Let me start by saying that we don't "fix" reactivity, and that was more of a catchy title for SEO purposes. We don't fix reactivity, but rather learn to manage it and teach our dogs how to cope with their frustration or manage and reduce their anxiety and fears.
As a reward-based dog guardian, it is important to understand and address a common issue that many dog parents like myself and Loki face: reactivity. Reactivity is a term used to describe a dog's overreaction to a stimulus or trigger, often resulting in excessive barking, lunging, or other 'aggressive' or what we call 'repulsion' behaviours.
This behaviour can often be concerning and potentially dangerous for both the dog and the people around them. In this blog post, we'll explore what reactivity is, what causes it, and how we can work with reactive dogs to improve their behaviour.
What is Reactivity?
Reactivity in dogs is a behavioural response to a perceived threat, whether real or imagined. This response can manifest in a variety of ways, including barking, growling, lunging, airsnapping or when escalated even biting. Dogs may react to a range of stimuli, including other dogs, people, cars, bicycles, or even everyday objects like trash cans or umbrellas. It's important to note that reactivity is not the same as aggression, although the behaviour may 'appear' aggressive.
What Causes Reactivity?
Reactivity can stem from a variety of factors, including genetics, the stress of the mother, pain or discomfort, negative experiences (or perceived negative experiences), negative early life experiences, and lack of socialization. Dogs who were not properly socialized as puppies may become reactive when encountering new people or situations.
Additionally, dogs who have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect may exhibit reactive behaviour as a result of their past experiences. Genetics can also play a role in a dog's predisposition to reactive behaviour.
How Can We Address Reactivity?
It's important that we approach reactivity with empathy and patience. Reactive behaviour can be challenging to address, and it's important to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are a few strategies that we can use to work with reactive dogs:
Counterconditioning: Counterconditioning involves pairing the trigger that causes the reactive behavior with something positive, like treats or praise. Over time, this can help the dog associate the trigger with positive experiences, reducing their reactive behaviour.
Desensitisation: Desensitisation involves gradually exposing the dog to the trigger in a controlled environment, starting at a distance and slowly decreasing the distance as the dog becomes more comfortable. This can help the dog become less reactive to the trigger over time.
Management: In some cases, management may be necessary to prevent reactive behaviour. This could involve keeping the dog on a leash or using a muzzle in certain situations.
Training: Basic training can also help address reactive behaviour. Teaching the dog basic commands like "hand touches" or "U-Turns" can help redirect their focus away from the trigger and onto their guardian.
Reactivity is a common issue that many dog guardians face, but it's important to remember that it can be addressed with patience and empathy. Our goal is to help dogs and their owners build a positive relationship based on trust and safety. By using strategies like counterconditioning, desensitisation, management, and reward-based training, we can work with reactive dogs to improve their behaviour and quality of life.