Reactivity in Dogs: What To do and What Not To do

Luis Dogalyo
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In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about reactivity in dogs, generally used to refer to canine behavioral problems related to negative emotions such as aggression, fear, or frustration. However, ethologists and specialists in animal behavior point out that this association is not correct, since in reality, reactivity can be defined as any situation in which the animal, before a stimulus or concrete fact, behaves in a purely emotional way, and when this happens, moreover, not occasionally but on most occasions.

How do I stop my dog being reactive to other dogs

Can it be said that a dog is reactive if it experiences aggression and manifests it in its behavior occasionally in the presence of another dog? The answer would be no. However, if most of the time that it experiences this emotion (or any other), it does purely emotional management and is totally removed from cognition, we can affirm that a dog is reactive. Therefore, the first thing to clarify is that reactivity is not associated with some specific emotions but with the way in which these emotions are managed.

"A reactive dog is one that responds in a disordered manner, exaggerated in intensity and duration to a given stimulus."

"It has been accepted as a fact that a dog is reactive when it shows an inability to manage itself in situations that generate fear or distrust, such as the approach of a stranger or crossing paths with another dog. In response, he barks, growls, lunges, or tries to attack. What we should not overlook is that the same dog may also offer other exaggerated and exempt responses of impulse control in less compromising contexts, for example, when meeting a familiar and friendly person".

In the face of this positive emotion, therefore, the dog may also respond by being unable to respond to simple commands, displaying behavior that is overflowing in intensity and disordered in form. For the specialist, whether the emotion is negative or positive, the same pattern is repeated: the dog's mismanagement of the "activation - intensity - deactivation" process of the emotion. If the dog is reactive, it will express itself beyond what is necessary in at least the first two parts of this process. Reactive Dog Meaning

What is the origin of reactive behavior?

Ethogenes considers that there is no single reason. The causes are very varied: defects in early socialization, fears and phobias, anxiety, inconsistent education or education based on punishment, excessive excitement, desire to greet, play...

For its part, the North American association dedicated to animal protection, the Dumb Friends League, created in 1910, speaks of three recurrent reasons for reactive behavior:

  • Frustration: some dogs, if held by an obstacle such as a leash, can become excited if they see a person, a dog, or an object. Leash tension leads to frustration and increases reactive behavior.
  • Fear: Some dogs become fearful at the sight of a person, dog, or object. This may be the result of a specific experience of terror in the dog's past or due to a lack of socialization. "As he gets closer, this forces him to face the specific stimulus, which causes reactivity."
  • Learned behavior: When some dogs see a stimulus, such as a person, dog, or object, and proceed to approach, but are met with an aversion, such as being pulled by the leash, they may begin to associate the leash pull with people, dogs, or objects.

What to do in the case of reactive behavior?

Always bearing in mind that the best way to deal with reactive behavior is to consult with a specialist to analyze the particular case, ethologists recommend the following guidelines:

- Understand that the dog is threatened by a certain stimulus and wants to move away from it or approach it in a poorly controlled manner. Do not try to subject the dog to the maximum level of stimulation in an attempt to get him used to it.

- Stop subjecting the dog to the stimulus in question for a while. In the meantime, work on relaxed obedience (with positive reinforcement).

- Once this is achieved, begin to introduce the stimulus in question into the walk at a distance that the dog tolerates. When the stimulus is detected, begin to distract the dog (with food treats, play, pleasant words or practicing relaxed obedience signals). When the stimulus has passed, you are at a prudent distance from it and the dog has managed to move away without barking or jumping towards it, it will be time to stop and give a bigger reward (food, caresses, words... ).

- In the case that the motivation is to approach to greet or play, we will do the same work and the final positive reinforcement will be to let him greet.

- Be aware that it is a long work and that while it is being done, the dog should not face the stimulus in all its magnitude.

For its part, the Dumb Friends League recommends these guidelines:

What to do

- Teach the dog some redirection behaviors such as targets and "look at me". Once the dog knows some of these behaviors, you can use them to redirect his attention when he reacts.

- Start training the dog at a distance where he does not react to stimuli, and progressively move closer to the person, dog, or object that is causing him to react. The idea is to advance only when the dog does not react at that distance.

- When the dog is around a specific stimulus and does not react, use rewards and praise to reinforce appropriate and calm behaviors.

- Avoid exposing the dog to situations in which it is more likely to show reactivity.

- If a situation arises in which the dog reacts and the behavior cannot be redirected, gently remove the dog from the situation.

What not to do

- Do not punish. "Punishment will not help and, in fact, will make the problem worse. If the reason for the reactivity is fear, punishment will make your dog more fearful, and this could lead to aggression. Attempting to physically punish or restrain a reactive dog may cause him to escalate his behavior, and the likely result is a bite or a serious attack," they explain.

- Do not pull on the leash at the time of the dog's reaction. "The same goes if you know your dog is about to react: don't pull on the leash before a person or another dog approaches."

Of course, enlisting the help of a canine behavior professional is always the first recommendation for managing reactivity in our dogs.

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