Anyone living with a reactive dog will be well aware of the daily challenges this can bring.
Reactivity encompasses behaviours triggered by fear, frustration or anger. It is effectively your dog saying, ‘I’m in over my head and I can’t cope’. Reactive behaviour is your cue that your dog is too close to their trigger, which typically includes dogs and people, but also other animals and cars for example. A dog at a distance from the trigger where the dog feels safe will not behave reactively – this is important to consider when we move on to the training strategies later on.
Physiologically, reactive dogs are in a state of over-arousal. That is, they have too much adrenaline in their bodies which is switching them into ‘fight or flight’ mode. A dog with high arousal is no longer in control of itself and can neither think nor learn – hence they simply react. Many well-meaning people mistakenly try to train their dogs when they are already reacting, without success. This is why all training must be done ‘under-threshold’ – aka, when the dog is calm.
What does reactivity look like?
Reactivity is not necessarily the same thing as aggression. For example, a sociable dog who gets over-excited on seeing other dogs may bark and lunge towards them, but they actually want to go and say hello. However an over-aroused, reactive dog can inadvertently appear threatening to other dogs (and people!) which can escalate into physical conflict if allowed.
Reactivity can take the form of: staring, barking, whining, jumping, redirecting (biting) onto the handler, spinning, lunging, growling, snapping, teeth bared, the dog making itself look either bigger or smaller, a high tail carriage, hackles up, and pulling towards the trigger.
Many people notice that their dog’s reactivity exacerbates when on-lead. This tends to be because a dog on lead has very limited space and choices; they cannot leave, change direction or communicate as easily as if they were off-lead. Being on-lead also increases the dog’s frustration at not being able to approach or gather information about the other dog.
Why do dogs react at all?
Fear-based reactivity is a way in which the dog creates distance from its trigger. A dog that barks at passing dogs doesn’t know that the dogs will leave whether he barks at them or not. If he barks and the trigger always moves away, he believes that he needs to bark in order to gain distance from the trigger and feel safe. Effectively, he learns that barking ‘works’. Frustration-based reactivity comes from the dog not being able to control his emotions; they overwhelm him, he loses impulse control and doesn’t know what to do with himself. This is why overly-sociable dogs may desperately wish to meet other dogs, but when they cannot their emotions come out as reactive behaviour.
Written by Emily Bright – Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, freelance writer and trainer at BRIGHT DOG TRAINING. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or search @brightdogtraininguk on Facebook.