10 REASONS YOUR DOG IS REACTIVE
There can be many reasons a dog is reactive. Understanding their behaviour is crucial if you want to help your dog thrive rather than simply surviving. Many dogs will be a combination of these ten reasons, and it’s important to understand the way they affect each other. In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking each one of these reasons in turn and exploring what it looks like and how best to support your dog if they’re struggling.
Reactive behaviour can often be driven by anxiety. There are many different definitions of anxiety, including clinical ones. Many dog trainers talk about anxiety as if it is the same as fear, yet the two emotions are very different.
Anxiety is the anticipation of danger without any real source of threat.
Although we can’t say that dogs worry about things because they don’t have means to explain their feelings verbally, we can often see anxiety in our dogs. We might notice that they do more. They might even do less. We might notice signs we’d associate with fear such as pacing and panting. We might notice grimaces and wide-open eyes. They may be hypervigilant, looking out for danger all around them. Chronic anxiety and acute anxiety may lead to markedly different behaviours. For instance, one guardian might note that their dog won’t go for a wee on walks, where another guardian notices that their dog is marking many targets.
The most important thing about anxiety is that there is no actual source of danger or harm.
It is very much an emotion of expectation, where dogs are expecting bad things to happen without knowing that they will.
Unlike anxiety which happens before anything dangerous or threatening occurs, fear is a response to danger. It is a normal response. It is also one that might underpin reactive behaviour.
The most important thing to notice with a fearful dog is what causes the fear. As you learned in the previous post, reactive dogs tend to fall into three main types, with some overlap. Some respond to other dogs. Some respond to unfamiliar humans and others respond to animals or objects.
There are many ways that we develop fears.
Some are innate. It is natural for animals to fear humans unless they have extensive and appropriate exposure to them at a young age. For dogs, the critical age for this exposure is between 3-12 weeks.
Some fears arise because we have been sensitised to something that other individuals experience as normal. For instance, a dog who has become sensitised to overhead aircraft may react to them when the majority of dogs just accept air noise as normal.
Other fears arise as a result of learning.
Impulse control is a developmental skill for dogs, just as it is for humans. This means that dogs aren’t born with the ability to inhibit behaviours. They normally learn these skills as they age. Impulsivity essentially means that the individual does not moderate the intensity of their behaviour appropriately or that they do not have the cognitive means to inhibit their response partially or completely.
However, impulsivity and responsiveness may well have been qualities that humans selected for through breeding. Although genetics works in complicated ways, certain herding and gundog breeds may well be more impulsive on average compared to other dogs. Dogs who score highly for responsiveness are highy trainable, but they can be difficult to live with if you don’t explicitly work on their ability to channel their behaviour.
Alongside genetics, the major factor in the development of impulse control is socialisation. The critical development period of social skills in dogs, from 5-12 weeks, is crucial to the successful development of the cognitive aspects of impulse control. Adolescence is another time at which these skills are honed. Without careful scaffolding through these developmental points, many dogs can be left without the ability to inhibit or moderate their behaviour.
We certainly see this when we see the big behaviours in response to small events.
Controlling your own behaviour demands cognitive capability as well as support from human guardians. Without this, some dogs will struggle to choose an appropriate level of behaviour in response to events.
Like impulsivity, dogs learn to tolerate frustration as they grow up. They aren’t born with the skills to cope with situations where their needs are not immediately met. When dogs’ behaviour is driven by frustration, it means that they have not yet developed the ability to manage their own responses when consequences are delayed or thwarted.
Learning how to cope with frustration happens during early development, but also through the teenage years. Some dogs can be very good at getting their needs met through obnoxious behaviours which are difficult to ignore, and so these dogs in particular will need more support.
Like impulse control, it’s important that dogs are supported in learning how to tolerate temporary or permanent thwarting of their needs. It’s not a case of managing the dog through extensive crating or punishment: dogs need to know that they can’t always get what they want.
An enormous number of my clients come with dogs whose reactive behaviour on the lead, in the car or behind a fence stems from an inability to tolerate the frustration of not being able to interact (either positively or negatively!) with other dogs. Working out to what degree frustration is playing a part in your dog’s reactive behaviour is crucial to your success.
For some dogs, their behaviour is almost entirely driven by frustration, especially if guardians have a history of letting their dogs off lead.
In fact, many of the ‘It’s okay! He’s friendly!’ dogs are actually frustrated when restrained… which is why their guardians let them off lead, hoping for the best. Sadly, instead of helping their dog cope with not being able to charge up and interact, they choose a course of action that invariably makes our dogs’ behaviour worse.
Dogs are territorial. All the evidence we have from street dogs, village dogs and unrestrained dogs tells us this. You’re also territorial: you put up fences and lock your doors. You certainly wouldn’t tolerate a stranger walking into your home at midnight and taking up lodgings in your spare room without even asking permission. Being territorial is about having a sense of ownership or rights to occupy a space.
As a species, we seem to have forgotten that dogs are territorial. We blithely walk past other dogs’ home turf and then get upset when they run the fence line barking at us.
Whenever your dog’s behaviour is worse on home turf or in the car, it’s worthwhile considering to what extent territoriality might be the reason behind the behaviour. Of course, some dogs also feel less fearful on home ground and so this may also be a factor in their behaviour.
We enjoy our daily walks. We probably wouldn’t even know we had a reactive dog if we didn’t, or if other people didn’t too. Yet we also need to understand how this contributes to our dog’s behaviour
Many guardians report that their reactive dog is just protecting them. Sometimes, this can be true, particularly in certain breeds who have been selected to protect the family group or a flock. Protective behaviour means understanding that another individual is in danger and acting in a way to prevent them from being harmed.
Most dogs, however, are simply looking out for themselves. It’s usually because the dog is physically attached to you by a lead or invisibly attached by the bond they have with us that they have trouble with strangers approaching us on walks. To understand that an unfamiliar individual intends to harm a member of our group demands a high level of social cognition, and we don’t even know that dogs are actually capable of this. If we think our dogs are protecting us, we have to consider whether we’re just asking more of them than they are capable of handling.
It also helps to work with a qualified behaviour consultant to rule out other issues on this list. Protection should be one of the last reasons you consider when you’ve ruled out other things.
Sadly, humans are such an egocentric species that we can’t even imagine that our dog might be afraid for themselves rather than being afraid for us. This is perhaps why guardians tell me frequently that their dog is protecting them when, in fact, the dog is simply responding to things they find scary.
Other times people report their dogs are protecting them, especially if the dog does not do it with other individuals, it can also be to do with the guardian’s behaviour. It may also be the behaviour of those other individuals. This is not to say, however, that we cause our dog’s reactive behaviour, although we do need to understand our effect on our dogs.
Hard as it is, we sometimes need to reassess our understanding of what dogs should reasonably tolerate. After all, they are predators with big teeth. Even the teacup Yorkies! Escape behaviour are the measures a dog takes to escape a situation that they find unpleasant, threatening, harmful or painful.
By and large, dogs have a rough deal. We treat them like teddy bears, violating their space. We grab them. We restrain them with our hands. There is a reason that the three professions likely to get bitten are veterinary professionals and paraprofessionals, dog groomers and dog trainers.
Even if we don’t put them in difficult situations or violate their space, other people may well do (and that includes their ‘It’s OK! He’s friendly!’ dogs too.)
The best way NOT to have a reactive dog is to buy the kind of dog that terrifies other dog owners. While Czech Wolf Dogs and German Shepherds or mastiffs may have entirely different reasons for reactive behaviour, strangers encroaching their space is rarely one of them.
While I do not want to classify these behaviours as socially acceptable, we do have to work with our dogs to help them get used to the fact that human beings will violate their space and safety – sometimes in the name of care, and sometimes necessarily. That involves appropriate scaffolding and teaching during critical development periods, helping dogs understand that their consent is important and ensuring that they learn to moderate bite strength as they grow. All social animals learn this normally with support from their social group. We need to make sure we understand our role in helping puppies learn these skills as well as respecting their needs.
Ideally, a dog should grow up with their need for space and contact respected. However, we would all want to know that, say our dog got loose and was hit by a car, they wouldn’t pose a real risk to any stranger trying to help them.
PREDATION & PSEUDO-PREDATION
Besides the space invasion and restriction, dogs also got a rough deal when it came to predatory behaviour. Very few dogs kill for food, even street dogs and free-roaming dogs. Unlike colonies of cats, who can live relatively well without human intervention, dogs succeed because humans help. Dogs have become scavengers, not hunters. Predation simply means staring at, stalking, chasing and/or biting other animals, usually prey species.
That said, many ancient breed types in Europe and the countries we colonised have been bred in ways that harnessed dogs’ predatory skills. Those dogs we call ‘high drive’ are the kind of dogs who’d keep working even if they seemed doomed to failure. In every single way, from their senses to their cognition, we have shaped these dogs to notice prey. Thus, when dogs like these are restrained, many of them are frustrated because their genes are telling them to do one thing, and humans haven’t been helpful enough yet to help them cope with frustration and channel their energies. Thus, dogs may well stare at, stalk and chase other animals, or bark and lunge when they are thwarted in their efforts to do so.
There are also dogs who are particularly sensitive to particular parts of other objects, be they static or moving. This is pseudo-predation. The dog could clearly never catch and eat a lawnmower, but there may be parts of their brain telling them that’s exactly what they should do.
Both predation and pseudo-predation can be affected by anxiety as well as by impulsivity and frustration, making it more likely that the dog will try to chase or catch animals or objects if they’re stressed. If they are restricted or restrained, the ensuing barking and lunging, driven largely by frustration, can definitely resemble reactivity.
Many dogs struggle because, simply through ignorance on behalf of breeders and guardians, or through wilful deprivation, their dogs have not been familiarised appropriately to the world prior to 12 weeks and then sensitively educated until their adolescence comes to an end some years later. Limited socialisation means that the dog has not had the optimal learning environment from the moment they open their eyes at around 10 or 11 days right through to the closure of their early learning period around 84 days.
Sometimes, as we have seen in the pandemic, society also enforces deprivation during this time. Many guardians undoubtedly struggled to familiarise their dogs with strange dogs, strange humans and a variety of noise-making and moving machines. Other times, misinformed vets have made it tough for guardians by insisting their puppy stays home until 16 weeks or later. Mistakenly supporting puppy mills is another reason dogs may come to us in need of a lot of support.
Without this early and easy familiarity, which gets progressively more challenging as the puppy moves closer to their 12th week, many dogs are left with a gaping hole in their early learning. This gap cannot easily be filled and requires sensitive exposure and training.
This is by and large the biggest reason adult dogs struggle to cope.
Some dogs are especially sensitive to novel odours, sounds or sights. Whether it is a result of selective breeding for responsiveness and trainability, or whether it is a result of a lack of early socialisation and experience, some dogs are attracted towards novelty and any changes are noticed keenly. Neophilia is an attraction to anything novel; neophobia is fearfulness of any changes in the environment.
Neophilia can lead to impulsivity and frustration, as well as lunging and pulling. It can lead to an almost compulsive need to check everything out.
Neophobia, on the other hand, can lead to hypervigilance. This is also linked to anxiety. It’s hard to know if anxiety leads to neophobia, or if neophobia leads to anxiety. Whenever the dog is extremely alert or focused on the environment, that’s when we see hypervigilance. Of course, dogs who like novelty can be hypervigilant, as can dogs who struggle to manage their predatory urges.
SO NOW YOU KNOW
The ten most common reasons why dogs might lunge or bark, it should help you get a better insight into your own dog’s behaviour. If you’re working with reactive dogs, it’s so important to rule out frustration and impulsivity, as well as to understand the role of incomplete or insecure early socialisation.
It’s rarely just one simple reason driving behaviour. There’s literally no reason you can’t have a dog that’s all 10!
The good thing is that even if all ten are a factor, there are lots of great things you can do. Understanding the factors driving behaviour give you a much better chance of resolving it. You’ll be able to find the programme that best suits the dog you’re working with as well as finding people who share your experience.
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