Jumpy or fizzy: the role of emotions in dog reactivity

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Jumpy or fizzy: the role of emotions in dog reactivity

April 23, 2024 Uncategorised 0

There are many things that contribute to why our dogs may struggle on walks. If you’ve ever noticed that some days are harder than others, it’s likely your dog has sensitised to the world.

Thankfully, sensitisation is a temporary process.

Unfortunately, once we sensitise to one trigger, it makes all the more easy for us to re-sensitise to the same trigger in the future.

We may even generalise to others.

Sensitisation simply means that our dog gets more sensitive to specific triggers in the environment. For example, my dog Lidy is very sensitive to cats. While she can cope with seeing one or two, if she sees a lot of cats on a single walk, she gets more and more sensitive to them. The first one or two she sees, she can generally cope with. Over time, however, her reactions get stronger and stronger.

This is true for all the fun stuff in life, but it’s also true for the stuff that makes our dog feel bad too.

One of my client’s dogs is currently struggling when he sees other dogs on walks. He is not a fan of other dogs, let’s say. Though he can cope with seeing one or two, each time he sees one, it makes it more likely he’ll respond to the next. He gets more sensitive over the walk.

Sensitisation and arousal

Arousal makes it more likely our dogs will temporarily sensitise to triggers over time. We can think of arousal as simply a state of alertness. The more alert we are, the more we are prepared for something to happen. This in turn makes our reactions bigger when it does.

Arousal can occur when the unexpected occurs or when we go into new places. Coming back from France to the UK, one of my dogs barked at a person who passed our car on the Eurotunnel. He didn’t normally bark at people going past our car, so what made him more sensitive?

First, uncertainty. To be moving in a car in a train carriage was new to him. That made him more aroused than normal. There were noises and movements he’d never experienced before. New situations can certainly contribute to arousal.

Whenever things change or there is the potential for unusual things to occur, our bodies prepare us to respond quickly just in case.

That makes it more likely that we’ll be more sensitive to things that wouldn’t normally bother us that much.

Sensitisation and emotional intensity

Another factor that affects whether our dogs will respond relates to the emotional state that comes before the trigger. It doesn’t really matter whether that emotional state is good or bad. All of it makes us experience the world more intensely.

Fairgrounds and amusement parks make good use of this. All those long queues make you impatient, causing all kinds of anticipatory emotions. The more screams you hear on the ride, the more likely it is you’ll sensitise. It feeds your anticipation. This makes it all the more pleasurable.

The same is true for fast food restaurants. All the images of tasty food put us into states of anticipatory excitement.

Thankfully, at fairgrounds and fast food restaurants, we usually sensitise to the event that follows, whether that’s the roller coaster or the food. However, being in a state of heightened anticipation and excitement doesn’t mean we won’t sensitise to scary stuff too. Were someone to tap us on the shoulder unexpectedly when we were queuing for a fairground ride, it’d be much more likely to make us jump. Should a balloon pop behind us, we’d be more likely to startle.

Lots of movies make use of emotions to enhance how scary they are. Think of the music in movies like Jaws for example. It makes things all the more pleasurable. This works in the same way as a rollercoaster in fact: there’s a reason you have that long, slow ascent. If you’ve ever been in a movie theatre watching a scary movie with a friend and laughed at how easily spooked you were, you’ve seen that this can also cause a lot of pleasure too. It enhances the movie.

Sensitisation and emotional intensity in dogs

This also happens with dogs. One of my dogs used to get very excited before walks – they were his favourite experience in the day. Because he was in a state of heightened excitement, if something unexpected happened in the first moments of the walk, he was much more likely to respond to it.

For example, he normally coped very well with the large numbers of fast cyclists past our gate. If we were at home and a team of would-be Tour de France racers went past, he noticed them but he didn’t really react to them.

Likewise on walks.

Of course, we’d get out of their way if a team of cyclists went past us on walks. That goes almost without saying. But usually they did not interest him and so he would not react.

If we came out of the gate when he was all fired up because it was the beginning of our walk, however, he’d be much more likely to bark at them.

Sensitisation and the origin of problems

Many of my clients can trace their dog’s problem back to one single event in puppyhood. Perhaps they had taken their young dog out on a new walk for the first time. Of course, puppies can be excited or anxious about the world, and depending on how intense their emotions are, they are more likely to sensitise.

One client took her young collie out on a walk when he was around 12 weeks old. She had been very careful around cars knowing that there are a lot of collies who sensitise to cars. However, a boy on a scooter went past her puppy. The boy was very close and very fast. This was highly exciting for the collie and he then sensitised to scooters.

However, being sensitised can also increase the risk of generalisation.

My client tried to avoid the park where there were children on scooters. This had become a really big problem for her young dog. However, one day not long after, a cyclist went past very quickly. Even though the cyclist wasn’t very close, perhaps because they were in a new place, her dog sensitised to cyclists. He’d seen cyclists before, but the combination of a new and exciting place and previous sensitisation plus all his excitement about being out on a walk fuelled his response to the cyclist.

What then happened was her dog sensitised to cars. Despite the fact my client had been really careful around cars, he began to generalise to all moving vehicles.

Avoiding sensitisation

The most useful thing we can do to avoid sensitisation in the first place is to be mindful that a combination of factors makes it easy for our dog to sensitise.

New places can be very arousing.

Whether our dogs are anxious or excited, a change of venue makes it more likely to trigger some of those heightened emotions and arousal.

That can mean that the next thing that happens causes our dogs to respond more than they would normally.

When we can see that our dog is very excited or very anxious, it’s important that we take time and we take care.

Helping them learn to settle in new places can make a difference. Learning how to relax around new things can help too. Letting our dogs take their time can reduce the likelihood that they’ll have a strong reaction to things.

Imagine, for instance, the first vet trip. It’s a new place, and this will contribute to arousal levels. The smells may cause our dog to feel uneasy. Putting our dog on a table can also remove their sense of control, adding to their anxiety.

When they are then manipulated by the vet or a vet assistant, it makes it more likely that they will sensitise. Taking our time and making sure our dogs feel comfortable with what happens on vet visits will reduce the risk that they will sensitise.

Noticing our dog’s emotional state

If we notice that our dog is more energised than usual, we can recognise that we may need more time and space.

Obviously this is more likely right at the beginning of an event that our dog has been expecting. If they are very excited or afraid, when unexpected things occur, our dogs are primed to respond.

This is also true when our dog has been anticipating something predictable for a long time. This morning, my dog Lidy was very excited by what she smelled. Often, this is the odour of cats. Something really caught her nose. Whatever it was, she was very interested in it.

When we turned the corner and a cat jumped out on us and tried to attack us, that made a big response all the more likely.

Because I could see that she was struggling, I’d stopped and done some short exercises with her to help lower her arousal levels. When we turned that corner, she wasn’t as excited as she could have been.

Noticing whether our dogs’ behaviour is more intense than usual is important. We might also notice things like them struggling to walk on the lead even though they usually manage. Panting in cool weather, heavy breathing, grimacing and hard eyes can also give us a clue that our dog is not ready to encounter anything unexpected.

Helping our dogs

There are several things we can do to avoid accidental sensitisation. Teaching our dogs to cope in novel situations is one of those things. Having gentle exposure to safe new places can help.

It goes without saying that taking your dog to a new, busy train station in the hopes of helping them get used to people and trains is a recipe for sensitisation.

It can also help if we teach our dogs how to manage their arousal levels. Learning how to relax can often help. Learning to still the body in order to still the mind can be a real bonus. One way I teach this is through a calming chin rest or through delivering slow treats for stillness. Not only do our dogs learn to control their bodies, it can also help regulate their breathing.

If we have good timing, we can make sure we reward our dogs for a closed mouth rather than for an open, panting mouth. We can also reward them for controlling their body. This usually seems to put the dog back in control over their body. They are then more calm with what happens next.

Whether we teach our dog to settle in new places, to relax around potentially exciting or scary things or to put themselves back in control of their bodies, this helps in three ways. First, it helps them to control their arousal levels. Second, it helps them regulate their emotions. Third, it helps them find predictable routines in unpredictable situations.

The risks of repeated sensitisation

The more frequently our dog re-sensitises to the same triggers, the more easy it is for them to re-sensitise again in the future. This means our dogs get into the habit of sensitivity in many ways.

Where our dogs can also predict these triggers – where odours, locations or events predict what will happen next – it also means that they can be on guard for things. It doesn’t matter if these are exciting things or scary things. Just as children learn that Christmas Eve predicts exciting presents, or a trip to the dentist can predict painful probes and scraping, the predictors can then generate the emotions themselves.

What happens then is our dog just learns more and more triggers that predict the good stuff or the bad stuff in life. If these are very exciting or very scary, our dogs can even become hypervigilant, scanning the environment for both the predictors and the triggers themselves. This is exactly what happens with my dog Lidy around cats.

This can be very difficult to manage, especially if it taps into things our dogs have been selected to find exciting over many generations. Or it can be difficult to manage when our dog feels that the things they are scared of are genuinely life-threatening.

If your dog gets stuck in specific behaviours, this short course on skills for resilience may help.