Dog reactivity and what it really means!

These are questions I hear frequently when it comes to dog reactivity so I thought I would take some time to give you a quick overview.

  • What is it?
  • What does it look like?
  • What does it mean?
  • Did I do something wrong?
  • What can I do?
  • Will it ever get better?

These are questions I hear frequently when it comes to dog reactivity so I thought I would take some time to give you a quick overview. This is my no means comprehensive, rather it’s a starting point on your journey to help your dog and build a better relationship with them.

When we talk abut reactivity it is typically something we feel or believe is inappropriate for the situation BUT all dogs are reactive, just as we are. A dog sees a squirrel and the reaction may be to watch it, ignore it, chase it or bark. They are all reactions, we simply prefer some of them more than others.

What is it?

Simply put ‘dog reactivity’ in this context is when a dog makes a less than appropriate choice in day to day situations.

Many times people would define these as ‘over the top’ or more scientifically as over threshold reactions. Typically the owner or other humans present perceive that the reaction is extreme or unwarranted in a given scenario.

What does it look like?

The most common behaviors listed are the ones most obvious to us such barking, growling, biting, lunging, pulling on leash, running away and jumping up. However cowering, lowering head, turning away, trying to hide, panting, sniffing and tail tucking can also be indicators your dog is not coping in a given situation.

What does it mean?

I think the simplest way to think of this is that your dog is not in a CALM state. They maybe over excited, frustrated, anxious or fearful. In that state they are unable to make a good choice and do not have the coping mechanisms needed to deal with the given situation. Check out the photo for more inforamtion.

What causes it?

An overflowing stress bucket or being over threshold. There are many things that can cause a dogs stress bucket to overflow. Tiredness, pain, anxiety, excitement, fear and frustration can all add to your dogs stress bucket.

These dogs may also be motion and noise sensitive and be hyper vigilant so they never have any relaxation or rest time.

A dog that shows sudden reactivity may have an underlying medical condition causing pain and discomfort.

Did I do something wrong?

Owners of reactive dogs usually feel guilty because they are told they must have done something to cause it. However there are many causes including a genetic and epigenetic component to dog reactivity.

Just like in people, some dogs perceive threats that others may not simply because they tend to pessimism. Then other dogs are more aware of their surroundings and that level of awareness can increase the likelihood of reactivity.

Now we all know that dogs get their genes from both their mothers and their fathers but there is now research to show that ‘learned experiences can be passed on as well. These do not change a dogs DNA but they do alter how that code is read within the body so that learned behaviors such as fear can be passed on. Studies on rats showed learned fear based responses in male rats were passed on to their offspring and their offspring.

In addition to all of the above recent research has shown that the stress the mother experiences before a pup is born can have an impact on them as well as the care they are given by the mother in the early weeks of life and the environment they are in at that time.

There’s so much that can impact your dogs likelihood to react before you ever bring them home. Feeling guilty for a behavior they exhibit is not good for you, it’s not productive, so instead let’s focus on how you can help your dog going forward.

Take the border collie as an example. It was bred to herd sheep and be alert to dangers as well as noticing differences in the sheep/cattle (think helping the farmer to split an injured animal from the flock/herd to be treated) and now when you put that dog into an urban home it could well be more prone to chase bikes, cars, herd children, nip ankles, bark at the slightest sound or notice the tiniest changes in the home. That could make day to day living a pretty stimulating and stressful environment for them and cause an increased likelihood in reactivity events.

Or take the Labrador: typically seen as a great family dog but initially bred a bird dog/gun dog. Using their nose, retrieving and consequently holding things in their mouth may be go to behaviors for them. Suddenly you see why they may hold objects, parade with them and even not want to give them up. Holding and parading with something can be so rewarding for them but not so great if they decide that your cushions are their favorite go to when excited.

Then you also consider the learned experiences of both parents, grandparents, the stress the bitch experienced whilst pregnant and the experiences of the pup or dog (if you’re adopting an older dog) before you met it. Suddenly you see you aren’t getting your puppy with a clean slate: there are already so many contributing factors that may increase the likelihood of having a reactive dog that are outside your control.

We could spend a lifetime wondering why a dog does something: instead understanding that it’s a consequence of genetics, epigenetics and environmental factors that may include you allows us to move forward and put our energies and time into listening and helping your dog with their struggles.

What can I do?

There is so much information available today on ways to help reactive dogs manage better in day to day life and I’ll cover them shortly but there’s a few other things to consider as well as training.

Management is key so that your dog isn’t repeatedly put into situations that they can’t cope with.

If you’re terrified of spiders being put in a room full of spiders every day is not going to make you feel better.

This technique is called Flooding and it may teach your dog learned helplessness because no matter what they do the bad thing still happens. It doesn’t mean they’re comfortable in the situation: just that they have given up trying to actively express their fear. To someone looking on they may appear ‘better’ as the active coping mechanism has been replaced by a ‘passive’ coping mechanism but they are still experiencing the same fear. Unfortunately they may have also lost trust in the person that did this to them and that negatively impacts your relationship. So you can see why this is definitely not something you want to do with your dog.

There may also be a requirement of reassessing the goals and aspirations you had. Some dogs will never truly feel comfortable being the center of attention, meeting numerous new people and visiting new locations so if you wanted to take your dog out to dog friendly bars and restaurants every weekend you may need to re think that. You may have envisioned heading to the park with all your friends and their dogs, but if your dog is anxious around other dogs that may never be an enjoyable experience for them.

Will it ever get better?

Yes it can get better! There are so many games that can help change your dogs emotional responses and consequently their behavior. Games based training utilizes the

power of play to increase learning. Games can be tailored for individual dogs and look at the specific areas that need worked on. This may mean building optimism and confidence, increasing tolerance of frustration, building disengagement from the environment and engagement with you, increasing calmness and ultimately providing your dog with the tools to make better choices.

I hope this may have given you some insight into why your dog reacts in a certain way or a better understanding of what a friend with a reactive dog maybe going through.

Owning a reactive dog can be a very lonely and stressful place. Understanding their needs may include space is crucial so that no matter how friendly your dog is or how great you usually are with dogs they may never feel comfortable meeting you on a walk.

Having a reactive dog is hard work there’s no denying that but with professional help, a more understanding community and you as your dog's advocate you can make a difference.