as being driven by their fear of a trigger but learnt through experience that they can throw their weight around. They may even start going looking for fights thanks to the fact that their behaviour is working so well for them. They start in fear but move to becoming an adrenaline junkie.

I’ve heard some trainers describe reactive behaviour as a mechanism to reduce pressure, and I think that’s a really great way to summarize the issue. A fearful dog is experiencing pressure at their trigger’s presence and proximity, and uses reactive behaviour to drive it away. An over-excited dog is uses their reactive behaviour as a means to vent their frustration until they’re allowed to interact. A trigger-happy dog seeks a means to let the pressure of a lack of stimulation/incorrect stimulation out. But sometimes that pressure can come from a few places at once, or in different contexts. The fact that they’re repeating their behaviour is a sign that it’s serving them in some way. That it’s working.

Incorrect Labels

There have been many reasons that dog owners believe their dogs are behaving as they do, that are not only incorrect but harmful. The two most common are that the reactive dog is being ‘protective’, or that they’re being ‘dominant’.

The ‘Protective’ Dog

Dogs that are labelled as protective are normally just insecure and fearful. The exception to this is for breeds that have been responsibly bred as guardians. Livestock guardian dogs and Molossers breeds fit this bill the most consistently.

They’re bred to be suspicious of strange humans and dogs, and to behave with aggression at anything they consider out of the ordinary. They’re doing what they were bred to do, and normally the only fault in their behaviour is that they’ve not been given a biologically appropriate outlet for it. They are ‘trigger-happy’ dogs; however their behaviour is actually appropriate, just not in the context that they’re displaying it.

While behaviour modification and training programs can help enormously to overcome actual protectiveness, sometimes the problem is not the dog but the environment.

Dogs that are most often believed to be protective are labelled as such because they will react only when handled by certain people, and not others. In a heterosexual relationship, for example, the dog may behave appropriately for the man and inappropriately for the woman. The men will often say that their dog doesn’t feel the need to be protective of him because he’s the ‘alpha’, but his partner’s softer temperament leads the dog to take charge.

In most cases, the dog overreacts to their trigger with one person more than another because they, a) feel less secure with that person, so are more defensive of themselves, or b) feel more secure with that person, so are more comfortable showing their true colours. This is often the case in a multi-dog situation, where each dog may behave well when alone but lose their cool when together; they have backup so are more comfortable making a scene.

Most ‘protective’ dogs are just run-of-the-mill fearful and use varying degrees of aggression to keep distance between themselves and their trigger.

The reason labelling a reactive dog as being ‘protective’ is that it’s often used as justification for the behaviour, and owners are less likely to want to intervene or to fully comply with a behaviour modification program. It’s self-gratifying to think that our dog is being brave to protect us, because he loves us. It’s a blow to our ego to learn that he’s behaving aggressively because he’s insecure.

The 'dominant' Dog

While professional dog trainers that rely on misconceptions relating to hierarchy and ‘dominance’ are uncommon these days, this has been slow to catch on for the pet owning population. This may be partly due to popular culture and trendy TV trainers that promote hierarchical models of training and behaviour modification. Let’s discuss the legitimacy of using ‘dominance’ to describe temperament and behavioural traits, and overall motivation for reactivity.

When two animals compete for something they both view as a resource, their dominance and subordinance relationship can be determined. Their goal from this encounter, however, is NOT dominance, but acquisition of a resource. The result is a dominance/subordinance hierarchy.

The problem with seeing dominance is the goal from these relations is that it implies a need for suppression of the mutinous subordinate.

To illustrate this point, take the example of a dog guarding a bone from his owner. If this behaviour was interpreted as the dog trying to be ‘dominant’, the aggressive behaviour would be read as an overhaul of the entire relationship. An attempt to dominate the human. The treatment for which is historically either completely unrelated to the actual behaviour (eating first, walking ahead on walks, going through doorways first, etc) or very confrontational and potentially dangerous for the owner (alpha rolls). Not to mention prone to fallout.

If we see the behaviour as being motivated by the need for the resource itself, the aggression is simply a sign of the dog’s high value for the item and not indicative of any relationship flaws. Except perhaps the realization that the dog does not trust their human (more reason to avoid conflict). The treatment, therefore, should be more in-keeping with scientifically sound principles of behaviour modification. For example, if the dog is worried about me around their stuff, I should make sure that my presence and proximity announces only good things, such as the addition of more valued items.

Dominance is not a motivator for behaviour. Dominance is an outcome. Access to resources is the motivation.

You may be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with reactivity? The answer is simple: nothing. Because ‘dominance’ cannot be used to describe the motivation behind reactivity nor the outcome from reactivity. It’s completely irrelevant.

Most often, dogs that are labelled ‘dominant’ are just socially incompetent bullies that are repeatedly put in situations that allow them to rehearse and refine their poor social skills.

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