Friday, March 14, 2014

What Does 'Reactive' Mean?

I often describe Brisbane as reactive, but not everyone knows exactly what that word connotes. Dog trainers and behaviorists use it to describe dogs that react to certain triggers in a big, explosive, over-the-top sort of fashion. Brisbane has many triggers, he is leash-reactive, mailman-reactive, and tends to respond to surprises with an outburst.

Is reactivity aggression?

It can certainly look aggressive, but a reactive dog is more likely stressed to their breaking point. A reaction usually looks like an explosion of barking, growling, and snarling. This is a defensive reaction, prompted by fear.

Some reactive dogs are also simply so excited they cannot control themselves. A non-reactive dog might see a squirrel and stiffen, whine, and stare. Brisbane sees a squirrel and lunges while scream-barking hysterically.

How does a dog become reactive?

Reactivity can be triggered by a bad experience. Brisbane has been attacked by loose dogs while he was leashed, which tends to make a dog feel extremely vulnerable. When all parties are off-leash he can greet other dogs politely, but when he is leashed that vulnerability often turns into a fear reaction as another dog approaches.

Reactivity can be learned. Ru didn't arrive reactive, but many walks with Brisbane have taught him that exciting things should trigger lunging and barking. Separate walks and lots of training have helped mitigate this response, but Ru has also had plenty of unpleasant experiences with loose dogs.

Reactivity can also be innate. Brisbane is an intense dog, and even as a baby puppy he responded to some new things by barking and lunging. The first time he saw a jogger he lost his mind, and it took a couple of years of desensitization and operant conditioning for him to lose that over-the-top excitement over seeing someone run. This is one of the issues that forced me to rapidly learn new training skills in order to handle my adorable puppy.

Can reactivity be fixed?

A reactive dog can benefit from a lot of different training tactics. Operant conditioning, teaching them to associate the trigger (joggers) with something positive (food) can help them feel less stressed in the presence of that trigger. Leslie McDevitt's book Control Unleashed has a game called Look at That! which uses this technique along with a clicker. 

Reactive dogs can also benefit from anything that helps lower their general anxiety level. Brisbane has benefited greatly from massage, and from Dr. Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol. Patricia McConnell once said that one of the most reassuring things she has done for her dogs has been to put herself between them and their triggers. When a loose dog approaches us, I try to keep myself between the strange dog and Brisbane so he doesn't feel like he needs to deal with this problem himself.

Staying positive is one of the best ways to help a reactive dog. They respond to handler stress, and if I am worried about a situation I know Brisbane will worry too. If I respond to his outbursts angrily, he will have one more reason to stress about that particular trigger. "That dog might come over here and bite me, and Mom also gets mad when I'm afraid of dogs..." When he was younger, Brisbane would often react strongly to new and different things, like those huge inflatable holiday decorations on people's lawns. I helped him work through his fear of the unknown by ignoring his growling and barking, and acting like those decorations were the most awesome thing ever. "Wow, look at that! Oh boy, those are so neat! Let's go take a look!"

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