Helping the Reactive Dog 

How did we get here and where do we go now?

Photo by Chewy

 I may be going out on a limb, but to my knowledge, no wild animal living in undisturbed, pristine, wilderness has ever been diagnosed as reactive or experiencing anxiety. Sure there is the basic instinct of “fight or flight” which is a survival reflex, but that response is performed on a massive stage with vast amounts of space between the players.  For instance, a wolf’s natural range is between 80 and 1200 sq miles depending on the abundance of prey. In contrast to the wolf, a domesticated dog’s range and personal space are significantly less and measured in square feet, not miles. The human condition is more cramped, with less personal space and higher rates of social interaction, and with that social density comes stress.  I will walk even further on that limb and say that every case of domestic dog reactivity, anxiety, and aggression can be associated directly or indirectly with the human condition. 

Reactivity is being recognized more than ever in the dog community, and while not a new phenomenon,  concentrated focus as to why reactivity happens is gathering more attention.  As is often the case, once we understand why something is happening through observation and sharing of experiences, we begin to find solutions in the details.  That brings to mind….the humble canary…

Back in the day, canaries were used to detect odorless and explosive methane gas in coal mines. Canaries being more sensitive than humans to the gas would, tragically, die from exposure, but this would signal danger to the miners so they could flee the area immediately.   Much like the proverbial canary, dogs have an acute sensitivity as well… detecting external and emotional stressors and they are unapologetic in letting those around them know how they feel about it. However, rather than eliminating the detected problem, humans would prefer the dog to be more tolerant of human-created stress. Which is basically what domestication is, a tolerance of the human condition.  But I would suggest that domestication may have its limits and today’s domesticated dog is sounding off with greater frequency as we keep pace with technological advances and changes in social interaction.  It never made sense to breed for a methane-tolerant canary…perhaps we should listen to our dogs and understand why they are making a fuss rather than simply seeking a more stress-tolerant dog. It could be they are pointing out things that are stressful for us as well, for instance, my dog Belle would like me to step away from the computer and take her for a walk. (In a minute girl…)

Photo by Rebecca Georgia

Humans and dogs both have what is called affective empathy, which is to say we can understand someone else’s feelings. Dogs have us beat in this arena mainly because they rely more on what they smell and less on what they see. A dog’s nose does not lie and they can literally smell stress in others.  Dogs are also less distracted than humans and totally present in the now, which to me is enviable.

Our canine friends are more adaptable and resilient than we give them credit for.  The rate at which a puppy mentally matures from 3 months to 1 year is nothing short of incredible and can catch puppy owners unprepared.  A puppy is constantly learning and adapting and we often take this adaptability for granted. However, the pace of our technological and societal evolution is quickly outpacing the natural evolution of dogs and their ability to naturally adapt.  For instance, a dog that was born just two years ago, before drone deliveries to your home was possible, may take issue with a big hovering alien bird dropping off food at the neighbor’s house.  Heck, come to think about it, I’m not so sure I will adjust completely!  The side effects of our lifestyles, our communities, and how we relate to the world can reflect in our dogs which can naturally beget a reaction. Humans may be conditioned to the stimulus, but the dog is not, and therefore needs help to understand it.

A reactive dog is defined as one that has an inflamed level of arousal in response to what we would consider an ordinary stimulus. The key words here are “we would consider” because we are looking at it from our human point of view, not the dogs.  We think their reaction is over-the-top and ridiculous to an object that is no big deal to us. However we should be asking, “Why is this a big deal? What led up to this reaction”, and “How can we help our dogs understand and overcome their wariness?” In many cases, a high-level reaction doesn’t start with that particular object but grows over time from something else that elevated their arousal levels earlier and set the trigger for a major reaction later.  The initial start of this tension may not have been extreme, to begin with, but left unresolved was left to stack and be associated with many other things to then be released on something relatively benign at the end.  This building effect is what we call Trigger Stacking.

In many respects, this occurs because a dog is not given a choice to approach a stimulus on their own terms.  For example, we walk down a street with our dogs in tow and we commonly expect our dogs to accept everything without any communication from us.  However, our dogs are communicating all the time on these walks, with an assortment of subtle body language and cues that can easily go undetected.  They may be communicating to us, or to the perceived stress coming towards them that they are uneasy.  And just like us, when we feel like we are not being heard, we become stressed and we will continue to increase the volume of our concern until someone hears us, which can be extreme.  

It is also important to remember not all reactions are aggressive, some reactions are more flight than fight.  Either way, there is the potential for a pattern to develop that grows into aggression and this is why we must be diligent in resolving our dog’s reactivity when small before they grow into a larger and potentially more dangerous behavior. 

 Making a good choice 

The seeds of reactivity can potentially be in the genes, but it is no guarantee that calm parents make non-reactive puppies. Human environmental factors are massive influencers and can vary drastically from one household to the other.  Adult dogs already showing their tendencies can give clues to a new family. Still, it can be several months after what I call the “honeymoon period” when a dog may begin to show behaviors that were suppressed.  As for puppies, predicting future behavior a year down the road is difficult with no guarantees due to an overabundance of variables that can occur during the critical puppy development period. 

As a quick side note: If you are considering a puppy, you should pick one that voluntarily engages with you, wants to follow you confidently, and has tons of curiosity. You want to see the parents and observe how the puppies have been cared for.  You will not always be able to see the father, but the mother should be on site, whether it is a breeder or a rescue. Of course, there are may more things to consider than just these few factors, so please feel free to contact me to discuss them in more detail.

Recognize Triggers and Precursors

Reactivity is a symptom that stems from the 5 senses of smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste.  Anyone of these senses can be an avenue in how a dog interacts with a stimulus that causes stress.   A dog may be reactive to the site of a large or small dog, because of a past altercation with that type.  A dog may have a traumatic experience from a man, woman, or child and now that dog is wary of people that fit that specific description.  Reactivity does not happen in a vacuum, so we must identify any and all factors that provoke a response and the precursors associated with them. For instance, a dog may be reactive at the vet’s office because they smell the stress odors of other dogs and people before going inside, which can set the trigger before the vet walks into the room.  Sometimes it can be as simple as a leash that elevates stress in a dog and primes the pump for a reactive response to anything that happens when the leash is worn.  

When I first meet a reactive dog I start to investigate all the variables that lead up to a reactive moment and then begin a process of elimination.  It can be a revelation for the dog’s family when they see a nonreaction to a stimulus when the associated variables are removed or changed.  Once we change the variables we can begin to unravel the knots.  Once we have identified the precursors that set the trigger, we can begin to help everyone in creating healthy and calm associations with the stimulus. 

Having a trainer who can read a dog’s body language helps identify the subtle cues a dog is giving when these things are present.  Something as subtle as a tightening of muscles, to the more obvious lip lick, or yawn can tell you they are starting to set the trigger.  I am a big proponent of eliminating big problems when they are small.  While avoiding problems altogether is advisable until you are able to train correctly, nothing can be avoided forever and healing cannot occur until the work begins, otherwise, you risk reinforcing the behavior. 

Photo by Kamil Klyta

Looking out for your dog

The world is a random place.  Even your own quiet suburban neighborhood can be a stressful place to walk, because of other dogs, bikes, joggers, children playing, vehicles, you name it. For people with backyards, the temptation to just stay in the backyard and not go for walks, which only amplifies the problem because then the dog does not have opportunities for new experiences and growth.  Conversely, immersing an unprepared dog in a stressful situation can risk increasing a dog’s fear and reactivity.  For instance, going to a brewery sounds like a great time, but not when it is extremely loud and busy, like on a Friday Night. A dog should instead be given an orientation visit when they are closed or go when crowds are light to give your dog an opportunity to investigate the space and retreat to calm spots if they want to.  Keep these orientation periods brief and successful and always give your dog a chance to retreat and let them reapproach on their terms. 

It is also important to remember that many people, strangers, and children don’t know how to approach a dog correctly. The concept of dogs deserving personal space is not on other people’s minds.  If you are going to be in a public space then the responsibility of advocating for your dog is yours. There is nothing wrong with telling people, politely but firmly, your dog does not like to be petted, or your dog is not interested in being approached by another dog.  Dogs deserve space and it should be common courtesy that we give them that space. That said, not every dog likes to be around a lot of people.  Some dogs have the genetic disposition of being aloof and that is perfectly OK!  To play off Socrates, To know thy dog is the beginning of wisdom.

The Way Out 

Learning how to cope with stressful situations is the long-term solution to help you and your dog be confident and calm.  First and foremost we want to change the old fear-trauma pattern into a confidence-building pattern. 

While treats have become a standard for rewarding a dog, I believe overuse of treats can risk adding stimulus to an already stimulating experience and also begs the question…What happens if you don’t have treats with you?  The one and only reward you have with you at all times is an emotional reward.  Genuine excitement, play, and engagement with your dog is the connection they crave, want to work for, and depend on to cope while releasing stress.  Treats are transactional and lack emotion, but a gregarious act of silliness speaks to a dog instantly and makes them feel more at ease.  Not to mention it is a release for us as well.

Timing and observation are critical to the adjustment process. In many respects we are listening to our dogs and working with them, allowing their curiosity to draw them forward while we give them the support to feel confident when unsure.  Knowing when to retreat, advance, and push ahead are important to the technique. Working with a trainer that is skilled in reading these cues is extremely helpful.

Finally, be patient with your dog and yourself. Progress is not always steady and we can all have a relapse and that is a part of the process too.  You are both learning this dance. If you experience a step backward do not be discouraged.  Go back to what was successful and start again. End each session with fun and play in a safe area and shake off the tension.  Your dog wants to feel calm and relaxed and you are very much a part of the solution!

Photo by Humphrey Muleba

I look forward to talking with you!

Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Apex, Holly Springs, Chapel Hill, Fuquay Varina, Angier, Pittsboro

Dog Training, Dog Behavior, Dog Advice, Dog Counseling

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