Are You Making This Mistake With Your Reactive Dog?
One mistake that many people make with their reactive dog is how close they get to their dog’s triggers.
Although this is far from true for most people with reactive dogs, some of us are simply going too fast and too close to things our dogs need to process. In many ways, barking and lunging becomes their distress signal to let us know that they need more space.
It is a common myth that this is the reason behind most barking and lunging.
Some reactive dog programmes are based on this idea. They work on the principle that your dog will improve if you give them time and space to process situations they are uncertain about. Some include a little training and modification too, but there are many programmes that suggest your dog will be just fine if you simply give them time to process things on their own.
These can work for some dogs.
When time and space are not enough
Often these programmes do not work with reactive dogs. They also have both ethical and welfare implications. If we are simply exposing our dogs hundreds of times to triggers they aren’t comfortable around, this may cause chronic levels of stress for them.
Worse still, this low-level chronic exposure gives the dog very little support from you.
Dogs are a social species. In times of stress, conflict or challenge, our social networks exist to give us emotional and physical support.
It is the primary advantage of living in social groups.
In not offering this to our dogs, in assuming they can work things out for themselves and they will realise that they are fine, we cut our dogs off from the primary benefit of being a member of our family or social group: safety.
What do we do when we are facing a challenging situation? We seek out support from our social groups.
Hoping that dogs will make sense of things they find challenging simply through repeated and prolonged exposure is to deny them this vital lifeline.
Worse, if the dog’s problems are not caused by fearfulness, we are often contributing to frustration and even worsening their behaviour.
Nevertheless, there are some dogs whose staring, growling, barking, lunging, snarling and snapping are caused by being too close.
These dogs are using behaviour to escape.
What is socially mediated escape behaviour?
When faced with threat, our sympathetic nervous system fires up. It shuts down rest-and-digest mechanisms like our digestive system. The hypothalamus in the brain kickstarts the stress response: adrenaline and noradrenaline are released, our arteries open wider, our heart pumps blood to our large muscles. Fight-or-flight mode is activated.
In 1970, an American psychologist named Robert Bolles came up with a term for the behaviours we see as part of the fight-or-flight response. He called them species-specific defence behaviours. What he saw were predictable patterns of how animals would behave according to their species. These behaviours were largely determined by how close the animal was to the threat. Flight would become fight if the animal was trapped, for instance.
In the fifty years that have followed, ethologists, psychologists and biologists have been filling in the gaps in our knowledge. We’ve added ‘freeze’ to the repertoire, and considered the way other behaviours such as ‘tend-and-befriend’ fit in to the behaviours a species has in its repertoire.
Dogs occupy an unusual niche in our lives because unlike many species who can escape on the whole, we stick leads on dogs’ necks and take them places. Thus, when faced with a situation in which they feel threatened, they cannot choose to escape. They cannot make more space themselves.
They are left with a few other options.
One of these is to freeze or shut down. Some dogs cope by doing that.
Other dogs cope by appeasement and then submissive behaviours. They’ll become more puppyish. Some become more friendly. They try to lick us more. Their ears go back and they may grimace. Tails will go between legs and they may give up completely, lying on their back and trying to be as inoffensive as possible.
Where we see reactive behaviour with dogs, it is where they are trying to create more distance by using behaviours to make the other individual back off. We might typically think of these behaviours as staring, growling, barking, lunging, snarling and snapping.
In other words, they cannot escape to create distance. Because they cannot, they then use aggressive behaviours to make the trigger back away.
Case Study 1
Athena is a ten-year-old German short-haired pointer. She has some mobility issues and lameness in her hind legs. She has been seen by her local vet ever since she was a puppy. Although she doesn’t particularly like vet visits, she had never been a problem. This time, the vet tried to lift Athena onto the table with the help of his vet assistant. Athena bit him on his arm.
Now the vet says Athena should be put to sleep because she is aggressive.
Case Study 2
Larry is a two-year-old pug. His guardians like to take him with them when they go out and Larry has never had a problem with this. However, recently they were out in a café one Saturday afternoon. Another dog came into the café with their guardians. As usual, Larry’s guardians took Larry over to see the other dog, asking him to ‘say hello’. Both dogs ended up growling at each other and snapping. Since then, Larry has growled and snapped every time his guardians have taken him to ‘say hello’ to other dogs.
Case Study 3
Chouquette is a six-year-old Yorkshire terrier. Her regular groomer had retired and Chouquette’s guardian had taken her to a new groomer. When being groomed, Chouquette bit the groomer on the hand.
All three of these animals were essentially trapped. Two of them were being physically manipulated. All of them were in situations they found unpleasant and were unable to escape from. One of them had issues related to pain.
When dogs cannot use other defence strategies like appeasement or escape, then they may well choose to make their triggers back away. They are escaping by making other individuals cease and desist.
This is one reason that veterinarians, veterinary staff, groomers and dog handlers are in the highest percentages of professions who get bitten by a dog. Many people mistakenly assume that postal workers and delivery agents are bitten more frequently. In actual fact, it is animal professionals who get bitten.
When we remove a dog’s choices in stressful situations, growling, barking and lunging is predictable. The dog is using these behaviours to create distance by making others stop and move away.
But dogs need vets and groomers!
The difficulty with programmes that simply give dogs time and space is that these programmes have no contingency for emergency and no timescale. Thus, dogs are left without crucial veterinary care and without grooming without any idea how long the process might take.
One such example is Regis, a Grand Pyreneen Mountain Dog. Regis did not like being groomed or handled and so his guardians gave him time and space. Then Regis got an ear infection. Compounded with a very matted coat, the ear infection got worse and worse because nobody could get near to Regis to inspect his ears.
Regis was surrendered to the shelter because he had bitten the vet and his guardian’s children.
The problem is the process
Although giving dogs time and space can help restore dogs’ sense of safety, this strategy is destined to fail with processes that ARE unpleasant. No matter how fear free your vet surgery is, for example, there are few dogs who relish getting injections.
Programmes that suggest ‘desensitisation’ or graduated scales of exposure to the vet, for example, have a fundamental lack of scientific understanding. As soon as there is an element of emotional arousal, pain, restraint or discomfort, you are likely to see the behaviours return immediately. Behavioural reinstatement is very common in these circumstances. The behaviour comes right back the very moment we ask our dogs to do something unpleasant.
We can certainly refrain (for ever!) from putting our dogs into threatening situations out on walks. It would help if we stopped shoving our dogs nose to nose with other on-lead unfamiliar dogs to ‘say hello’. Many dogs would appreciate it if we stopped letting strangers touch or pet our dogs. That’s fine. Those are cultural habits some people have that show a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a dog.
The limits of time and space exposure
What we cannot do is hope that time and space will stop our dogs reacting in the vet or at the groomers. We also cannot hope that our dogs will cope if a dog comes running up to them inappropriately or if some human decides they know better than we do about petting our dog. In both of these cases, we are likely to see behaviour return. It will most likely take many more repeated exposures for the dog to stop reacting again.
We get locked in a cycle of repeating ineffective training precisely because it is ineffective at tackling behavioural renewal. Behavioural reinstatement is a very common side-effect. This means the reactive behaviour we were seeing pops right back again.
In no circumstance is it acceptable to prioritise going slow and giving time and space over primary care. If a dog will suffer or even die as a result of our chosen training method, then we need to address that as a fundamental issue.
We also need to accept that some situations are never going to be pleasant for our dogs and that no amount of training or exposure can make them so.
What are the solutions?
In a few circumstances, guardians need to be realistic about the importance of putting their dog in unpleasant situations. It is not important to take our dog to the dog park. Neither is it important to do face-to-face on-lead greetings with unfamiliar dogs. It is definitely not important that strangers pet our dogs.
These may well be things we’d like our dog to do, but they are not necessary things or important things.
In other circumstances, handling and a degree of restraint is necessary and important. For instance, a dog may have been taught to consent for regular blood draws to check levels of phenobarbitol if they have a seizure disorder. However, the dog may need to be steadied if they later develop ataxia. A wobbly dog cannot steady themselves for a blood draw.
What we can do is teach dogs that these unpleasant events and situations are predictable. Predictably unpleasant situations are less stressful than unpredictably stressful ones. If you have any kind of medical fear, even a phobia of things like medical treatment or injections, you will know yourself that regular exams are necessary and important. Many of us come out of those unpleasant situations saying, ‘oh… that was not as bad as I thought it would be.’
We can also develop coping mechanisms that involve social support. For instance, anyone with a needle phobia during the Covid-19 vaccinations will have found queuing to contribute to our malaise. Making an appointment at a time where there is likely to be minimal waiting helped many of us. Other things like sitting down, putting our heads down, breathing exercises and self-soothing help. Getting others to come with us also helped.
It is possible to minimise the unpleasant aspects that contribute to the experience. We can also use predictability to help them understand what is going to happen. The surprise and relief of experiences being less bad than we imagined actually helps us learn better than other methods. It makes our subsequent visits less unpleasant.
The Lighten Up approach
As Lighten Up unrolls, you will also find ways that you can use conditioned safety cues to help dogs know when they are safe. As well as that, you will also learn ways to use predictability to re-evaluate the unpleasantness of an experience. Finally, we can use a strategy called buffering to use social support to help our dogs cope better.
If you want more content, don’t forget to check out the Lighten Up YouTube channel.
You can find more information about cooperative care, choice and consent here.
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