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  • Holly Leake

Empathising with Your Reactive Dog

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

What is empathy? Some would say it is the ability to sense others emotions or to imagine what someone is thinking or feeling. One of my favourite definitions is feeling someone else’s pain in your heart. Empathy has deep origins in our brains and body in our evolutionary past, in fact elementary forms of empathy have been observed in dogs.

Sadly, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that a lot of people in the world lack this quality. Although feeling empathy doesn’t necessarily mean that we are motivated to actually help someone, it is a necessary first step in acting compassionately.

Thinking about our dogs, are we empathetic towards them? If they have fears and worries, do they not need empathy? For many, empathy conjures up a picture of sitting by an upset person, listening intently and providing some form of comfort. This may involve holding their hand or putting your arm around them. We may offer some words of consolation or encouragement to provide support. At the very least, it can just be handing them a tissue and offering to make them a cup of tea.

All of us will need empathy at some time in our life and it’s a necessary quality in creating and maintaining relationships. Our dogs are no different, as they are emotional and sentient beings, that also have fears and anxieties. So how can we show them empathy?

For many dogs, reactivity is caused by fear or anxiety. Lack of socialisation, too much 'socialisation', over-arousal, generalised anxiety or a really bad experience with the trigger, is often the reason behind the fear developing, particularly in regards to other dogs. It only takes one bad experience to result in a dog that barks and lunges the moment he spots a dog. The important thing to remember is that your dog perceives that other dog as a threat and so we must address the issue as such, whether or not we believe it’s really a threat.

We may have a problem that feels overwhelming and so we would want a friend to empathise with us by acknowledging that it is a difficult problem. If the friend was to undermine us and say we are over reacting, would we feel comforted? Definitely not and we probably wouldn’t confide in that person again.

Therefore, we should never think our dog is being silly, naughty or just over reacting. We should acknowledge that their fear is overwhelming and difficult for them personally. If we truly empathise with our dog and dwell on how they must be feeling, our instincts should kick in and we will naturally want to provide comfort. How can we do that? Surely fussing my dog after he is reactive will reinforce the behaviour right? ( Check out my article on this subject Can You Reinforce Your Dog’s Fear? - Woofbuzz)

Well this is a misconception, as now we know that only behaviour can be reinforced, not emotion. If fear is driving their reactive behaviour, then providing comfort cannot reinforce that fear. I’m not saying after your dog barks you should say “good boy George here have lots of treats” especially if “good boy” is a word you often use to mark a positive behaviour. Rather, if we recognise that our dog is afraid of that off lead dog heading towards us, we will do everything in our power to prevent our dog needing to react at all, thereby taking compassionate action. How can we do that?

First thing we need to do is change our mindset and response by considering our dogs feelings. We can’t keep exposing our dog to other dogs (or whatever they fear) hoping that he will eventually get used to dogs and calm down. In fact, doing that will only overwhelm your dog and add to the growing list of negative experiences. Even if we are training our dog, we can’t just cross our fingers and hope this will be the time he doesn’t react because we then set him up to fail.

We must examine how our dog is feeling each day, as dogs have good days and bad days just like us humans.Their mood can influence how much they can cope with that particular day. Their emotional state can change quickly if they face several stressors throughout the day and this called trigger stacking.

To illustrate, please imagine you are on your way to work. Its pouring down with rain, so you grab your umbrella. As you are walking, a huge gust of wind comes and breaks the umbrella. You mutter to yourself but wear a smile and carry on, throwing the umbrella in a nearby bin. You get on the bus only for it to break down 10 minutes into the journey. You begin to feel slightly stressed, as you are late for work and you are soaking wet. You decide to walk the rest of the way and try to ignore the blisters forming on your feet, but before you reach the building a bird poos in your hair.

You rush to the office toilets to try and clean yourself up. You are much more stressed now, realising how late you are for work but you rush to your desk to get started. As you rush to sit down, you realise you really need a hot drink now, so you go to make yourself a cuppa in the staff room kitchen. You are so on edge, you accidently drop the mug full of coffee all over the carpet, smashing the mug in the process. You then fall into a heap on the floor crying and possibly swearing.

Ever had a day like that, where everything goes wrong? This is an example of trigger stacking. Many of us wouldn’t really cry over a spilt drink or broken cup but add this to a list of stressors and we can break down. To others, we may seem like we are totally overreacting but they didn’t see all the other incidences did they? We may think about the straw that broke the camel’s back scenario. The straw wasn’t so heavy it caused the break, it was everything that came before. It’s accumulative.

Trigger stacking has the same impact on dogs but we may miss the initial stressors and feel their behaviour is uncalled for or over the top. Your dog may usually cope with a dog walking past at 20 feet, but if an off-lead dog has run up to them hours beforehand and they also had to pass the neighbour’s dog barking at the gate, then their resilience may temporarily reduce and they will go over their threshold. Literally picture each small encounter as an extra brick to a stack and each added brick causes the stack to wobble. The more stressful encounters they have, the more likely they are to react when just the smallest thing happens. Therefore, we must consider how our dog is feeling that day and whether or not there have been any stressors that could reduce their resilience on this particular walk.

If we feel our dog has had other stressors today how does that affect our approach? Well rather than going on a narrow path where we are likely to get trapped, we may choose an open field so there are plenty of options to change directions if another dog appears. We may avoid certain locations where bad experiences have occurred to avoid starting the trigger stacking. We may also want to use higher value treats than usual to keep our dog focussed on us. These are all simple ways of empathising with how our dog is currently feeling.

If we are faced with walking past a dog and there is no wait out, rather than crossing our fingers and praying, we should go back the way we came until we can find somewhere to stand out of sight. Yes it is a pain going backwards but it is worth it to ensure the dog doesn’t practice reactive behaviour. Try to prepare for the eventuality that you may need to walk in different directions, by setting aside plenty of time for walks. If you are going to have to rush the walk, then you will be feeling slightly stressed and your focus won’t be on your dog’s emotions. You may also be tempted to force your dog to get too close to triggers in order to get home for a certain time, thus its vital to assign enough time for each walk, in order to empathise with your dog’s fears.

There is also no shame in having a rest day from walks. Although I feel like I can hear your gasps of shock as I write this, there really is nothing wrong with skipping a day if you think your dog is feeling extra sensitive or stressed. Instead of the physical exercise, provide mental stimulation and exercise their mind. There is a wealth of cues you can teach as well as games and scent activities that can be done in the home or garden. Snuffle mats and canine puzzles are great ways to calm your dog down too. Tomorrow your dog may feel more confident again and you can go for your walk knowing you are both in a better frame of mind.

By doing this, we ensure we are empathetic, by acknowledging our dog’s emotions and preventing them being placed in a situation that they may not be able to cope with today.

What if it’s too late and our dog reacts on his walk, despite our efforts? Please don’t feel angry or despondent as your dog will sense this and associate it with the trigger. Remember, we discussed on the previous post that dogs don’t choose to be reactive. So, just calmly move your dog away as quickly as you can, until they have a safe distance. Don’t ruminate on how bad the experience was or use it as a reason to give up as your dog will feel your negativity and although you may not realise it dogs can become pessimistic. Just consider what went wrong and learn from it so you are prepared for the next encounter. Even dog trainers have days where things go wrong but they just learn from it and move forward.

Once you are at a safe distance, sit down with your dog and speak consolingly to them as you fuss them to calm them down. Once they have had a breather, do some scatter feeding to engage their senses and calm them down. This comfort won’t reinforce their fear but ignoring them or shouting at them will certainly contribute to it, as they won’t learn anything. Imagine after having that terrible day that has led to you breaking down in tears on the kitchen floor, one of the staff members shouts at you and tells you “to pull yourself together.” How would you feel? Could you really concentrate on your work? In comparison, how would you feel if a staff member held out a hand to pull you up and boiled the kettle whilst cleaning the mess up? Your recovery would be very dependent on the empathy you receive.

Comforting your dog at a safe distance from the trigger will provide them with the reassurance they need and will ground them. Even if we are frustrated with the behaviour, we must remember that our dog perceives that dog as a threat to his survival, which when you think about it is a lot worse than some of our own worries.

Dogs are intelligent creatures but they rely on us humans for love, affection, reassurance, praise and safety and reactive dogs need this just as much as other dogs, if not more so!

So, please ask yourself “Do I want to be the one they turn to when they are afraid?”

If the answer is yes, then it is your prerogative to make yourself someone your dog can trust. You can accomplish this by showing empathy when they need it most, as this will move you to take compassionate action. Remember, we can’t reinforce fear but we do have the power to reduce it.

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