Reactivity is Not a Choice!
Updated: Mar 1
“My dog is so naughty. Every time he sees a dog, he barks and lunges. It's so embarrassing!”
“He knows he's being naughty, but he does it anyway.” “When I tell him off, I can see his guilt but it doesn't stop him from doing it again.”
Have you said or felt something similar? Reactivity is one of the most common behavioural issues dog owners face and it can be embarrassing and emotionally draining. If you truly want to address this behaviour the very first step is your mindset and understanding of why your dog behaves the way he does. No matter what your dog is reactive to, the most important point you should take away with you is, your dog's reactivity is not a choice. He/she is not choosing to be reactive. How do we know this?
Imagine your worst fear. Picture it in your mind. For some it may be clowns or spiders or for others it may be heights or the dark. For some people, seeing these things in their environment can be terrifying. I'm ashamed to say I'm petrified of spiders and no amount of my husband shaking his head and telling me how small and harmless the spider is, is going to alleviate that fear. I don't choose to shriek and run for the hills when I see one crawling on me, it just happens.
Now when you are in the presence of something you truly fear, can you think clearly? Can you learn anything in that moment? No of course not! All you can think about is getting away from whatever is scaring you. Usually we can evade the circus, run away from spiders, avoid heights and switch a light on to escape our fear, but now imagine you are chained to the ground and can’t leave. Now how do you feel? Trapped? Powerless? Helpless? Stressed?
Now imagine you are exposed to this situation on a day to day basis for years on end. How do you think that would affect you and your emotional welfare? How would you feel if someone told you to pull yourself together and not be scared every time you were in the situation? Would you just suddenly recover and calmly sit there? No you would be desperate for their help and understanding.
This may all sound very dramatic, but this is what we are putting our dogs through on a daily basis. They likely see others dogs (I'm using dogs for this post but the stimuli could be anything your dog fears, such as traffic, joggers, bikes etc) every day on their walks and they are chained to our side with no escape. It's just like us being exposed to our worst fear on a daily basis with no escape.
Now, way before the lunging and barking at other dogs even started, our dog more than likely gave signs and body signals to communicate his fear or discomfort, however, these signals can be so subtle to the untrained eye, it's likely we missed them.
Going back to my illustration, please now imagine you are desperately trying to ask for help but no one is listening. You are trying to remain calm and communicate in the only way you know how, but people are just staring at you and repeatedly shouting your name. You may begin shouting or screaming in a final desperate attempt to be heard, but you still receive no help. How would you feel? Confused? Ignored? Desperate?
You certainly wouldn't trust that person to help you, particularly if they didn't help you every time you were in this situation. Naturally, you would learn that you couldn't rely on anyone but yourself and that you need to fight to get yourself out of that situation.
Now, obviously in this analogy you are feeling the very worst kind of fear. The kind that makes you feel that your very survival is in jeopardy. It may surprise you, but this is exactly how your dog is feeling every time he displays reactivity. He has tried to calmly communicate his fear in the only way he knows how but because this has inadvertently been ignored, he feels he must protect himself because he truly feels his very life is in danger!
So he tries growling, barking and lunging to make himself look as scary as possible. Then he sees the dog leave the environment and suddenly a neural pathway begins to form. He tries the behaviour on another occasion and low and behold, the dog moves away again. That neural pathway is strengthened. In reality, the dog owner probably assumed your dog was aggressive and moved their dog away, but to your dog, his barking and lunging made the scary dog go away.
Therefore, the reactive behaviour is positively reinforced because it brings about a desirable outcome and now that neural pathway is strong, so the behaviour is used on a regular basis. Dogs only ever use behaviour that works. When a dog uses a certain behaviour that gets positive results, a neural pathway is created and then strengthened the more the behaviour is used, until it just becomes a default response. Thus, the more the reactive behaviour is practiced, the more ingrained the behaviour becomes.
So, our dog is not being disobedient or naughty when he is reactive and no amount of shouting or pulling on the lead will address this behaviour. So many changes occur in your dog's body when the fear response is activated, including the stimulation of the amygdala in your dog's brain. This is located in the limbic system, also known as the emotional centre of the brain.
When your dog feels fear, anxiety or stress, the amygdala is stimulated and this actually inhibits the learning part of your dog's brain. This means that once your dog starts barking and lunging, he cannot think rationally or learn anything. This is why he doesn't respond to learned cues or even his favourite treats. He becomes impossible to reach and the only thing you can do is flee the situation as quickly as possible.
Therefore, we have to intervene before our dog's behaviour reaches the point of no return and the learning opportunity is lost. You have already taken the first step by changing your mindset on the reasons behind your dog's behaviour. Now you need to show your dog that you understand and can be trusted to protect him by giving him choices and providing comfort. (Check out one of my articles Can You Reinforce Your Dog’s Fear? - Woofbuzz)
I work with reactive dogs on a regular basis and it's a particular passion of mine. I can help you inculcate coping strategies that will help you to build your dog's resilience, through one to one training sessions and one to one dog walks. These coping strategies help your dog to trust you and to gradually replace the reactive behaviour with a more positive response through desensitisation, counter-conditioning and positive reinforcement. All training is reward-based and no punitive methods or aversives are ever used in my training.
If you are eager to help your reactive dog, please don't hesitate to contact me to arrange a consultation. This can be done on Google meet or zoom or in person once lock down is over. I provide one to one help and advice, not just during the training sessions, but also between sessions, by phone, email, text or video chat, to ensure that you have all the support you need.
Remember, reactivity isn't a choice, but you can choose to address it.