How your dog learned to be reactive

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

How your dog learned to be reactive

October 10, 2022 Uncategorised 0

Learning is fundamental in why our dogs bark and lunge. After all, our dogs weren’t born reactive! It helps us enormously to understand the different ways that dogs learn these behaviours. This understanding can help us enormously with both prevention and resolution.

We need to understand how our dogs learn. When we know this, we can better predict outcomes. We can also be realistic with our goals. Knowing how our dogs learn also helps us set realistic time scales for resolution and adopt strategies that work. This is especially important if our dogs experienced a traumatic event.

Here, we look at the psychological effect of traumatic experiences on our dogs. In the next article, we will take a deeper look at the neural processes involved in trauma as well as the processes involved when we teach our dogs how to cope.

Traumatic experiences

Many people use the word ‘trauma’ to talk about the reasons for their dog’s reactive behaviour. Like all labels, it’s important to unpick this term. We should not use it carelessly. We cheapen the meaning of the word when we equate a bit of appropriate growling at another dog with experiences that are truly traumatic. The label can also become an excuse and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You’ve heard this line before, no doubt.

‘Oh, my dog behaves like this because they were traumatised.’

Some dogs do become reactive after a bad experience. It can be hard to understand why our dog responded like this. This is especially true when other dogs seem to be absolutely fine following the exact same event. How is it the other dog went trotting back to their guardian while our dog seems to take days to reset?

Our reactive dogs seem much more likely to carry unpleasant encounters with them as a behavioural legacy, compared to other dogs who seem to cope much better.

What is it that makes one dog robust and another dog less resilient? Why can other dogs simply shake off such experiences?

To make sense of this, we need to understand our dog’s personality and genetic inheritance.

We also need to understand developmental periods. Knowing that there are times in a dog’s life when they are particularly susceptible to remember negative experiences can help us protect our dogs during those periods. It can also help us prevent more serious psychological trauma when bad things happen.

Finally, we also need to understand the nature of the traumatic event. This helps us understand how traumatic memories function. We will explore the neural processes in more detail in the next article.

Lucky dogs: why some dogs shake it off

When we live with an anxious or fearful dog, we may find ourselves wishing for the proverbial ‘bomb-proof’ dog. These dogs have several qualities that help them recover quickly from traumatic experiences. We see these kind of dogs often in the shelter world.

For example, one dog arrived at the shelter having been thrown out of a car on the motorway. He suffered significant physical trauma with a broken leg and a broken pelvis.

What helped this little beagle shake off his experiences?

Usually there are three common factors.

The first is that the dog’s parents and grandparents were pretty robust dogs themselves. Personality traits like curiosity and openness to experience can help dogs bounce back from events that would traumatise others. Emotional stability is a heritable trait. This means that bomb-proof dogs often have bomb-proof parents. It’s likely that this lucky dog had robust parents too.

Secondly, this lucky dog was in the happy period between early socialisation and the onset of adolescence. We know that traumatic experiences are encoded differently during these developmental periods. By chance, the event occurred at a time when his brain had already established a positive world view. Events that occur between 6-12 weeks, and events occuring during adolescence are more likely to impact our dogs than events happening in the juvenile period or in adulthood.

The third factor is that single events in very specific circumstances affect our learning and memory differently than longer-term situations in a variety of contexts. Learning is very context-specific. If dogs do not have to revisit the place where events occurred, they may in some ways be able to disassociate from it better. Dogs are more contextual learners than humans. To understand this, we need to understand how trauma is remembered.

Unlucky dogs: why events affect some dogs more than others

Some dogs end up with temperaments that are less resilient and robust than other dogs.

Fendi is one such dog. A cane corso bred for colour rather than temperament, he arrived at the shelter as a nervous and wary teenager.

The people who bred Fendi bred him because of his parents’ coat and eye colour. They did not consider the parents’ temperament. Fendi’s mother was very timid and his father was very wary of humans.

Breeding for looks rather than personality traits can cause many problems for our dogs. In countries where humans control dog reproduction, certain appearances or qualities have been selected for and others have not been a priority. Breed standards have promoted qualities such as ‘aloof’ rather than ‘friendly’. We also have little idea how breeding for looks has affected behaviour. We simply haven’t always been breeding for family pets.

Even with street dogs who are free to reproduce as they please, we find that the more confident and robust dogs were often taken out of the available gene pool early on as countries tried to control populations of stray animals. As time has passed, many free-roaming dog populations have naturally become more wary of humans. Selective pressures have been applied that have led to the survival of wary, watchful dogs. Just because dogs can choose who they mate with with does not guarantee more emotionally robust puppies.

The timing of early trauma

The timing of traumatic experiences is also important. Dogs who’ve had good experiences from 5-12 weeks will find traumatic events less impactful than dogs who have not learned that the world is safe. They have formed an optimistic world view. Robust socialisation can undo some of the susceptibility to stress.

Many people think that early trauma (from birth to 5 weeks) will leave psychological residue. This is not usually the case unless the dog’s parents were fearful. Later trauma occurring from 5-12 weeks is more likely to have an impact. That trauma can even include separation from the litter, if not handled sensitively. Around 5 weeks of age, puppies start to develop object permanence. This means that they know individuals exist even if they can’t see them. Howling increases during this time when puppies are split from the litter or from their mother. Simply separating puppies from the litter can cause many problems if not carried out sympathetically.

Strong feelings of separation anxiety tend to subside as puppies become more independent and exploratory, from 11 weeks onwards. Puppies left to ‘cry it out’ during this time may become less robust adults. Those puppies with a secure relationship with their guardian may struggle less with singular traumatic experiences later on.

The timing of adolescent trauma

Although many people believe in a secondary fear period in dogs, there is little research on this topic. It is difficult to pin down when this may occur, especially since sexual maturity can be reached around 7 months for some dogs.

Nevertheless, adolescent mammals share many common neurological similarities across species. What we do know is that relationships with primary caregivers become more frayed. Often at this point, animals disperse from the family group. Many adolescents also struggle with emotional and behavioural regulation. This is especially true for dogs who reach sexual maturity before social maturity. Events that occur during this time can also have more of an impact on our dogs’ psychological wellbeing.

This is particularly true for social species. In many ways, early learning involves learning about the small family world. It sets our world view too, giving us a view that the world is safe or the world is dangerous. Later learning during adolescence involves learning about the world beyond our small social circle. If we learned our family (or adopted family) are safe, and then our friends and new acquaintances from our adolescence are also safe, then we go into the adult world equipped with a positive mindset.

If our family are not safe or we feel under threat in youth (5-12 weeks for puppies) then it makes it very difficult to trust the world beyond. Having a secure base in infancy helps us choose friends or new acquaintances in adolescence. It’s that much harder for a puppy who felt under threat in youth to trust friends or acquaintances they make in adolescence. Of the two, our priority should always be to support solid relationships for young puppies, helping them navigate their first fear period.

Traumatic experiences during adolescence are more easily surmountable as a result.

Disruption to adolescent bonds

Perceived abandonment by primary caregivers is a traumatic experience that can leave a strong impact in early adolescence. Many people do not consider the full impact of this. Dogs surrendered to a shelter during this period may struggle to overcome the disruption in their relationships with caregivers.

Around 9 months, object permanence in dogs develops further and dogs may have the understanding that they have been permanently abandoned by their primary caregivers. Certainly, in the shelter, the dogs who seem to struggle the most are those surrendered at this critical time. There is little research on this, however, particularly across different breeds who develop at different times.

Attachment patterns that young dogs formed prior to this will carry over into new relationships. Prior relationships seem to serve as a basis for a dog’s expectations when rehomed. Early adversity and unmet needs can have lasting consequences for dogs whose relationships are disrupted.

Dogs surrendered at adolescence seem to cope less well than dogs surrendered as juveniles or when they are socially mature.

For Fendi who had never had a secure bond with humans, he needed guardians who understood that they needed to help him form relationships with them. In many ways, his prior adversity was a benefit: he had few expectations of humans. His poor experience with his siblings, however, meant he was very distrustful of dogs.

Disassociation or daily reminders

In the shelter, there have been numerous cases of severe neglect or abuse as you may expect. Many of these dogs and cats go on to put traumatic experiences behind them. Partly this may be to do with how individuals encode single events. This also applies to single events of longer duration.

Little is known about how dogs remember traumatic experiences. What we do know is that contextual cues can be a powerful way for dogs to remember trauma. For instance, one dog had regularly been beaten by his guardian when his guardian was drunk. In his new home, the smell of beer became a very powerful cue that seemed to trigger those events to be relived. Just the smell of beer was enough to make the dog cower.

Where dogs do not have those contextual cues in their daily life, or where the events have been isolated ones, there are fewer ways for the individual to recall traumatic histories. If something only happens once, you don’t have the history to learn the signals that predict a traumatic experience.

For our reactive dogs, they may struggle in places where they were previously attacked by another dog, or if they never feel safe on their usual daily walks. Just going back into the same context can trigger anxiety and uncertainty. In many ways, it’s much less damaging if we never have to revisit the place where events occurred.

Overcoming trauma

Overcoming traumatic experiences is complex. There are, however, things that we can do to help our dogs cope better. Understanding how trauma may affect our dog’s emotions and behaviour is the first step. Taking a trauma-informed approach is part of this.

Avoiding re-traumatising our dogs during rehabilitation is vital. For that, we need to understand the way trauma is encoded and recalled at a neural level.

Very simply, every time we put a dog back into a situation which brings back memories of trauma, we risk strengthening that memory.

Ironically, we can only truly help weaken these memories by exposing our dogs to the things that caused the trauma. This process involves reconsolidating neural pathways and reappraising the threat.

It is a fine line therefore when we expose dogs to things they are afraid of. On the one hand, done badly, we risk strengthening their memories and learning. On the other, done properly, we are helping them reassess and reappraise.

Exposure therapies with dogs should therefore be carried out very carefully. If not, we are simply strengthening our dog’s fears and learning. This process is the focus of the following post.

Avoiding strengthening fear memories

There are specific steps we can take to avoid strengthening our emotions about a traumatic experience.

The first is to know that we may need to change our outings completely if our dog is always anxious in those places. If our dog experienced a specific event that left them with physical or psychological repurcussions, then simply stepping into the places they happened can cause anxiety and uncertainty. They may literally be ‘reliving’ the trauma. We may need to avoid specific walks. There may be specific parks we need to avoid.

In some cases, it is possible to completely avoid specific locations. For instance, for the dog thrown out of the window, it is easy never to go to that place again. For the dog with the abusive beer-drinking guardian, it is possible never to have beer in the home with the dog.

This is not always the case. For a dog attacked in a local park, it may be very difficult to find other places to walk. We may need to do so though in order to help our dogs begin to heal.

Other dogs may have generalised their experience. They may find that simply going outside is the cue that triggers their anxiety. There are ways we can work with dogs like this to help them overcome their agoraphobia. Using safety cues with dogs like this can help enormously.

We also need to be aware of the risk of behavioural renewal.

Behavioural renewal

When we avoid the places our dogs have found overwhelming, we may not be aware that simply revisiting those overwhelming places once training is in place can cause the original reactivity to return. We think our work is done and in fact, our work is just beginning.

Worse, if our dogs have learned to cope in one location, we could assume that as long as we simply avoid the bad places, things will be fine. This is not so. Teaching in one location encourages behaviour to return in others.

Reactive behaviour can return not only when we revisit old places, but when we move on from training locations where they learned to cope. We can think of this as the Training Centre Problem. It is also a very large problem with rehabilitation and so-called bootcamps. Learning is decontextualised in those situations. It only seems like the dog has learned to cope. When they return, this learning is rarely strong enough to inhibit their previous reactivity.

Say for instance a guardian found that walks outside the home triggered their dog’s anxiety. They may have taken their dog to less stressful places. Perhaps they used a secure dog field to rebuild their dog’s skills. They may have done a lot of training with a trainer at their facility or on specific walks with a trainer. Perhaps they wanted all training carried out at a facility.

However, when the guardian returns to places where the dog struggled in the past, they may be surprised to see reactive behaviours return.

What is often more surprising for many guardians is that dogs may ‘forget’ their coping skills in completely new venues that they’ve never been to before.

The Training Centre Problem

Reactive dog classes, bootcamps or rehabilitation that take place in a novel environment decontextualise the experience for the dog. The same is true with any specific location that are associated with learning new coping skills. The dog learns new skills away from places that trigger memories of initial trauma. They learn to cope with dogs they see. Perhaps you even take your dog for walks around the training centre and practise with a range of stand-in dogs.

Yet when you return to your normal walks, your dog is just as reactive as they ever were.

This is not because training has failed, but because what’s learned in one environment doesn’t necessarily apply in another. Dogs learn these places are safe. Being in those places triggers feelings of safety.

Moving out of training contexts is challenging. We need to prompt our dogs to remember their learning rather than expecting this to happen naturally.

It’s also because when the initial behaviour fades in one context, it may naturally return when put into a completely new one.

There are two problems at work. One is the fact that initial learning of reactive behaviour is stronger for two reasons. First, it is the dog’s initial, natural response. Second, it is driven by much more emotional or instinctive causes.

The second problem is that ‘re-learning’ and the learning of voluntary coping skills is weaker. It is not driven by emotional or instinctive needs in the same way.

It is natural then for dogs to ‘remember’ reactive behaviour and to ‘forget’ the coping skills we’ve taught them.

This is especially true when we move to new environments.

It is also true when we move away from environments where we learned coping skills, especially when we put those coping skills to the test.

Overcoming the Training Centre Problem

We need to help our dogs learn to generalise their coping skills in new places as well as old ones.

Rather than simply coping on ‘training walks’ or places associated with new skills, we need to remember that our dogs will need prompting and reminding every time we go to a new environment even when training is well embedded.

Often, this is as easy as starting with familiar safety cues, like a well-used snuffle mat, a rucksack walk (Steve Mann) or some pattern games (Leslie McDevitt) that remind the dog that they are safe. This also helps foreground learning. These simple reminders act to strengthen learning.

When we remember that it is normal for dogs to struggle to move from context to context, and we prompt them with reminders of coping mechanisms such as sniffing or following predictable patterns, this can counter the problem.

It’s also vital that dog trainers are aware of this problem. Far too many people involved in ‘rehab’, ‘bootcamps’ or even reactive rover classes are simply unaware of what they’re up against. They do not give guardians solutions to help them cross the bridge back into their own lives beyond the training venue. We need to help guardians support their dogs better beyond their time with us.

Bootcamps, ‘rehab’ and even training centres are designed to make training easy. They also make real life application hard. They facilitate the trainer, not the learner. In other words, they make it easier for the trainer and harder for the dog. In effect, they also make it harder for the guardian too.

Coming up

In the next post, I’ll be looking at why trauma memories are so durable and considering some of the factors that make it so. We’ll also look at a vital process called reconsolidation and how this can aid or impede progress.

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