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As owners we are often mortified when our dogs shows reactivity. We shutter from the discomfort of drawing attention to us and try to escape the judgemental looks we feel other people around us are giving us. We just want our dogs to stop reacting.
What is reactivity?
Reactivity is a normal behaviour, both for humans and for dogs. We all react to our environment. If you get scared or angry in a situation, you react, if you get surprised or happy in a situation, you react. Both dogs and humans have different ways of reacting – some yell when they get scared, some shriek when they get excited. Some try to escape uncomfortable situations while others go fist first into them and then some just try to joke their way out of it.
Reacting to the environment is normal, and just as humans, dogs react to their environment as well. Dogs react to the different stimuli that is presented to them and base their reaction on how they feel in a specific situation or around a certain stimulus.
Aggression is a reaction.
Often reactivity and aggression are seen as two words covering the same thing, but that is not the case. Aggression is a negative reaction to the environment. When we say a dog reacts it does not have a negative or positive value, it is not until we start describing how our dog reacts that we can say whether the reaction is negative or positive, aggressive or happy. This also means that a dog can show aggressive behaviour, but you cannot label a dog aggressive.
Behind every behaviour lies an emotion.
Most often our dog’s continuous reactivity stems from an underlying fear or insecurity in a specific environment or towards a stimulus. This insecurity or fear could have started from a scare or trauma that the dog might have experienced and that has made the dog draw the conclusion that this thing needs to stay away from me and the only way to make that happen is if I bark or lunch to create the distance that I need to feel safe again.
Fear is not rational – not in humans and not in our dogs. It is not something we can simply reason our way out of (just think of how reasonable you are when you get scared!). What our dogs’ practice when they react is a learned fear – A situation has made me feel scared, but when I barked/growled/lunched the thing that made me feel insecure or fearful went away, hence if I bark bark/growl/lunch the thing that makes me scared or insecure will go away. This conclusion is then made every time your dog meets that stimulus that makes them feel unsafe and they will repeat the behaviour because it works – it makes the stimulus they are afraid of go away!
Train the emotion, NOT the behaviour
When working with reactivity we are not just trying to fix the behaviours the dog is showing us, we are trying to help the dog cope with underlying emotion causing the dog to react. By simply fixing the barking and lunging we are not helping our dogs work on the underlying problem, which is the sense of being afraid. Being afraid and staying alert to your environment all the time creates high levels of stress in our dogs which affects them both mentally and physically and ultimately increases the degree of the problem behaviour (Read more about stress in dogs in this blog).
This is why we must work from a perspective of helping our dogs work on their underlying emotions and not just fix the surface. We need to help our dogs unlearn the behaviour and replace it with another behaviour that causes less stress both in your dog and in you. We do that by teaching them better coping mechanisms, boosting their confidence, and creating an environment that sets them up for success.
There are no quick fixes to your dog’s reactivity. Working with reactivity will take commitment, engagement, and patience.