Why understanding is key to help reactive dogs
It is vital to understand why dogs bark and lunge at other dogs. When we lack clarity as to why they behave as they do, then we run the risk of ineffective treatment. Worse, we run the risk of adding to their problems rather than decreasing them.
In his chapter in Landsberg et al. (2023), Professor Daniel Mills makes the point that the emotional undercurrents behind reactive behaviour are often complex. They are not complex in terms of being challenging to understand, but complex in how these reasons interact and co-exist.
He also explains why it is vital that we understand why dogs behave as they do. Firstly, without that understanding, pharmaceutical interventions are likely to be much less effective. Secondly, more effective management and treatment is likely when we truly understand the reasons behind behaviour.
In the past
Most of the early literature related to lunging and barking outside of the home focused on anxiety or fear responses. This is certainly true for many dogs. The anxious dog who is afraid of other dogs will certainly bark to keep them away. If they are on the lead and prevented from moving away, they may then turn to behaviours designed to keep other dogs away, such as growling, snapping, lunging, snarling or biting.
When flight (moving away) is eliminated as a possibility, then fighting is another possibility for escape. If you can’t move away yourself, then making others go away is another way to create distance.
It is true that many dogs learn behaviours that work. They may learn that snapping at strangers who approach to pet them is a good way to stop strangers doing that. Because these cause relief for the dog and are accompanied by a feeling of safety following a feeling of threat or danger, they can become very powerful habits. Safety and relief are powerful reinforcers for a dog who feels threatened.
Which of us wouldn’t resort to behaviours that brought about those emotional states?
It is a mistake, however, to see all behaviours as fear-based. As Mills points out in his chapter, other things might be a better explanation.
This is not to say that fear does not play a part, but if we only understand behaviour in terms of fear, we may end up making the situation worse by accident.
Take for instance the very common scenario where a dog may bark and bark on lead if they cannot get to another dog they see. Some of this can be underpinned by frustration. Perhaps the dog has unmet social needs and loves playing with other dogs. It can then be frustrating to see other dogs when you don’t understand why you are prevented from playing with them.
Some dogs also learn an ‘approach-to-diffuse’ behaviour. In running up to and engaging every other dog, it gives them control over the situation. Think of it as the equivalent of ripping off an adhesive bandage. Immediately engaging other animals in play diffuses the tension and relieves the anxiety and unpredictability. Not being able to practise this habit is then frustrating. When we’re unable to carry out safety behaviours that we’ve relied upon to keep us safe, then it is very frustrating.
This can then fuel our anxiety and our frustration, fanning the flames.
But to only treat the anxiety may be challenging. Frustration can often fuel a drop in self-control. The more frustrated we become, the more likely it is that we will do things we wouldn’t do otherwise. For example, we may take more risks.
We can often see that in dogs who absolutely have to run up to every dog to engage with them. They ignore signs from the other dogs of discomfort or irritation. Then, they persist in attempts to approach and engage.
A recent example on social media
Recently, a video went viral on social media. A woman with a rescue shepherd who feels uncomfortable around other dogs was doing her best to move her dog away from a wolfhound who was pestering them.
The wolfhound ran right over to them. Although the rescue shepherd did not react, the guardian certainly did. She reacted exactly as I would have done: telling the wolfhound’s guardian to recall her dog.
The wolfhound’s guardian completely misread her dog. She told the shepherd’s caregiver that her dog was friendly and only wanted to play. This has become so habitual in the UK that people are blind to the fact that unfamiliar dogs ‘playing’ can easily experience a loss of self-control and it can easily spill out into a fight. It is not normal for a dog to persist in attempts to engage a dog who is walking away.
I’ve even seen dogs approach those who really are giving them very clear signs of intent to injure.
If our dog does not ‘read’ the situation when another dog is turning away, walking away, sniffing the ground or growling, snapping, snarling and lunging, then the problem is with our dog, not theirs.
That was exactly what happened with the shepherd and the wolfhound.
I simply cannot tell you how many dogs behave in this way, running up to dogs who are clearly showing signs of disinterest and even threat. It is not normal for that to happen. We don’t try and engage playfully with people who are threatening us. It speaks to a huge misunderstanding of our own species’ forms of communication.
When dogs are prevented from approach
There’s little doubt that many people let dogs who do this off-lead because of exactly what happened next in the video. When the owner of the wolfhound came to put him on lead, he then started showing signs, first of discomfort and then off aggression. Somewhat ironically it was the exact same moment that the lady was explaining that her dog was friendly!
I suspect that he was off-lead because, as a very large dog, there are probably few encounters he’d get into where he’d get badly injured. However, I simply cannot count how many people let their small dogs run up to my muzzled dog. She is doing her best to be her good self, and yet is very clearly giving signs of discomfort. I’ve worked with large dogs who have bitten small dogs who’ve run up to them. One or two of these large dogs have inflicted life-threatening wounds or even killed the other dog. It’s not just owners of large, uncomfortable dogs who let their dogs persist in this ‘approach-to-diffuse’ trial by ordeal.
I know very well how hard it is to keep such dogs on the lead. This is especially true for large dogs, who may run the risk of pulling us over, or barking very loudly. This is embarrassing and potentially harmful, so it’s little wonder people see no harm in letting their dogs off the lead.
The Perfect Storm
It reminds me of a story my friend told me about all the bad drivers she’d prosecuted in her role as an insurance lawyer. She told me that many of them count on never meeting a driver as bad as them. Most of them have long-entrenched habits of bad driving, but because most of the world is filled with drivers who avoid them, they get away with it. Right up until the moment that they don’t.
What happens at this point, as they attempt to defend themselves, is that they blame the other driver – my friend’s clients. And yes, they are often partially responsible. They too had been driving on a wing and a prayer, never truly encountering a driver as bad as them.
We see this all the time in the dog world. A dog who heedlessly and carelessly runs up to other dogs – especially dogs showing signs of fearfulness, disengagement or aggression – is not paying attention to what the other dog is saying. Most of the time, the dogs they approach are the good drivers of the dog world. No harm, no foul.
It’s only when that careless and heedless dog runs up to a dog who snaps, bites or gets into a fight with them that a problem happens. The owners of those heedless dogs depend on the reliability and sociability of other dogs, just as the lady with the wolfhound did.
When they encounter guardians doing their very best to keep their dog from harming others, they then blame the other dog.
Is ‘more’ socialisation the answer?
Let’s face it: neither dog in a scenario like this has had optimal socialisation. However, dog sociability is much, much more complex than simply ‘socialisation’.
Breed, genetics and inherited traits play into this. The gestational experience of the dog before they were born also plays into sociability. Maternal care and appropriate early learning also play into this.
Then socialisation and early familiarisation will also play a role. Developmental factors also come into play at this point too. Puppies go through sensitive periods when strangers are scary – be they human or canine – and the same is true for adolescent dogs.
Health and wellbeing also play a role. Arousal also plays a role.
Over the weekend, trying to escape the eleventh night of fireworks in our area, I took Lidy out. Despite medication, she was panicking and pacing frantically. The roads around us are very badly potholed and also collect large planes of water, so I was driving cautiously because the roads are also very windy and unlit. One spot has a regular accident point and every single week, a car or van comes off the road on the corner.
Despite this, a young male driver came racing up behind me, full beams on. I slowed down because I was now driving for the two of us. He overtook me on a blind bend and knocked a person off their bike coming in the opposite direction. I yelled at that young male driver, who could have easily killed that cyclist. Would ‘more socialisation’ help me cope better (i.e. not yell at angry, aggressive young men who’d already nearly killed someone) in situations like this?
Yet many people think that ‘more socialisation’ will help their dogs.
Highly charged situations
Highly charged situations with unfamiliar dogs are not the time or place for restorative socialisation.
Restorative socialisation can be very effective with the right dog and handled in the right way. The UK experience feels very alien from French restorative socialisation classes, or those of Italy. Restorative socialisation classes in France and Italy are only offered to dogs who would benefit from it. They absolutely do not look like the awful, overwhelming experiences I’ve seen in other countries.
One so-called rescue has a habit of putting muzzled, fearful dogs in with a pack of other dogs who lack the social skills themselves! This flooding overwhelms the dogs and I cringe when watching their videos. It is so far adrift from good practice that it hurts, and yet it is often held up to be good practice.
The arousal of such situation is likely to lead to trauma responses, not healthy adaptation. Sure, the dog learns that they survived, but trial-by-fire and trial-by-ordeal are no way to learn.
Running up to and engaging with a lot of overwhelmed dogs is not socialisation.
Mostly, what happens is that it just reinforces the dog’s existing behaviour and does not teach them better coping skills or wider social skills.
Understanding our dog’s behaviour
When we understand that reactive behaviour can be driven by anxiety, by fearfulness, by frustration, by responsiveness, we can do better by our dogs.
This also means that we have to understand a fundamental fact: even though dogs are highly sociable and friendly compared to wolves, fusion does not come easily to them.
Free-ranging dogs will often have clear territories. These territories may sometimes be affected by food sources and human activity, but free-ranging dogs are not living in some utopian Disney-fied world where they’re all happy friends. When unfamiliar groups are forced into close contact, tensions can run as high as they do for our dogs in a park.
Fusion does not come easily for humans either. We only have to put a hand-shaker or cheek kisser in a nation of people who bow to greet to understand that humans have very codified patterns for greeting. While we may tolerate a small child running up to us and engaging us with play and physical contact, were a stranger to do that, it could well end in a police station or court.
Humans are highly social creatures, able to live in a world where aggressivity is minimal and generally speaking, things are safe. Safe-ish, anyway. Respectful incursion into the territory of other nations is usually treated with reciprocal respect and perhaps some curiosity, but to truly be accepted into a group can take time. It is no great leap to understand dogs behave in similar ways.
Towards a better understanding
Understanding species-typical canine fears and challenges is vital. For that lady with the wolfhound, she relied entirely on her dog’s self-control. It is quite amazing to me that we rely on the impulse control of dogs because our own understanding of others has failed us so catastrophically.
Our first step to overcome this is to understand canine behaviour. That makes a huge difference. We have learned so much, and continue to do so. Sure, we’ll make mistakes along the way. Understanding why they are mistakes and how we can strive to do better is the essential thing.
When we understand our dogs better, we will also have a better understanding of why our dogs behave as they do and how we can work with them to help them feel more comfortable in the world.
A signficant part of this is accepting our limitations and the constraints on the dog. Genetics, morphology, gestational experience, maternal care, postnatal experience, socialisation, development and single-event fear learning will all work against our dogs to place constraints on just how sociable they are likely to be. Hoping that our dogs will learn to be friendly with every human or dog they meet is a dangerous belief. Not only that, it fails to see our dogs as individuals with preferences of their own. A lot of that preference will rest on the fact that they are dogs. Dogs do what dogs do.
This is why it absolutely matters that we understand the emotional underpinnings of our dog’s behaviour, and we understand the limitations that restrict capacity for change.
Towards the future
None of this is to say that we can’t make life easier for our dogs. There is a lot that we can do, and many formerly-reactive dogs go on to learn to tolerate other dogs or people. But if nothing changes, nothing changes. In fact, if nothing changes, most of the time, things will worsen.
That change will involve expanding our own understanding of dogs in general and the dog in front of us. It can sometimes involve pharmaceutical support. It may involve supplements, dietary changes, lifestyle changes and management. Our training can also make a difference too.
If you are wondering if your dog is struggling with frustration in their life, you can download this booklet to help you understand them better. It’s completely free!
This booklet also fits into the Lighten Up Understanding Reactivity materials, giving you more insight into lunging and barking in general. You can download your free copy of Understanding Reactivity here
Once you’ve got a clearer understanding, you may find the Lighten Up course for frustrated greeters useful. You can find details of that here.