An Exaggerated Reaction to Stimuli
A reactive dog is one who develops a great anxiety when he is exposed to stimuli.
We call them “reactive” although all dogs should respond to stimuli, so the best term applied in this case is that of “over-reactive”.
Reactivity is a modifiable condition – when no genetic inheritance is involved – and consequently we can deal with it.
In case of a genetic predisposition we simply try to offer a better, less stressful life, to our pets!
Dogs can be reactive to other dogs, people, objects, other animals, noises, movements or any combination of the above.
Some are selectively reactive, responding only to certain things (men with hats, umbrellas or uniforms, big black dogs, big motos, roller skaters, kids, cars etc.) while others seem to react to almost everything.
This over-reaction can manifest itself with all the symptoms of an agonistic behaviour.
Hyper-excitability, barking, moaning, whining, chewing, panting, jumping, snapping, biting, lunging, shedding, hyper-vigilance, difficulty in responding to well-known cues, or to stay calm and any combination of the above.
Dealing with the modification of emotional reactions takes time, because we are literally working on creating new neural connections-pathways.
Unfortunately we have to accept that some dogs are genetically predisposed or genetically deficient, thus condemned to remain over-reactive for the rest of their lives.
Stay Away From Aversive Training Methods
Aversive, fear-induced, punitive “training”, acts like a boomerang and can backfire in the future.
With the use of strong punishments, physical force, electric collars, “alpha roll”, intimidations, etc. in just a few repetitions, the dog can go from reactive to prostrate, appearing calm and passive even in the presence of the trigger … in reality he is helpless and he has just learned that he has no right to react to a stressor!
You therefore ask him to accept being threatened, frightened and stressed, when the situation requires it … if not, he will be punished!
Treating stress and anxiety with coercive methods, can only reinforce the association between the scared dog and the unpleasant experience.
During an inappropriate education, with frequent restrictions, reprimands, mental or physical cruelty, we risk evoking to the dog a “learned aggression” (which can manifest even towards his owner), or a “learned helplessness” and in the worst case, both at the same time.
Dogs accumulate frustration, stress or fear, that are restricted during training, but for how long? it may also depend on the breed, for example a Labrador has a higher patience threshold than a German Shepherd or a Jack Russel.
Dog trainers still to this day use the shock collar which is banned by the Human Association of the US, England, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Germany and many parts of Australia.
The Kennel Club of the United Kingdom, the Dog’s Trust, the SSPCA (Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the Pet Professional Guild and many other organizations prohibit and abhor its use. This type of “education” is unethical, unfair and inhuman.
“The punishment is like a nuclear bomb, if the explosion does not get you, the residues will certainly do”.
Steve White – Police Dog Trainer
If someone tells you that the electric collars are necessary training tools, or that they do not hurt or scare the dog, ask them what is their highest official level of education, or their qualification in the science of canine behaviour.
You can be sure, that most will answer you based on their personal experience…!!!
To use shock as an effective training method, you will need:
1. A thorough understanding of canine behaviour.
2. A thorough understanding of learning theory.
3. Impeccable timing.
And if you have those three, you do not need an electric collar !!!
Dr. Ian Dunbar
In fact, the best way to deal with reactivity, is proactivity!
Stay more vigilant than your dog and observe the environment – before he does, consequently you will be one step ahead.
Knowing in to what he will be exposed, is crucial in order to prevent the usual “accidents”, when facing a trigger.
What we want to do is, replace the over-reactive behaviour, with a calmer one, which will finally become his default behaviour.
Here are some techniques for you to practise when you walk with a reactive dog.
1. Remove your dog quickly from something unexpected – turn around, change path, use your body as a shield
2. Distract him by being fun and improvise during walks, to keep the dog focus more on you and less on the “threats”
3. Reduce your dog’s overall arousal level – before even you walk out the door
4. Work on your own stress – practice what to do and be less anxious with your dog, while in public
5. Use equipment that can help keep your dog from pulling, like an *easy-walk harness (never use a choke, prong or electronic collars)
6. Change the walk areas, routine will allow him to anticipate the stressors
* Easy-walk harness, will not teach your dog to walk by your side, you should use it when the dog already knows to “heel”, otherwise it will have no positive impact on his walking with another type of leash.
Allow Your Dog to Rest
Homeostasis is a condition of balance, necessary for the optimal functioning of the organism, which consists of relaxation and sleep.
Following a stressful event, the dog needs 24 to 72 hours of emotional rest, hence the stress hormones cease to secrete.
Sometimes longer, from 48 hours to 6 days, depending on the intensity of the reaction.
Although adrenaline may dissipate fast after the stressful event (within 15-20 minutes), the cortisol – secreted after the adrenaline – can take from 48 hours to 6 days.
Dog’s that are constantly exposed to stressors, may never return to a normal baseline state.
“For these dogs that have been constantly exposed, it can take 4 to 6 weeks of trigger avoidance, to allow homeostatic balance to be restored.”
Mc Devitt 2007
That being said, we must offer him an environment without threatening triggers, all the while, something that is not necessarily achievable.
Therefore, we must understand that our dog will never live 100% without stress or frustration.
For all the above reasons, it is imperative not to cause stress, avoiding any kind of negative emotions during his upbringing and respecting him, as the vulnerable and emotional being he is.
Behaviour Modification Stages
When a dog learns, whatever that is, it eventually becomes a skill or a habit.
In the case of a dog who over-reacts to a scary trigger, here is how we proceed:
The purpose of these three steps is to finalise the modification of his behaviour, so that he can adopt the new calm reaction, as the default one.
For optimal and lasting results, we must help the dog feel safe by avoiding to expose him in threatening triggers.
Keep him safe is paramount, hence we build up his confidence and trust.
Once he trusts we can protect him, we work together methodically and patiently.
By observing him at all times, for stress signals, we will learn to respond immediately to his communication attempts.
Consequently we will be more proactive for best controlling his environment, thus putting him in situations he can cope with.
Stress, anxiety and fear play a harmful role in our animals well-being, as they do to our own lives.
“Changing behaviour is not something you do casually, because this behaviour has value to the animal, otherwise it would not do it.”
Dr Susan Friedman