Sensitive and Responsive or Reactive? Your dog decoded
Many dogs bark and lunge on walks. Sometimes they react to other dogs they see, perhaps even barking from the car. Other dogs struggle with unfamiliar humans they encounter, barking at people who approach them. Some dogs also struggle with moving vehicles, wildlife, livestock or other things.
It’s not uncommon for some dogs to struggle with more than one of these areas.
When we have a dog who is very sensitive to the world around us, our first job is always understanding. There are ten common reasons why dogs may be very sensitive to the world around them. If you have a dog who barks and lunges on walks, you can download the free Lighten Up diagnostic tool to help you make sense of what’s happening.
Taking action with dogs before we truly understand what is going on is unhelpful. We can go down the wrong track if we are not careful, adding months or years onto our training programme. Our progress might be impeded because we haven’t fully taken into account the problem.
For example, it’s not uncommon for frustrated or impulsive dogs to struggle with training programmes designed for anxious or fearful dogs. This is true even if their behaviour is underpinned by anxiety. Many dogs can have a heady mix of impulsivity, frustration and anxiety that makes them highly sensitive to the world around them.
Impulsivity is not a ‘big blob’ of behaviour. As research progresses, it is more and more obvious that ‘impulsivity’ is simply an umbrella term for many different behaviours. Unlike frustration and anxiety, which tend to manifest in very similar ways, impulsivity can present in unique ways in your dog.
Some dogs can be very sensitive to rewards and perceived punishments. These are factors dog trainers and behaviour consultants truly need to understand before working with dogs.
Depending on the situation, some dogs can seem like ‘risk takers’, acting despite knowing the consequences. It’s not unfamiliar to hear people talk about dogs like this as ‘high drive’ dogs, but it’s not especially helpful. Highly motivated dogs may of course be more likely to take a risk if they are sensitive to a reward or opportunity to practise a behaviour. We need to do better than simply dismissing this as ‘high drive’.
Other dogs can struggle with goals and rewards if there is any delay or if they are asked to choose between doing one thing or another. Frustration is very likely in these dogs, depending on the goal. Sometimes, anxiety can be underpinning their need for routine and predictability. In selecting for dogs who are highly motivated, it’s not that surprising this can sometimes spill over into frustration.
Impulse control also relates to attention. Here, we may see both ends of a spectrum. Some highly responsive dogs can seem to have a form of ‘tunnel vision’, able to fixate or focus on a task or goal. It can be very difficult to distract them from what they are doing. They can be very persistent and focused.
But we can also see the opposite: dogs who find it difficult to focus their attention especially in novel environments.
Impulsive behaviour: low latency
All these are forms of impulsivity. A final subset of impulse control relates to behaviour. I often refer to dogs who struggle with impulsive behaviour as ‘The B of the Bang’ dogs.
British runner Linford Christie used to say that he was ready to run on ‘the B of the Bang’. What he was describing is something called low latency.
Latency is how quickly we respond from seeing a stimulus that triggers our behaviour. Low latency is a very small timeframe from seeing the trigger to behaving. These are our ‘B of the Bang’ dogs. They respond to the B while other dogs are waiting for the ‘ang’.
This is affected by motivation. Linford Christie might not have been quite so motivated by the ‘end cycle’ chime of the dishwasher.
Seeing dogs or people, other animals or vehicles can sometimes act as that starter pistol for reactive dogs. There they were, floating along, and once that pistol fires, they are already responding.
One reason that it’s important to work with a specialist is to rule out anxiety. Sometimes impulsive behaviour and anxiety co-exist, so we need to understand how they interact. Anxiety can ‘prime’ a dog to respond quickly and to behave sensitively to triggers without the dog really being ‘impulsive’ so to speak.
Impulsive behaviour: intense behaviour
Impulsive behaviour is also not simply about latency of response. It can also be about other factors that alter behaviour. For example, it can affect the proportion of behaviour.
If someone cuts you up in traffic, it’s normal to sigh, roll your eyes, smile sarcastically or even to mutter curse words. Maybe you might be a little angry and make a rude gesture. You probably don’t smash into their car deliberately, pull them kicking and screaming from behind the wheel and impale them on a fence.
The type of behaviour we select in response to a situation is called the behavioural topography. Sometimes, you can see a hierarchy of canine topography arranged in things like ladders of aggression, or ladders of frustration.
Impulsive behaviour can end up with dogs selecting behaviours that are disproportionate to the situation. They may also escalate through behaviours more quickly or even miss out lower level behaviours completely.
For example, seeing a dog stiffen as they approach them on a walk may cause other dogs to alter their behaviour and turn away or disengage, showing mild appeasement behaviours. A B of the Bang dog may go straight from looking to launching themselves on the other dog and snapping at them.
These are dogs we may think of who behave ‘out of the blue’ or with lightning speed, but whose behaviour is also much more than the behaviour required for the situation.
It is very important to rule out poor social skills and a lack of socialisation here. It’s also important to explore whether the dog has previously been punished for lower level behaviours or if they have been ignored. Anxiety can also lead dogs to choose more intense behaviours too, as can strong fear responses.
Impulsive behaviour: rapid responding
Impulsive behaviour affects how quickly our dog responds from seeing the trigger. Once we’ve ruled out anxiety or fearfulness, or accounted for its interaction with impulsive behaviour, we may think about how quickly a dog responds and how quickly they escalate to intense behaviours.
It may, however, also relate to rates of behaviour, behavioural persistence and duration. Some of our dogs may bark more frequently or may persist much longer than other dogs do.
These are factors that researchers Scott and Fuller found could have heritable components for how quickly spaniels would bark at strangers, as well as how long they would bark for. In contrast, the Basenji did not bark as quickly when they encountered a stranger, and they did not bark as long. When parents from each breed were bred together, Scott & Fuller found that their offspring inherited aspects of latency and duration. Little research has been undertaken in other breeds to determine what those breeds are sensitive to and how long they’ll persist in a behaviour.
Genetics & heritability
No behaviour is perfectly heritable: there is variation in each generation and individual. However, quick responsiveness is certainly a behaviour that has been either purposefully or accidentally selected for in some dogs. Working lines of particular breeds may have lower latency of behaviour and more intense behaviours, for example.
That quickness of response, alongside duration and persistence, have been useful in selecting for working dogs.
Unfortunately the tests that exist for impulsive behaviour in dogs are not sensitive enough to investigate this phenomenon more fully. Also, when researchers have tried to investigate them, they found it difficult to distinguish between impulse control and training. In other words, highly trained dogs may seem to have good impulse control, and yet in fact, this may simply be a product of training.
Many breeds accused of poor impulse control are actually breeds selected to work closely alongside a human, from gundogs to herding dogs. Also, where breeders have not paid careful attention to selecting for impulse control in dogs, it’s likely that some of our spaniels, collies, cattle herders and continental sheep herding dogs may have overshot the mark, as Dr Karen Overall says.
We’re right to say that ‘reactivity’ is not a problem we can ‘cure’ with obedience training. However, we also need to ask if we think our dog is showing signs of impulsive behaviour whether or not they just need more support from us.
A human analogy
Many highly ranked human sports stars have impulsive behaviour. Mastering responsiveness and avoiding impulsiveness is a fine art, which is why so few get to the very top of their profession. To be highly responsive and to have great impulse control under pressure is challenging. There are reasons why there are so few players like the Williams’ sisters, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and why so few people can really cut it at Formula 1 or motorsports.
The same can be true in team sports: to get to the top in rugby or football for example, you need to be highly responsive to the game. But you also need to be able to have good impulse control. Some of the best players have not managed to get that balance right. Even players like Zinedine Zidane have moments where their quick responsiveness has led to unpredictable and disproportionate responses under stress.
In many ways, it feels deeply ironic that the man who said he was ready to run on the B of the Bang is a man whose own sports career and occasional outspokenness have had such consequences for his reputation.
Many of these players rely on strongly intuitive coaches who help them channel their impulsivity.
Eric Cantona is one such example. A star player for Manchester United in their treble-winning days of the 1990s, he’d been in 6 clubs before he finally flourished. Still, the day he snapped at a fan shouting racist abuse from the stands, the 21 other players, the referee and his own manager did not see it coming. Cantona often said that his manager, Alex Ferguson, helped give him discipline and control. Being highly responsive can sometimes make behaviours seem as if they were ‘out of the blue’.
In the right hands, many highly responsive dogs flourish. This is no condemnation of their current homes. I remember a young man who came to adopt a doberman-malinois mix from the shelter. He was very determined to take this dog. The staff of the shelter were very explicit in describing what the dog needed. Despite hearing all this, the young man was very persistent in saying he understood this and could offer the dog a good home. I have no doubt that dogs would live a good life with this person.
3 days later, he returned the dog. The young man looked utterly exhausted. Any feeling we might have had of anger disappeared as soon as we saw him: he’d learned his lesson. Willingness is not always enough unless you’re prepared to do a bit of work in learning how to live with a highly responsive dog.
The dog really did need an experienced home with a person who knew the doberman or the malinois. We were more strict with requests from that point on.
Because impulsive behaviour is often related to goals and outcomes, it’s also very important that we understand how their behaviour interacts with reward and punishment sensitivity. Some dogs can be highly sensitive to aversive consequences – even those they perceive to be aversive. We can quickly find ourselves the target of poor impulse control in such circumstances.
We also need to understand how our dogs respond to difficulty as well as challenge. In some circumstances, they can be highly sensitive to challenge, but in others they can be remarkably insensitive to very dangerous consequences.
Living with impulsive behaviour
The first thing we can do is understand our dogs. We really need to understand the interplay with any anxiety they have and look at the individual, unique dog in front of us.
Many trainers point out that there is no reason to say that some dogs require different training. They are right to point this out in face of trainers who say that ‘some dogs need punishment’. They say that all learners learn in the same way.
This is loosely true, but it also fails to comprehend the complexity of motivation and personality. It also fails to account for the fact we have been consciously or unconsciously selecting for responsiveness and trainability in some dogs for many, many years.
Dogs who tend to impulsive behaviour need responsive guardians who are sensitive to their dog in the moment.
Today, I saw a post that I partially agreed with (and also didn’t) about malinois. In it, the writers said that malinois are not for the faint-hearted and the ill-prepared. They said that these dogs come with ‘extreme challenges’ and most are antisocial with humans or dogs. I agree that they can be very sensitive and responsive dogs, but I know plenty (and I’ve lived with two) who were the ‘unicorns’ who the writers claim like both humans and dogs.
I also saw a post about working spaniels. In it, the writers claimed almost the same thing.
On one of these posts, several people responded that doberman, collies, cattle dogs (or insert other working breed of choice) are also the same.
Dogs with impulsive behaviour
Living with any dog who has been selected for highly responsive behaviour can be challenging. This is especially true if you aren’t prepared for it and you’re a more laid-back person.
It’s not that any dog needs micromanaging or obedience heelwork or ‘outlets’. It’s that they need us to step up in the moment and appreciate their responsive needs. Some days, we can step up. Other times, we can step back. That can even happen in the same encounter.
Yesterday, an off-lead dog approached Lidy behind the gate. Lidy struggled to disengage with a dog who was also unwilling to disengage. I needed to prompt her away. When I did, she moved away. I almost wept, because 6 years ago, she wouldn’t have been able to do that.
She ran down the field where a flock of sheep were dismantling the bushes that bordered their side of the hedge along the field. One stood her ground in a stare-off with Lidy. Previously, Lidy would have got frustrated and smashed into the fence. The sheep would have startled and Lidy would have been frantic. She would not have been able to disengage or calm down for hours.
I could see that she was able to disengage from the recalcitrant sheep and move off. She needed no support other than rewarding for having done so. Within 60 seconds, she needed three different responses from me: no response, prompting and reward. Being sensitive to when our dogs need support is important.
A friend and colleague sent me a video last month. He works with continental herding dogs. A beauceron had been surrendered to a friend of his because he was chasing and biting cyclists and chasing cars. His friend thought the beauceron might make a good working dog. My trainer friend sent me the first videos.
I’m sure, had anybody seen that video, they would have thought the dog would die of over-instruction. I counted 67 cues in a 94-second clip.
He sent me some more footage from last week – some three weeks later. The dog was much more steady and my trainer friend had begun to cede some of the decision-making to the dog. In a 210-second clip, he gave 14 cues.
When I watch videos of shepherds with collies, of gundogs at work, it’s very easy to overlook the amount of support that has gone into “impulse control” and also the layers of training that have occured. As researchers have said for the last twenty years, it is impossible to know where self-control starts and training stops.
In truth, impulse control may always be a fine interplay between highly responsive and observant humans and their highly responsive dogs. Highly responsive humans make it LOOK easy, but often this belies how much support they are giving, as well as knowing when to back off. My colleague’s second video made it LOOK easy. The beauceron looked like he was in his element. I also know how much work has happened because in the first video, he disengaged completely having startled the sheep and ran off to see some other sheep! The dog definitely did not take to herding like some kind of savant.
For this reason, we should never overlook the role responsiveness is playing in our dog’s reactivity. It is imperative we identify anxiety alongside frustration, and that we understand our dog’s individual profile. Living with a highly responsive dog can be challenging, but it can also be an absolute joy.
There are many people with opinions about such dogs. Until they’ve lived with them, it’s helpful to take what they say with a pinch of salt. Having known one dog cause chaos in one home, taking over the kitchen and literally dismantling it, and then living in another home where he was the Very Best Boy, I know that a lot of this is down to us. No wonder that can be overwhelming!
It can also be highly frustrating to watch experts with their dogs because we don’t always know what went into that moment and they don’t always know how to articulate it.
Dogs who are very sensitive to the world and quickly responsive, our B of the Bang dogs, need us to have both flexibility and technical prowess at times. We may never know ourselves where their self-control begins and our partnership ends especially when that is fluid from moment to moment. That’s okay, though. The important thing is that it works!
If you have a highly responsive dog, you may find this course on decision-making useful.