Every so often while I’m out at some dog function or dog park, I cross paths with a dog owner with a dog that is standing next to her and barking its head off at me or my dog. The owner will usually say something like, “I would let my dog greet you but he is aggressive with other dogs.” I’m sure the owner has lots of experience with her own dog but to my eye the dog is clearly fearful and is just trying to get me and my dog to move away. This is not an aggressive dog. This is a fearful dog that is just reacting to something that is frightening it. It is a reactive dog.
I think that the first step in helping any reactive dog is to acknowledge and accept that the dog is reacting out of fear. It is not acting aggressive for its own pleasure or benefit. Too often I see people dealing with reactive dogs as if these dogs are trying to aggressively assert themselves in order to be “top dog” or “alpha” or to gain some advantage. When I look at the dog, nothing could be further from the truth. Most of these dogs would be happier if their owner just moved them away from the other dog or person. They don’t want to fight, they want to feel safe.
A little history
Over the centuries the dog has become a brilliant scavenger species. Dogs have learned to tolerate the presence of humans in order to get food and other comforts from us. It has enabled dogs to become a very successful species. From a survival perspective, it makes little sense for dogs to have an aggressive nature. Energy spent fighting over some food could be better spent just finding a different source of food. Dog populations around the world generally thrive near human settlements where food is plentiful and populations grow to make use of the available resources. The basic biological design of the dog makes them tend toward avoiding conflict if they can. It just makes more sense.
The dogs we keep as pets have been bred from these free-range scavenging dogs. The village dogs around the world are literally the most immediate ancestors of all of the wonderful breeds we see at dog shows. So it only makes sense that much of the biological wiring from village dogs would remain in our dogs. In fact, our domesticated breeds have become even more successful at tolerating humans than the village dogs. They have gotten into the house and have regular mealtimes and other comforts.
What’s all the noise about
So what do we make of the dog that suddenly erupts in a fit of barking and lunging at the approach of another dog or person? While it is not in the nature of dogs to be truly aggressive, it is possible for a dog to feel rewarded by their aggressive behaviour. There are dogs that will seek out fights and derive pleasure from the conflict. These dogs are extremely rare but it’s important to acknowledge that some do exist. If the dog is barking and lunging, it is likely they will calm down as soon as the other dog or person turns and moves away. That is not a dog looking for a fight. That is a reactive dog.
A reactive dog is afraid. The old saying that “The best defense is a good offense” is a good description of reactive dogs. The reactive dog that is barking and lunging is making a fuss in order to get the other dog or person to go away. The posturing and barking and lunging behaviours are all part of what veterinarian Bonnie Beaver calls “Distance Increasing Behaviours” in her book “Canine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians.” The dog is simply trying to put more distance between themselves and the thing they fear. And if the owner is not going to move them away, they will try to frighten the others off somehow.
Many dog owners will respond to their barking dog by scolding it. From my perspective, last thing a frightened dog needs is to have their owner become angry and upset. But social situations and outdated thinking can lead owners to believe that their fearful dog is just “misbehaving” or “acting out” for one reason or another. In that moment when their dog is reactive, an owner’s first response could be to just try to stop the unwanted behaviour without considering why the dog is behaving that way. And that can make things worse. Much worse. Instead of scolding, we should be helping the reactive dog.
A reactive dog just wants to be farther away from the thing they are reacting to. That may sound almost ridiculously obvious but you might be surprised at the number of people who just stand with their frightened dogs telling them to be quiet. When a dog is frightened, they are in “fight or flight” mode. All of that survival circuitry in their brain is going off and sounding the alarm. Chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol are busy filling their brain with automatic responses for survival. This is not the time to try to teach them something.
If I want to help a reactive dog to learn from any experience, the first thing I need to do is clear that fog of hormones and biochemistry that come with the “fight or flight” reaction. The best way to help them learn is to engage them before that fear reaction, before all of those brain chemicals switch on the automatic responses. But in order to do that, I need to know just how much is too much for my dog to handle. Fortunately, my dog has lots of warning signs before they freak out entirely – how they hold their ears and tail, their body posture, widening of the eyes, stiffness in movement, and even growls or other low vocalizations. The point at which the dog goes from wary and concerned into full blown reactive behaviour is often called its threshold. Once my dog is over that threshold, any training I might be trying to do is bouncing off of their head.
It’s in the wires
If every dog worked the same way, there would be one book or DVD that could tell you how to cure your reactive dog. The fact is there are hundreds, probably thousands. Each different breed of dog has slight differences. Each breeding line within a breed has slight differences. In fact, each pup within a litter has slight differences. And when you combine that with the effects of training and experience, determining what a dog will react to and how to deal with it can be a complex business. You just have to watch your dog and learn to understand how they are feeling.
Something we have learned about in the last few years is that sometimes you can’t train your way out of a reactivity problem. Much of reactivity has to do with brain chemistry and sometimes what a dog is born with can’t be changed through training alone. Different dogs will have different brain chemistry. Health and living conditions also play a role and things like chronic stress or hypothyroidism can cause lasting changes in brain chemistry that will change a dog’s behaviour to make them more reactive. We have discovered that even working with a great training plan and a great trainer will not bring much progress if you are fighting the genetics and brain chemistry of the dog. But there is hope. Just as we have with humans, new classes of drugs are now available to help dogs with anxiety and fearful behaviours caused or exacerbated by chemical imbalances in the brain.
Sometimes the best thing to do when dealing with a reactive dog is talk to your veterinarian. Any training plan that doesn’t produce some improvement in a relatively short time should be a red flag. In many cases, a veterinarian may give you a clean bill of health and some suggestions on diet and exercise. But many veterinarians also have connections with local behaviour specialists who can help you work through complex problems and many of those specialists work with the veterinarian if medication is prescribed for your dog. Don’t be afraid to get your health and behaviour professionals involved.
Whenever I see a dog barking and making a fuss in our direction when I’m out at the local park, I try to be understanding and put some distance between us. Chances are that the other dog is afraid and is reactive. The kindest thing I can do is to give that dog some space. Reactive dogs need understanding, not correction. The first step to helping a reactive dog is helping them feel safe. Only then can we begin to help them get over their fear and anxiety. There are lots of training programs and techniques to help reactive dogs but they all depend on the dog being in a frame of mind where they can learn. Learning to help my dog feel safe and protected is one of the most important skills I’ve learned.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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