Help For Reactive Dogs
Daniel H. Antolec
What is Dog-Dog Reactivity?
The term “reactive” in the world of dog training and behavior refers to an extreme emotional response, or more precisely an over-reaction by the subject dog upon meeting a neutral dog. This may include heightened alert, intense staring, vocalizations, pulling on leash, lunging, barking and growling or other behaviors which are over-the-top under the circumstances. The distance at which this behavior occurs may be as far as several hundred feet or as near as a few feet away.
The reactive subject dog may be initially eager to close the distance and meet the neutral dog, but then suddenly become a barking and lunging maniac…or may be communicating “Go away! Go away! Go away!” in an attempt to create further distance between the two dogs upon first sight. The reactive dog may be motivated by two distinctly different emotional states: overly eager friendly (affiliative) feelings or unfriendly (agonistic) feelings toward other dogs.
What Causes This?
Are you puzzled by your dog’s behavior? Does your dog calmly greet and play with some dogs, but go utterly bonkers upon merely seeing others? Does it all seem quite unpredictable and abnormal? Are you wondering whether you can even keep living with your pet dog? Have you started avoiding public places and become tense upon seeing another dog in the distance? If so, please read on and find some peace of mind.
There may be many reasons why a particular dog over-reacts in canine social situations. Many dogs were not properly socialized as puppies and so my first consideration is that poor socialization sets up adult dogs to over-react because they were never prepared in their young developmental stages to engage appropriately with other dogs. With those dogs their reactive behavior is fear-based. Another group of dogs are extremely happy to meet new dogs and simply cannot control themselves. They are considered hyper-motivated. Dogs that are restrained cannot use their body language for (calming) communication and frustration can lead to dramatic outbursts.
Specific stimuli may trigger a response in the subject dog and multiple triggers may be present in various settings. This explains why a particular dog may be fine upon meeting some neutral dogs, and loses self-control upon meeting others. There are different stimuli (triggers) present in different environments, thus prompting different responses in an under-socialized subject dog. By contrast, well-socialized dogs were prepared as puppies to deal with all sorts of variable stimuli and so they take things in stride and remain far more stable and predictable in their behavior.
Is This Aggressive Behavior?
Not necessarily. In fact, many dog owners mistakenly identify their dog’s reactivity as aggression. A trainer who is knowledgeable in modern classical and operant conditioning methods can be very helpful as an objective detail-oriented observer, putting the dog’s behavior into proper perspective. When the source of the problem is correctly identified, the solution becomes available. If the source of the problem behavior is incorrectly identified then the “solution” will not work. Here are two examples of a reactive subject dog, and how important it is for a qualified trainer to apply the correct methods.
A subject dog is afraid and displays agonistic behaviors upon meeting neutral dogs. A qualified trainer uses specific methods to help the subject dog develop positive associations with new dogs, thus eliminating the fear. Without fear, the motivation for agonistic behavior is gone. Operant conditioning is also used to teach the subject dog alternative behaviors, rather than continue repeating a pattern of (previously) agonistic responses upon seeing new dogs. The trainer also helps the dog owner learn how to understand and manage the subject dog’s stress and arousal, how to reinforce desirable calm behavior, and how to appropriately interrupt undesirable behavior and redirect the subject dog’s attention away from the neutral dog and back to the owner. With practice, the subject dog learns to enjoy seeing new dogs and relies upon the owner for support and guidance. Dog-friendly methods are easy for dog owners to learn and will not produce aggression in dogs. They are also the most efficient means of training virtually all animal species.
In the same situation, an owner believes the subject dog is being “aggressive” and seeks help from a trainer who uses methods that are sometimes called “traditional” or based in dominance theory. The subject dog’s behavior is then seen as challenging the owner’s dominance or hierarchy, that the behavior is “wrong, defiant or willful” and so the remedy is punishment until the behavior stops. Such a trainer will apply aversive (positive punishment) methods such as harsh scolding, choke collar, pronged collar, shock collar, leash jerking, physical positioning of the dog, grabbing the collar/neck, shaking, pushing the dog onto its back (alpha roll) or striking the subject dog.
Such methods may temporarily inhibit the dog’s behavior, but will not address the underlying cause of the behavior or teach the dog alternative behaviors. Numerous scientific studies have proven that aversive methods tend to cause increased instability in approximately 75% of dogs, and aggression in 25%. Dogs learn by association and they may learn to associate the pain and discomfort of aversive methods with the appearance of neutral dogs, or with the owner, or any other environmental stimuli they are aware of when punishment occurs. These unintended consequences are called “fallout” and do more harm than good. It is also nearly impossible for the average dog owner to apply positive punishment in a constructive manner.
What Methods Really Work?
A standard approach is to use classical conditioning to pair a great reinforcement (given to the subject dog) upon the appearance of the neutral dog. Over time the subject dog learns that the appearance of neutral dogs predicts something wonderful will happen, such as getting a special treat that the subject dog never otherwise receives. Instead of feeling “Oh I just hate it when I see another dog” we instill a feeling of “Gee, I just love it when I see another dog.”
Another useful tool is to apply operant conditioning which is trial-by-error learning. The subject dog is allowed to choose behaviors, but only desirable behaviors are reinforced. This method teaches a subject dog there are rewarding alternate behaviors to the default reactive behaviors of the past. Dogs simply do whatever works for them and so they choose appropriate behaviors that the owner has repeatedly rewarded, while previously practiced (reactive) behaviors go unrewarded and thus fade away.
A systematic process of desensitizing and counter-conditioning triggers takes the drama out of the equation. Specific triggers are identified and then systematically and individually desensitized. To desensitize a dog, each trigger is presented at a great enough distance or in such a minimal exposure of intensity or duration that the subject dog is repeatedly exposed, sub-threshold.
If the dog still responds to known training cues and takes food in the presence of the trigger, then the dog is at sub-threshold. However, if the dog is too aroused by the stimuli so that it no longer responds to known training cues or takes food, then the dog’s threshold has been passed. Exposure is repeated at sub-threshold levels until the appearance of the trigger no longer prompts reactive behavior. Gradually the intensity of the trigger is increased until the dog no longer reacts even at full exposure. As each trigger is desensitized the subject dog is counter-conditioned; it is taught new learned responses to triggers that previously led to reactive behavior. In short, the dog learns how to be calm in the presence of things that previously provoked an exaggerated reaction.
Many animal behaviorists and trainers use variations of the classical and operant conditioning methods described above. Using such methods can quickly and effectively reverse over-reactive behavior.
It is Not Just the Dog!
When a dog owner and their dog are out and about, the dog’s behavior does not occur in a vacuum. How the dog handler behaves directly affects the dog’s behavior. A qualified trainer will coach the dog owner on methods to assess and monitor the dog’s stress and arousal, to be a proactive and supportive dog handler, and to provide guidance to the dog at all times.
An anxiety ridden dog owner who does not understand how or why their dog behaves the way it does will most likely (unwittingly) contribute to the problem, or even compound the problem by using aversive methods. A dog handler can convey stress and anxiety through the leash and dogs are very attentive to the emotional state, tone of voice and body language of their owners. An owner who is nervous or embarrassed by their dog’s behavior may become tense, pull on the leash, prevent their dog from using canine communication, create restraint and frustration, and even provoke aggression. Dogs behave differently with different people, so learning how to work with your dog is important. For greater understanding I suggest these books:
“The Other End of the Leash”, by Patricia McConnell.
“How To Behave So Your Dog Behaves”, by Sophia Yin.
Training Devices Can Help.
Some dogs walk nicely and remain calm with a simple flat collar and leash, but if you are reading this then you probably have a different experience. Here are some humane devices that can reduce reactive behavior.
No-Hands Leash – This device is worn about the hips of the dog handler and has clips for attaching the leash to the waist belt on one end and the dog on the other end. This eliminates the human tendency to pull on the leash, or to be pulled off balance by the dog. Blue Dog Training & Behavior (Madison, WI) sells an excellent device with a lifetime warranty. At her recent seminar, Animal Behaviorist Sarah Kalnajs informed the audience that dog-dog reactivity was reduced approximately 30% by using this device.
Chest Harness – Two excellent products are the SENSEation and the Halti harnesses. They are designed to greatly reduce pulling on leash and are popular with many trainers. The leash attaches to the front of the chest strap and reduces the dog’s leverage.
Head Harness – Products such as Gentle Leader can reduce pulling on leash, but special care must be taken. The dog must be conditioned to wear the head harness or wearing it will create stress and anxiety. Also, the handler must NOT pull on the leash due to the leverage and likelihood of causing serious neck injury, especially to smaller dogs.
Thundershirt – This product was designed by a canine massage therapist and fits snugly like a dog shirt. It has a calming effect on many dogs and can be worn for extended periods of time.
One important and easily overlooked aspect to dog behavior is the health of the animal. If a pet dog has a medical condition, illness or injury then that will affect the dog’s behavior. A complete medical exam by your veterinarian is advised. If chronic pain is an issue for your dog, effective pain control can change your dog’s behavior.
Diet may be another factor influencing dog behavior, especially in those dogs that are more sensitive to grains such as corn. In “Stress, Anxiety and Aggression in Dogs”, author Anders Hallgren explains canine biology and brain function in great detail. She points out that grains are high in tyrosine, which reduces tryptophan, which in turn is necessary for dogs to remain calm. Some dogs are more sensitive to tyrosine and so diets containing corn and other grains can produce reactive behavior. She suggests this is largely an inherited biological response. Hallgren also explains how stress affects dog behavior and so learning how to manage your dog’s stress load is very helpful.
A dog’s behavior is a result of inherited characteristics, learned behaviors, dietary and medical components and is affected directly by the behavior of the dog handler. Appropriate dog training, training devices, dietary and medical management and desensitization and counter-conditioning are all keys to changing behavior. Most problem behaviors are based in fear, and most dogs that are under-socialized will default to fear-based behaviors when stressed. Remember, you are your dog’s best advocate. Take responsibility and be proactive. If your dog is stressed then you should identify the stressor(s) in the environment and either stop the stressors from affecting your dog, or take your dog out of the environment. Don’t put your dog in situations it cannot cope with and then blame your dog for its natural responses to stimuli. Your dog will thank you for it and you will enjoy your public outings once again.