Reactivity

Originally posted 12-14-17

This past week, I had the pleasure of working with some energetic and highly social dogs. These playful dogs reminded me of how important play sessions with other dogs really are. Well-run doggy daycares or dog parks with responsibility owners can help in many ways, exercise and socialization to name a few.

Keep in mind that a tired dog is a better behaved one. I cannot stress that enough. Boredom and excess energy are two of the most common reasons for behavioral problems with dogs. Getting that energy out efficiently is important, especially when the family is quite busy, A romp with another dog(s) can help make exercise more effective as they exert more energy in a shorter amount of time than if you walk them for 60-90 minutes around the neighborhood.

Second, it helps dogs to be social. Dogs are social learners. As a trainer and as a human, I can only do so much. Dogs will learn faster and more effectively from each other. My training partner, Mia Bonita Davis Milligan, assists me with many of my cases. She adjusts her play style to the other dog’s play style, she corrects when appropriate, and she is well socialized. Without her, I couldn’t do my job. Because of her training and temperament, she has become vital to evaluate dogs more accurately and assist with training.

Lastly, play sessions are helpful because it can help identify if a dog is truly reactive. Reactivity is such a broad term that is used incorrectly, often. We as humans always want an explanation for a behavior or action. Because of this, we put labels on those behaviors. Reactive dogs are “reacting” to something (a trigger) in the environment. Note, that does not always mean the dog is aggressive.

Reactivity is reactivity; no matter what age, breed, sex, or size. I have a dog, Jorge that can be labeled as reactive. All the signs are there. He barks, lunges, growls but he’s a dachshund. Most of the time, he is barking to alert, then for attention. After a short while, he warms up and he’ll be a ham for you. Rolling over to allow belly rubs in no time. He gets away with a lot more because of his size. He’s 17lbs. If he was a 60lbs. Staffy, his behavior would be labeled as aggressive.

Reactivity can be playful, aggressive, or fearful. Dogs can bark, lunge, and pull because they are trying to play with another dog. They can express the same behaviors with the intent to harm. Intent is the difference and it is a huge difference. Jorge’s intent is to first warn because he doesn’t feel comfortable (fearful). Then the intent become playful in nature. Other dogs may be different.

As for reactivity, image this scenario: A person wants to pet your dog. S(he) walks up to your reactive dog. As a pet owner, you begin feeling tense. You are preparing for this interaction. Based on history, your dog is going to bark. He barks, then the person immediately turns around or the dog is removed from the interaction. Think of this situstion from the dog’s point of view. As the pet owner, your dog is already looking to you for guidance. You become tense, nervous and there are biological changes. Dogs over thousands of years have learned how to read our body language and be in tune with the changes in our emotions (and biological responses). “If mom (or dad) doesn’t like this person, neither should I. Woof woof.”

In that interaction, the behavior of the person going away or the dog being removed, reinforces the reactivity. Reinforcing a behavior will increase the likelihood of that behavior being repeated. From the dog’s perspective, “If I bark at that person, they will go away.” The dog learns that his barking or lunging or pulling will get them what they want (the person goes away.)

Reactivity aside, incorrect labels occur. For example, some dogs have barrier aggression. This can occur on lease or behind fences. This does not always mean the dog is reactive, s(he) may be perfectly fine off-leash with other dogs. Before taking that risk, muzzle training may be a great tool to ensure safety. Consult with a trained professional if your dog is not properly muzzle trained.

Recently I had a case in which an owner thought his dog was reactive. The dog came on strong during introductions. She immediately greeted face-on, making steady eye-contact. He body was stiff and overly confident. Dog intros should be loose. They should be in a half-moon shape, sniffing the rear. This dog, as young and sweet as she was, did not know how to properly greet other dogs. Because of her ignorance in these interactions, other dogs would become annoyed and would correct her. Due to a new minor incorrect introductions, she was banished from meeting other dogs. This incident and reactivity on the lease (barking, lunging, and pulling towards the trigger) this owner assumed she didn’t like dogs. That was not the case at all. With a few correct dog intros, valid corrections by said dogs, and some communication by the handler, it was determined that she wasn’t aggressive towards other dogs. She didn’t even have barrier aggression. She was just a large puppy that never learned how to introduce herself properly to other dogs. She now goes to a dog park once a week and is enrolled in doggy-daycare. Please note, dogs can become desocialized. Like any skill, if it is not maintained, it will be lost.

Keep in mind that mislabeling a dog can cause more harm than good. We always want to give them the benefit of the doubt but it a safe and secure way. For questions or reactivity training, please consult with a reward based certified dog trainer.