While reactivity seems to be the new buzz word in the canine training world, it is not. I believe that we are talking more about it today, because we are seeing more of it than ever before. This IMHO, has led to a better understanding of what reactivity is, which has been backed by numerous peer reviewed studies, and scientifically proven training, desensitization and counter conditioning techniques.
So when we talk about reactivity relative to dogs what do we mean? Essentially it is when a dog 'over-reacts' to stimuli as a result of a negative/positive* association with that stimuli. Considering that dogs learn through association, that stimuli can in fact be infinite. And that "reactivity" which is based in fear, is varying in degree, and can look different from one dog to another.
My very first dog as an adult was a German Shepherd and Black Lab cross. His name was Bandit and he belonged to my neighbor. Bandit spent a lot of time on his own, off leash running amuck. The first time I met Bandit was when he confronted me in my own yard. Bandit was ‘loaded for bear’ and had me physically cornered in a fenced in area with no place to go. I raised the shovel in my hand, and on a dime he turned and vanished into the woods. Our second meeting was over the dead body of my bunny Nicholas. Eventually I was able to convince Bandit’s owner to surrender him to me at 1.5 years old. And so began one of the most important educational journeys of my life.
In his first 6 months of life Bandit had both his front legs broken, after having been hit by cars on two separate occasions. Can you guess how he felt about cars? He was terrified of them, and when given the opportunity he would chase slow moving vehicles, and bite the tires. But that was the least of Bandit's reactivity issues. He was terrified of men in uniform, men wearing baseball caps and tall unknown men. Basically men. Period. He was terrified by big wheels and bikes in general. He was afraid of children under 4' tall, work boots and his own reflection in the mirror. Bandit was skittish, nervous and anxious. A simple sneeze would catapult him out of a room. It was not a shock when I discovered that he also suffered from separation anxiety. He also had one of the highest prey drives I have ever seen in a dog. In addition to my rabbit, he killed a raccoon, another cat, a ground hog, and several squirrels. Despite his fear of children and men, Bandit lived happily with me, my young son and 6’4” fiancé along with “Big Mike” our cat. Anything outside the realm of this comfort zone however, wasn’t easily accepted. Many of Bandit’s fears I was able to control environmentally, by simply minimizing his exposure to the stimulus and eliminating his opportunities to practice his reactive behavior, which in most cases was an offensive attack that resulted in biting a human. Some people thought I was nuts to keep a dog like Bandit. But here’s the thing, Bandit wasn’t a bad dog. He was simply scared. And that is what a reactive dog experiences, fear. They react to what scares them, and sometimes those reactions are extreme. Sometimes they are defensive and sometimes they are offensive. If you can understand what it would feel like to be forced to confront your greatest fear; then surely one can empathize with a fearful dog.
That first year Bandit and I spent enjoying my time being laid off. Fortunately, Bandit was not afraid of other dogs, so we hiked a lot. Every day I packed us a lunch and we set off for the day to Borderland State Park in Easton, MA. We hiked a new trail each day. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Once we got into distraction free areas, we worked on training. That first year Bandit learned many skills, from learning not to potty in the house to exceptionally long “sit and down stays”, and a host of other fun tricks. All of this work helped to build confidence, courage and bonded Bandit to me.
What Bandit gave to me was one of the greatest educational experiences in my dog training career. I learned canine body language, a whole lot about separation anxiety, but first and foremost I learned that forcing dogs to confront fears before they are ready is foolhardy. I learned that there is a process and that the dog dictates the speed at which that process goes. And I learned that there IS a process, and if not followed mindfully can result in disaster.
Since Bandit, I have personally lived with 7 reactive dogs, all of them large, all of them “power” breed mixes, with a few pure breeds mixed in there. I have lived with as many as four reactive dogs under one roof, at the same time, who were not only dog-to-dog reactive, but serious resource guarders as well. It takes a lot of patience, commitment, hyper-vigilance and environmental management to make it work.
So do you ever “fix” a reactive dog? The short answer is no, you cannot un-ring the bell of reactivity. Whether it was a single isolated experience that makes a dog reactive; a case of neglect or abuse, the absence of socialization or a case of bad genetic wiring; you cannot make them’ like’ what they have grown to fear. You can’t make them ‘love’ it or want to hang out with it. But what you can do is get a dog to a place where they can successfully tolerate what they fear the most. What you can do is work on confidence building skills. You can teach a reactive dog an alternative incompatible behavior, which they can default to when confronted with the scary stimulus. By doing this they are able to replace the unwanted reactive behaviors with more appropriate calm behaviors. You can use counter conditioning and desensitization techniques to lessen how the dog thinks and feels about the stimulus. You can’t fix reactivity, but you can mend the tears.
Working with reactive dogs has been my passion for nearly 20 years. In addition to boat loads of real world experience, I have education in several methodologies to approach these challenges. Working with reactivity is not a [once size fits all dogs] process. Because all dogs are individuals, what works well for one, may not necessarily work for another, especially depending on what the stimulus happens to be. If you have a reactive dog the first piece of advice I can give is to seek out professional help from someone who you have researched thoroughly. Ask to see references from people who have had success in modifying this specific behavior with the trainer you are considering working with. Be sure the individual has education and experience. Stay away from trainers who claim to be “balanced” trainers. These trainers use the word [balance] as a fancy way to dress up what are really punitive training methods, which are guaranteed to make your dog a whole lot worse. Positive reinforcement training techniques, paired with counter conditioning and desensitization techniques are the favored methodology with these dogs.
The second piece of advice I can give is to stop being embarrassed by your dog’s reactivity. Your dog has special needs. You need to protect your dog from the scary things. Which means you need to see it for what it is…it isn’t a reflection on you (unless you are the stimulus).
The third piece of advice would be, to not be deluded into thinking that forcing your dog to confront what they are afraid of and have a “get over it” approach is going to work. This technique is called flooding and it can shut your dog down faster than you can say Jack Robinson.
In closing remember you are your dog’s best defense. Honor his or her uniqueness. Be their voice. Love and protect them. Be patient with your reactive dog. Every. Single. Day. It is the key to success. Celebrate the baby steps and incremental gains that you make together. But most of all love your reactive dog for who they are, embrace their peccadilloes and realize that they need not be a perfect fit for the rest of the world, only a perfect fit for you in your world, which is their world.
*Foot Note: It is also true that dogs can over react to things they like, for instance people. They may become over stimulated, jumpy and bouncy, this too is a type of reactivity, but it is much easier to redirect than fear.
About the Author
About the author
Lee Desmarais is a Karen Pryor Academy Professional Dog Training graduate who has over 20 years’ experience dog training. Lee uses only positive based training approaches, that are scientifically proven techniques. Lee adheres to the Hierarchy of Dog Needs principles and believes that the use of fear, intimidation or coercion is not necessary if you have good training skills.
Photo credit to Bandit who to this day, still owns my heart.