THE 3 TYPES OF REACTIVE DOG
Having asked my Facebook and Instagram followers for their descriptions of reactive dog behaviour, I was really glad to find that it really mirrored my own experience. I’ve worked with reactive dogs for almost ten years now. The more I learned, the more I realised that one size definitely did not fit all. In the last post, you saw the kind of behaviours that Lighten Up materials are designed to help. Here, we unpick one specific behaviour: reactivity.
Today, we’re going to explore reactive behaviour in terms of who it’s aimed at.
Reactive behaviour isn’t just spilling randomly out of our dogs. Animal behaviour specialists use two words to describe behaviour.
One is elicited. This means involuntary behaviours like sneezing and getting goosebumps, but it can also refer to emotionally driven behaviours like anger and fear. Although my rational mind loves all animals, I shudder when I go into a place where there are bats. I can’t much help that shudder.
The other way to describe behaviour is evoked. This means behaviour that is voluntary. It might not be conscious, but we are in control of it. These behaviours are responsive to consequences, meaning we can reinforce, extinguish or punish them.
Reactive behaviour can be both. It can be elicited by certain things around us. It can also be caused by or contributed to by things inside us, like hormones or pain. It can also be evoked. That means that the consequences of the behaviour when it happened in the past can make it more or less likely to happen again in the future.
Even so, whether it is elicited or evoked, behaviour is a reaction to stuff.
Perhaps this is why many people don’t like the ‘reactive’ label. Most behaviour is a reaction to stuff or because it has had certain consequences in the past. I got up this morning as a reaction to my alarm clock and my dogs being excited. I put the light on as a reaction to the dark and also because experience has left me with painful bruises as a result of not putting the light on. I put my boots on because past experience has taught me (and reminded me but yesterday) that walking barefoot on gravel is painful.
Even so, what people described when I asked largely fell into four categories.
Most people who responded said that their dog’s reactive behaviour was directed towards other dogs. Of course dogs do get into fights with other dogs they know or that they live with, but simply for the sake of clarity, we’re going to consider behaviour directed towards unfamiliar dogs.
Unfamiliar, by the way, needn’t mean completely unknown. There’s a little shih tzu that reacts to us every single morning. I’m pretty sure he knows us by now.
This behaviour may take place in the home or in the wider world.
In the home, some dogs struggle to cope with dogs on TV, on phones or on screens. They may even struggle with cartoons or puppets of dogs. Some struggle with static images where others struggle with the movement or noise.
Lots and lots of dogs struggle with the sound or sight of real dogs beyond the property. We had new neighbours move in with a nervous dog a couple of days ago and we’ve had barking in stereo from the dog on one side and the dog on the other. While my dogs haven’t been able to ignore it completely (and neither have I) a big part of the problem for our neighbours’ dogs is just how many other dogs pass on walks.
Some dogs even choose a place to sit and watch from. They might perch on the back of a couch or sit on a table by a window where they can keep an eye on the neighbourhood. They’re not just passively responding to dog noises but actively looking out for them.
In the garden, we may find our dogs find it impossible to cope with other dogs who pass by the house or who engage in attempts to spar with dogs outside. Often, these dogs will race up and down barking, especially if the fence is not totally opaque.
Other dogs struggle to cope in the car. Simply seeing other dogs as they pass is just too much for them to handle.
Then of course there are the dogs we probably all think of as typically reactive: dogs who bark and lunge on the lead as soon as another dog comes into sight. Obviously this can make close contact meetings like obligatory health checks an issue. I daren’t tell you how many people knowingly avoid vet or groomer visits simply because they daren’t take their dog into a confined and stressful space.
When you think about reactive behaviour that’s directed towards other dogs, it’s really helpful to know what you’re dealing with. Mostly, I feel my clients are dealing with dogs who can’t easily handle external noise of dogs outside and then also struggle if they see a dog if they’re out on a walk.
Far fewer people who responded reported problems walking their dog around unfamiliar people. To my mind, many dogs can cope slightly better with this than with other dogs, but even so, it can be problematic. Just this afternoon, I heard four rasping, panting dogs coming towards the yard, all of whom were struggling to cope already and then who struggled that little bit more when they saw me. When they saw my dog at the top of the steps, all hell broke loose on their side. I moved Lidy out of the way and we went inside because we were very good girls.
I think many of us consider behaviour directed towards humans to be aggressive rather than reactive in nature. Perhaps that’s why fewer people spoke of human-directed reactivity. We tend to think that barking and lunging at people is aggressive behaviour. Needless to say, the behaviour itself looks exactly the same. It’s just that the target is different.
Just as dogs may struggle with 2D representations of dogs on screen or the sound of dogs on TV or on phones, some dogs also struggle with certain humans on screen. People running and playing sports tends to be relatively common. Some dogs even struggle with cartoon people or puppets on screen.
Other dogs struggle to cope with people outside the home. Tonight it’s the first fine evening of Spring. It’s Friday evening. There are barbecues, voices, people outside, dogs barking. There’s a lot to react to. Many dogs would find this impossibly difficult.
Again, some dogs will respond passively to these noises, only growling or barking when humans outside interfere with the general police. Noise police, if you will. Others actively seek out intruders, choosing perches or viewpoints from which to do so.
Dogs may also struggle if they hear or see people from the garden or when they are in the car. Some of this may simply relate to dogs who are already emotionally aroused. Sometimes they may be excited. Other times, they may be afraid. Either way, they may be more likely to bark or lunge at these times.
Then we have dogs who struggle to cope with humans that they encounter on walks. If these dogs are also dog-reactive, you may find that you’re dealing with multiple triggers all arriving at the same time. Dogs may be selective about the humans they can cope with and those they struggle with, or it may relate to human activities such as jogging or cycling.
Although we will talk about predation and pseudopredation lots as Lighten Up unrolls, many dogs struggle to cope with other species beyond their own.
Sometimes this behaviour is directed towards other companion species, most notably cats.
Other times, it is directed towards livestock. Horses, goats, sheep, cows and poultry may cause some lunging or barking.
Lots of dogs struggle with wildlife, from insects and birds right up to larger animals like deer or boar. Squirrels, hedgehogs and foxes can also drive our dogs to distraction.
Again, this behaviour might be related to 2D representations of animals on screen, even cartoons or puppets. It may relate to movement or to static images. Some dogs may struggle in the home or garden if cats pass or if wildlife can get into the garden. They may even struggle with insects coming into the home.
Since livestock tend to be largely contained, dogs may struggle on walks if they come across sheep, goats, horses or cows.
Dogs may also react to non-social stimuli. This is a fancy way of saying they react to inanimate objects or non-living things that cannot interact.
Again, that might happen with 2D representations such as dogs who struggle to cope with Formula 1, or with 3D models, toys and puppets. That may be static images but is usually visual images on a screen such as a TV.
Some dogs struggle to cope with static, inanimate humanoid forms. Statues, scarecrows and even stone crosses can be a challenge for some. In fact, one of my least reactive dogs struggled to cope with snowmen.
Others struggle to cope with moving objects, especially those with wheels. Cars, lawnmowers, scooters, bicycles, pushchairs, wheeled refuse containers, tractors, wheelchairs and shopping trolleys can be difficult for some dogs. As Lighten Up rolls out, you’ll find a lot of material related to these dogs.
Some objects are neither moving nor humanoid. I have some quite lovely video of Lidy reacting to a shed snakeskin and a hulled maize cob. Others struggle with leaves, rocks, pumpkins, sieves… things out of place sometimes don’t make sense to some dogs.
As you can see, I have FOUR types here. I generally categorise the last two together, for no good reason at all.
Whether you’re working with or living with a reactive dog, it’s important to start by making a list of what things elicit or evoke behaviours you consider reactive.
BUT… just because you have a list does not mean that the behaviour is always rooted in the same emotions or the same functions. Next time, we look at 10 reasons your dog might be reactive. These emotions and needs aren’t always obvious even to an expert. If your dog is truly struggling, it’s worthwhile getting in touch with a behaviour consultant who can carry out a functional analysis to more clearly identify what’s happening.
When we truly understand what our dog is experiencing, helping them becomes so much more simple!
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