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Your Reactive Dog: Stuff You Should Know

Reactivity is becoming a growing issue amongst our pet dogs, and is definitely the number 1 reason pet owners contact me (I think most other trainers would agree!). Because dogs are the most frequent 'trigger' for reactivity, that will be the main focus for this blog post. But all the information applies to other triggers.

What is it?

Reactivity is a catch-all phrase which describes a dog that over-reacts to something in the environment. The most common target or 'trigger' of reactivity is other dogs, and to a lesser degree, humans. Though reactive behaviour directed at vehicles, other animals, and novel stimuli are also common.

Typically, reactivity looks much like aggression; snarling, barking, lunging etc. But really, any response which is outside the 'norm' could be classed as reactivity; whining and excitement, flight or avoidance-type fear responses etc.

It's not uncommon for dogs to encounter their trigger(s) off-leash and outside any barriers and be totally fine. Only to react when they encounter that same trigger on leash, or behind a fence, crate or kennel. A confounding phenomenon for many struggling pet owners!

What Causes Reactivity?

The causes of reactivity are numerous. In the broadest sense, dogs become reactive in order to relieve some sort of 'pressure'. That pressure may be based in excitement/arousal and anticipation; "Another dog, HELLO OTHER DOG, I WANT TO SNIFF YOUR BUTT!" Fear and anxiety; "Oh Crap, there's another dog. GO AWAY, I'M BIG AND SCARY AND I'LL MESS YOU UP!" In many cases, particularly with the stereotypical working breeds, reactivity can become a bit of a game for entertainment. This is often the case when those dogs don't have their needs met; they go looking for ways to blow off steam.

Reactivity can be reinforced in a few ways;

  1. It works for the dog. Let's say we have a 1yr old lab who LOVES other dogs. When he sees one, he pulls, squeals and barks. His owner reassures the other dog owner that he's 'friendly, just excited!' and lets him drag her over for a meet and greet. Mr. Lab's reactive behaviour is getting progressively worse, because he believes that he needs to be an unruly nincompoop to get what he wants; to say hello. Alternatively, we have a 15yr old terrier who barks and snarls at other dogs on sight. Because he's so little, his owner is afraid that his behaviour will lead another dog to hurt him. So as soon as his little scruffy dude starts up a ruckus, the owner pulls him away and gives the other dog a wide berth. The Terrier doesn't like other dogs, and thinks that he made them stay away from him because of his aggression (and he's not wrong!). There are numerous examples of this. Oftentimes, the behaviour may start as a mechanism for defensiveness; the dog is approached by another dog, so he uses aggression to make it go away. This might only need to happen a few times for that dog to figure out that if I this to make them go away, I can do it to make them stop in their tracks BEFORE they even get to me. That's how defensive aggression can become offensive aggression. For the 'every dog's dog', or the annoyingly social dogs, their behaviour regularly stems from a lack of control or obedience, combined with a very high value in other dogs (along with a comparatively low value in their owners). It starts as pulling, then whining, yips, full on barks, and just snowballs from there. For the unfulfilled working breed, his reactive behaviour gave him an addictive rush of adrenaline and dopamine. There may not have been any obvious signs of reinforcement, but don't be deceived, the internal satisfaction he's gotten from his behaviour is just as powerful as any external reinforcement! This is a tricky problem to fix, and very difficult to do so without compulsion in some form, even if we address the lack of fulfillment.

  2. It doesn't work for the dog Back to the social 1yr old Lab; he has his target in sight - the 15yr old terrier. His owner yells out the usual "he's friendly, just excited!" but this time is met with a panicked; "Mines not! He's old, keep your dog away!" Ah damn. Owner of Lab hauls him away. Lab gets more frantic, more frustrated. But to know avail! Next time he sees a dog, he redoubles his efforts, he may even catch his owner unawares to thwart any attempt at preventing contact (cue dislocated shoulder). In truth, this wouldn't be a problem if the dog hadn't already had a good deal of success beforehand. By varying whether or not we allow our dog to say hello to another, we may unintentionally have created a variable schedule of reinforcement. This is BAD and tends to create a problem that is harder to resolve.

Reactive behaviour can also be strongly heritable. Certain breeds are especially prone to it, like German Shepherds. The combination of having a low threshold for frustration, vocalization, and being innately non-social (aloof, not necessarily 'anti' social), means that MOST shepherds seem to go through a reactive period at some point in their life.

That doesn't mean it's not modifiable. My own Shepherd went through a month or so of reactivity during adolescence. It was overcome by a combination of obedience and counterconditioning; made MUCH easier by the existing foundation I'd put on her during puppyhood.

How do we PREVENT reactivity?

If you have the gift of getting your dog during their first few months of life, the best way to prevent it is through an effective socialization program. In a nutshell, that entails:

  1. Exposing them to novel situations and stimuli on a regular basis (daily, if possible)

  2. Making that exposure positive or neutral, depending on what it is and how the puppy reacts to it

  3. Building up a tonne of value in YOU, through focus and engagement training

  4. Exposing puppies to other living creatures, but making sure the ratio of direct, positive interaction vs. indirect, positive exposure matches the needs of the puppy

That last point bares more discussion. Most people think that if they let their puppy play with as many dogs as possible, they will be 'socialized' and won't end up reactive. But this is not the case.

Play is only a tiny part of a dogs entire social repertoire. If it is made the only thing we focus on, we tend to create a high expectation of FUN on sight of other dogs. This is exacerbated by the fact that most folks love just cutting their puppies loose, sitting back and watching the mayhem. So, not only does the puppy learn that other dogs are playmates, they're also learning that when they're with other dogs, their humans are boring and unengaging. This can occur at puppy classes, daycares and dog parks/beaches.

Direct interaction with other dogs should not regularly = play. If you're raising a puppy like this, they often become the obnoxious assholes at the dog park who fail to understand when another dog attempts to enforce a reasonable boundary. Taking puppies around neutral adult dogs is preferable to free, chaotic puppy mosh pits. They learn to coexist around other dogs in a calmer fashion, and it gives owners far more wiggle room to ask for and reward engagement on them.

Indirect, positive exposure simply means to take a puppy around something and show them that it pays to pay attention to the person holding the leash. You see that dog barking at us, puppy? Here's some hot dog. You see that person in a wheelchair? Here's some cheese. Things that might typically elicit interest or fear are paired with good things. Those good things are coming from you. It doesn't take long for the puppy to start pointing out things in the environment by focusing on you; there's a dog! Human, pay me!

By and large, indirect exposure is far easier to achieve because it doesn't require ready access to neutral, well behaved older dogs. But both have an important place in socialization, to varying degrees according the puppy.

Obedience is also an important part in prevention. Most pet dogs are allowed to pull on leash, and many wear harnesses which facilitates pulling. This is a HUGE factor in reactivity, as any restraint can cause more of an explosion. Teaching dogs to walk at heel on a loose leash should he a big priority in puppyhood. A loose leash, because that means there's no tension; no tension = no restraint = no frustration. 'Heel' (walking right by our left leg) because it makes it very easy for our dogs to give us eye contact and engagement.

Changing your expectations is another, less discussed point of prevention. Most people want a dog they can take everywhere with them. Most people think the way to get that is to have a very social dog that loves other dogs and people. This is not true, or is at least partially true. Dogs do not need dog 'friends' to live a happy life. They don't need to be overtly social and outgoing to fit into human society... actually this can make it much harder!

What they need is to be able to ignore most things happening around them in favour of focusing on you. It is challenging to have a dog that LOVES other dogs in some contexts but is 'neutral' to them in other situations. This is why dogs who have spent much of their early puppyhood playing with many others have such a hard time ignoring them when we want them to.

It's truly a balancing act, and there's absolutely not a one-size-fits-all approach to socialization and puppy raising. Not enough exposure and interaction with other dogs and you may have a dog that is worried about them. Too much and they're obsessed with them. What constitutes 'too much' and 'not enough' is incredibly variable.

But this point is not only a preventative, it's a resolution; YOUR DOG DOESN'T NEED DOG FRIENDS TO BE HAPPY. A comfort or a disappointment? I've lost count of the number of pet owners I've told this to. Most are relieved; they don't need to stress about taking their dog to the park anymore. Their dog doesn't need to learn to play, or to 'socialize'. Their dogs wants other forms of fulfillment and enrichment; play with YOU, walks with YOU, time with YOU. After all, dogs were bred to be companions for us, not for other dogs!

Last but not least; ADVOCATE FOR YOUR DOG. If your dog is worried about interacting with their trigger, chances are they'll develop a defensive->offensive response to it eventually. They learn to advocate for themselves because you don't. If you witness their concern, step in. I would rather deal with an irate dog owner by grabbing their dog or making it get away from mine somehow, than deal with the ramifications of allowing the interaction to start/continue and having my dog learn that I won't help them when needed. The ONLY reason my dogs trust me when I take them around aggressive and reactive dogs is because they know I've got their back.

How do we FIX reactivity

*Caution; big generalizations inbound*

There are two common ways to go about resolving reactivity. One is to view it as obedience problem, and the other as an emotional one.

Trainers that view reactivity as an obedience problem are often more compulsion-based in their methodology (not always!). Their aim is to teach, reinforce and generalize various obedience behaviours that the dog cannot do at the same time as the reactive behaviour. If a dog is heeling and paying attention to their human, for example, they can't blow up. Reactivity solved! Right? There are many misconceptions about this approach. Done correctly, the dog is taught the obedience skills away from their trigger. They're exposed to a variety of distractions, rewarded for making the right choice and staying engaged with their human, or corrected for making the wrong choice and disengaging from their human. Only then is the trigger introduced, as just one more 'distraction'.

The goal is for the dog to see their trigger as either; a) another thing in the environment to ignore, or b) a cue to engage and watch their human more closely.

The risk of this method is when we introduce the trigger too soon in the program. Rather than the dog seeing their trigger as just another distraction or a cue to engage with their human in order to avoid a correction, they see it as something predictive of discomfort. This is particularly bad for dogs whose reactive behaviour is caused by fear and anxiety; they see the trigger, start showing signs of their fear, and the person holding the leash pops them. They don't think 'my behaviour caused that', they think; 'that thing GOT me, from all the way over there. I knew they were BAD!' And their behaviour gets worse, because their fears are confirmed.

In saying this, many dogs do well in a compulsion based program. Even if their behaviour is just temporarily suppressed, that can give them time to learn that they can work in proximity to their trigger and nothing bad is going to happen, or, for the gregarious, they won't be allowed to interact.

The other school of thought is to view reactive behaviour as the manifestation of emotion. The theory being; if they can change how the dog feels about their trigger than the reactive behaviour should dissipate. This is often the approach taken by rewards-based (or force-free) trainers.

The goal of this approach is for the dog to see their trigger as a good thing, and as a cue to engage with their human. This is done through a process known as counterconditioning and desensitization (CC/DS).

As an example of CC/DS, I will use my beagle mutt's fear of having her nails done. When I first got Bugs, she would literally alligator roll whenever I grabbed a foot. She'd lash out, and run. This wouldn't do! Her nails were far too long already! So, for the space of a week I paired the nail maintenance with her receiving her daily calories. This started with twice a day feedings/training sessions. I'd cut/dremel a nail, and give her all her food. Regardless of whether she fought me or not. Over the space of a week, she learnt that nail clip time was awesome, because it announced her mealtime. She stopped fighting. She's so annoyingly happy about having her nails done now, that she'll jump up on the grooming table and push off any other dogs when she hears the dremel start up!

The degree of success of this approach is highly dependent on the dog's motivation for food. Bugs is insanely food motivated, and anything I pair with food takes on a positive value very quickly.

Motivation matters! If the pressure the dog feels from their trigger outcompetes their value in your reward, CC will not be effective. The opposite may occur, in fact; they could view food with suspicion, as it's been paired with something they don't like.

The need to understand distance and thresholds is critically important in either approach, done correctly. But much more so for conventional CC/DS, as the dog MUST stay under threshold (not react) for it to work. This is very challenging in the real world, and can lead to a great deal of frustration for owners just wanting a dog they can take places. They become hyper-vigilant; walking becomes a military operation and the joy of dog ownership becomes a chore.

In saying that, again, motivation matters. There's been several dogs that I've been able to work right up to their trigger in the space of 20 minutes purely by pairing it with a high value reward (and not necessarily food; a few dogs have worked for a ball or squeaky toy). With a bit of extra work on generalization, they were good as gold long term.

Where a lot of people go wrong when using food or other rewards in their program is confusing it with a distraction. The human sees the trigger, they pull out the food and start working the dog before their dog is even aware of the trigger. This is not CC/DS. This is distraction, and it will not change how the dog feels about their trigger. The trigger must ANNOUNCE good things for counterconditioning to occur; in order for it to do that, the dog needs to actually see it.

There are a multitude of different approaches we can take to resolving reactivity, but these are the two more extreme ends of the spectrum. Neither are perfect, and neither should be the go-to method of choice for every dog. I find most dogs need a bit of both, and in doing so we're covering our bases as much as possible. We deal with the behaviour, and we deal with the emotion that's driving the behaviour.

What can I do, right now, to start the process of overcoming my dog's reactivity?

1. Build their motivation for food, as much as possible. This can only HELP the process, even if you find your dog is not motivated enough for conventional CC/DS. This is most effectively done by;

a) Using existential food (their daily calories, instead of additions like traditional treats)

b) Using higher value food; roast chicken, beef, cheese, prime100 rolls, happy howies/redbarn etc.

c) Using MORE food; your dog did something right? Vary the amount of food they get as a reward. There is no rule that says they should just get *1* treat. Sometimes, I'll pay a dog with everything I've got in my bait bag and end a session after just one, or a few reps of exposure to their trigger. This has an immensely beneficial effect.

2. Charge a marker! There's tonnes of resources out there to show how to do this properly.

3. Build up some focus and engagement. I personally don't put focus on cue (no 'watch' cue). Right from the start, I wait for the dog to offer it and then I mark/capture it and reward. By doing this a lot and with the dog's daily rations, they become very good at offering it regularly.

4. CONTACT A TRAINER and please stop getting advice from facebook groups full of other struggling dog owners. I see sooooo much bad or conflicting advice online, and sadly there's zero accountability for it. Unfortunately, not all trainers will help. It's worth getting a referral from another dog owner who has experienced success with someone. Credentials and amount of time someone has been training is not a guarantee of skills either. It's a tricky field to navigate!

The Human End of the Leash

The missing link! Many owners have become sensitized to their dog's trigger, and many display PTSD-type behaviours in response to it. Things like reflexively tensing up, an increased heart rate, a rush of adrenaline, walking faster or slower. In many cases, the dogs then become attuned to their owner, and take their stress as a cue to be worried about something that they would have otherwise ignored. A very frustrating cycle!!

There are two parts to dealing with this, one is addressing the owner's behaviour and the other is working the dog through the owner's typical stress responses.

It's incredibly difficult to work people through reflexive responses in the moment. I've found talking to them and asking them about irrelevant things helps take their mind off of triggering situations. But that only works when I'm there, and sometimes, their attention being taken off their dog means they miss a sign that their dog is building up to an explosion... this essentially 'punishes' the person for focusing on something else and is counterproductive.

I generally recommend people practice mindfulness and meditation, and learn about how to ground themselves in moments of stress. This takes time, but it has a lot of knock-on effects in life, not just in dog training.

Spend time around dogs practicing normal social skills. Lots of owners of reactive dogs isolate themselves and lose the skills they need to be able to read dog body language and normal social behaviour. Vocalizations, growling and snapping, or other ritualistic forms of aggression become SCARY and predictive of an explosion in their personal dog. By frequently spending time around gregarious dogs, it's possible to become desensitized to these signals. They're normal dog behaviours!

Find a group of other dog owners who are sympathetic to your dog's issues. Go for structured leash walks, don't let them pressure you into pushing your dog beyond their limits. Having a support group, and a way to expose your dog to other controlled dogs and experiencing SUCCESS is hugely beneficial in visualizing your dog making the correct choices for future encounters.

Remember that you're not alone. Don't be hard on yourself, and take time for self care. Be aware of your emotional state before heading into a training session, and allow yourself days off if you're not feeling up to it.

As far as working the dog through these problems; we simply pair our stress responses with good thing (but, remember, motivation matters!). For example, I really like teaching dogs to give to leash pressure; pull on a leash, when the dog goes with it, the tension goes away and we feed them. But, we can also 'charge' leash tension. Pull back on the leash, mark and pay the dog. This does nothing as far as obedience training, but it can teaching them that when the human tenses up and pulls back on the leash, good things will follow. A handy signal to create, and when done correctly they'll respond with a reflexive head turn; all in anticipation of expected good things!

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