We see a lot of information on how to cope with reactivity in dogs but we see few on understanding why it happens. There are many reasons that reactive behaviour can develop, usually it’s established early in the dog’s life. Let’s take a closer look.
A reactive dog has not necessarily been abused or treated badly, some have but others have simply not been properly educated as they grew up.
Raising a puppy without having some understanding of exactly how he learns and develops can be a minefield. Lots of people bring a puppy into their home and hope for the best as the dog grows up. Children have schools, midwives and many health professionals looking after their wellbeing and development. Dogs have no-one but the people raising them.
All too often, the dog misses out on help during critical fear impact periods, careful positive socialisation and learning to live in the world. A lot of these dogs become the reactive dogs that we see today and many become homeless.
Another thing to consider is that, before he even gets home, a puppy’s future capacity to cope is influenced by his first few weeks. Puppy farmed puppies often become fearful and anxious adults, fear and anxiety are two of the reasons behind reactivity.
What Is A Reactive Dog?
Reactive dog behaviour is a common term nowadays. It simply means that a dog is reactive to the environment, in a way that changes how he feels and acts.
Many reactive dogs are loud and animated, they are trying to chase the scary thing away. Some reactive dogs are quiet and scared, attempting to become invisible and hope the scary thing passes on by. Some dogs run like the devil’s after them!
Reactive behaviour is the fight, flight or freeze response manifesting into physical action. The dog sees something as a threat and his physiology changes. Adrenaline flows freely and his brain/body combination is trying to survive.
We humans sometimes get a fight or flight reaction. As we can rationalise things in our environment, we don’t get it too often. When we have a near miss in the car, or feel that there is an immediate threat, adrenaline flows in the same way. It can affect how we feel for the entire day, yet with reactive dogs this can be a daily occurrence, often multiple times.
With lack of regulation in dog training, reactive dogs are also at great-risk of being punished for their behaviour. Aversion collars, rattle cans and water sprays are prescribed daily for reactivity all over the world. Can you imagine being in a fight or flight reaction and your best friend gives you an electric shock or throws water in your face? I can’t imagine you would be friends for long! This is what bad trainers do every day.
What Can You Do?
The first thing we do is find the triggers and, as much as we can, remove them from the dog’s life. You may need help from a positive and educated dog trainer for this. Sometimes it’s hard to see the patterns, particularly when a situation is emotional.
Removing everything that is scary, or at least minimising it, will dampen the fight/flight/freeze reaction and allow the dog to relax. Sometimes walks can be worse for a dog’s state of mind than enrichment at home.
Create space between your dog and the things he reacts to. As much space as you can, as often as possible, will help your dog to realise you can keep him safe. Trust will build and relaxation will become more frequent. Think bubbles.
Use treats to reinforce relaxed behaviour. Don’t get too close though as it won’t work, here’s an article on food use for reactivity.
A reactive dog can make life extremely hard-work, we do need to make adaptations for these dogs, they are worth it though. Often, this trust has been smashed by the world and the experiences in it. If we can put that trust back together and show the dog that he’s safe to relax, then we are highly honoured. Reactive dogs teach us the most, give us the biggest breakthroughs and dare I say it, love us the most too. They are a blessing.