I want to take a few minutes to talk about “reactive dogs” since we seem to be seeing more of them in the “covid puppy” set. These are 1.5 to now 3 yr old dogs who are leash reactive or fear reactive. This could look like your dog lunging, barking, growling at the end of the leash when you attempt to walk him. It could look like barking hysterically or lunging at people who visit your home… even nipping or attempting to bite. I know it is easy to blame the dog, blame the breeder, blame genetics etc. but the reality is likely something more simple. The reality is that for many of these dogs, the crucial period for socialization, that 8-16 week old period, was spent largely at home. This happens not only in the covid puppy group but in any group of pups that are kept home altogether until they’ve had their full set of vaccinations. The last vaccines are not typically given until 16 weeks of age. Unfortunately, by following the rules, we are robbing these pups of some important socialization opportunities and important opportunities to build confidence during this time when their brains are developing and behavior patterns are being set.
So what is “reactivity” exactly? It is typically a loud, sometimes aggressive response to a trigger of some sort. It’s the result of the dog’s natural flight response being curtailed, by a leash or the environment, causing the dog to feel that they have no choice but to “fight” instead. When your dog encounters something that is scary to him, just like us, his cortisol level in his bloodstream spikes, triggering a fight or flight response. Reactivity happens when the dog cannot flee and therefore has to “fight”. Here are a couple of things you should know about your reactive dog.
- He is NOT a bad dog or trying to give you a hard time. Your dog is STRUGGLING. He is not capable in those moments when he is triggered, of making rational choices or listening to cues from you.
- Any trainer who tells you they can quickly “cure” your reactive dog is either lying to you or is new to the field and inexperienced.
- Curbing reactivity takes anywhere from 6 months to 1 year before you see real progress with a dog. More severe cases can take even longer. We also never “cure” it but we and the dog learn to manage it and build confidence so that we have more positive interactions.
Common Causes of reactivity in dogs are:
- Fear – something in the environment seems scary to your dog. You don’t get to decide what is scary, your dog decides what is scary to him, even if it is something that seems ridiculous to you.
- Poor Socialization – missing out on the crucial 8-16 week socialization opportunities, or lacking confidence due to poor interactions when socialization occurred.
- Learning History- trauma in the dog’s past or the use of aversive training methods can make him fearful of and reactive to new people.
- Genetics- some breeds are meant to be guards and are naturally more reactive. Some pups are bred from reactive parents
- Frustration- this is a big one! Overexcitement when meeting new people/dogs can quickly become frustrating when the dog is not able to greet the newcomer
- Health Issues- underlying health problems or pain can also cause reactivity.
SO what do I do to help my reactive dog be more comfortable and less stressed? ( and help myself be less embarrassed public with him)
FIRST REMEMBER THAT THIS IS A LONG TERM PROJECT, NOT A QUICK FIX.
The easies and first thing we need to do with a reactive dog is prevent rehearsing the behavior. This means we closely control the dog’s environment to manage his encounters with any triggers, We really ONLY want the dog to encounter triggers when we are actively training. This way we are not spending the majority of our time reacting to triggers and only a small minority working on overcoming the behavior. This may look like NOT taking your dog for walks, or to dog parks or stores etc for a while, unless you are there to work on the behavior. I know, we all think our dogs NEED walks and to go to public places but really, a walk with your dog is not all that much exercise for him and is not as important as everyone thinks. He can get just as much exercise and mental exercise playing fetch in your yard, doing puzzles, using a slow feeder, playing tug of war or playing off leash with dogs he trusts and enjoys. Backyard agility courses or housework games are great also and none of these require your reactive dog to leave his comfort zone.
Once we have the exercise and preventing the unmanaged encounters down, we can move on to desensitizing and counterconditioning. During this step its crucial to remember to work AT YOUR DOG”S PACE and not get in a hurry. Make sure you are looking for signs of stress/fear. That can look like yawning, whale eye/wide eyes, lip licking, a full body shake off, freezing, shaking, backing away or growling/whining. IF these things happen, simply back away from the trigger. Few paces in order to keep your dog calm and focused. Build slowly during this time. We love to play an engage/disengage game during this period. We mark and reward the dog for calm engagement ( watching but not reacting to a trigger) and then mark and reward for calm disengagement ( looking back at us on cue for a treat). We repeat this frequently while we are working toward better interactions and new associations. IT is extremely important when you are working to desensitize or counter condition your dog that you keep the dog at threshold but NEVER over. What does that mean? Threshold is that fine line between mental states where your dog is aware of the trigger but can still react appropriately and take direction from you. Signs he is getting close to going over threshold can be hard staring at the trigger, whining, barking, lunging, overexcitement, failure to take treats. When this happens, we need to move the dog far enough away form the tigger to get him back under threshold.
We break “threshold” into 3 categories and they are easiest described as green, yellow and red zones,
IN THE GREEN ZONE your dog id relaxed and easily follows cues. There are no signs of stress and this happens mainly at home or in his own backyard, places where he is comfortable and feels safe. This is where you should begin prating replacement behaviors. When he can offer the replacement behavior consistently in his green zone, we can start pt also practice them in the yellow zone.
IN THE YELLOW ZONE, your dog can perceive his trigger and may be slightly stressed or anxious. However is is still able to follow through on cues and turn his head/disengage for a marker. You may notice his weight is shifted slightly forward mouth is closed Mears are perked and his tail might be upright or stiff, even fast twitching wags. It is in this zone where the counterconditioning and desensitization occur. Learning can still happen in this state and your dog can form new associations and build confidence.
IN THE RED ZONE your dog reacts to the trigger or freezes/shuts down. He is no longer interested in treats, won’t respond when you call his name, cannot focus on anything but that trigger, When this happens you need to EXIT THE SITUATION and create as much spaces as you can between your dog and whatever triggered him. At the goal is to get him back to a calm, under threshold state. Moving behind a visual barrier, such as a car building, tree line, is also a great way to deescalate. This is also the time to note all the factors that led to the dog reacting and make a plan to avoid it happening again.
Your dog’s threshold can be affected by many things, so it might not be the same every time you work on this. It can be affected by the number of triggers present.. Is the park you are working at today super busy and full of other dogs/people? Are those dogs/people really close to you and your dog? How frequently are you passing near other dogs/people/the trigger?How intense is the trigger for your dog? Is your dog tired, hungry, thirsty, in pain? Has your dog already had a stressful day? All of these are things to consider when you are working with him.
Once you know your dog’s thresholds and triggers well you can really focus on training those REPLACEMENT BEHAVIORS. A replacement behavior is generally a behavior that is incompatible with his reaction to a trigger. They help the dog stay under threshold and are used to redirect his attention. Good replacement behaviors are the “watch me” cue, “front”, “tunnel” an emergency U-Turn, “Touch” “find it” and even loose lead walking. All of these require your dogs focus to be on you and not on the triggers around him.
REMEMBER, your dog is struggling and needs you help. Often you are his best advocate, If what a “trainer” is telling you doesn’t sound right, or sounds too good to be true, steer clear and find someone who will tell you the hard truth, and help you form a plan to tackle the issue. This is something that takes commitment to your dog, time commitment and patience. It’s not a quick fix, it’s nothing a 2 week bootcamp will fix or even a 6 week board and train, That is a waste of your money, your time and will likely further confuse and stress your dog.