What is Reactivity in Dogs?
Reactivity is a loose term used to describe several behaviours displayed by dogs in response to triggers in their environment (both internal and external). The reaction can vary between freeze, bark, lunge, growl, retreat, and chase, amongst other behaviours. The reaction is driven by whatever emotions the dog is feeling in response to the specific situation – these include, anxiety, fear, frustration, and anger.
What triggers reactivity in dogs?
The main primary triggers for reactivity in dogs are other dogs, humans, vehicles, and other animals. However, a dog is rarely reactive to *all* of the things grouped into any one of these categories. So, it’s more likely to look something like (example):
- high energy dogs who move erratically,
- children running and playing,
- adults in long trench coats,
- large lorries,
- and cows!
However, most reactivity in dogs is also driven by a host of secondary triggers, which have a cumulative effect. This explains why a dog can react to something one day, and not necessarily react again (or with the same intensity) the next day. Secondary triggers include things like:
- physical discomfort,
- lack of sleep,
- our emotional stress,
- visitors to the house,
- fear-inducing noise,
- busy environments,
- in fact,
- anything that causes the dog stress.
So, the primary trigger may not be enough to induce a reaction unless it’s right up close or takes the dog by surprise. But add in the effect of the secondary triggers (minor or moderate stressors) and the cumulative effect is that the stress is sufficient to cause a reaction. The reaction is just the behavioural response to the emotional/stress response.
How do we respond to reactivity in dogs?
Understanding why a dog is reacting is essential in enabling us to handle the situation in a way that doesn’t actually add to the stress the dog is already experiencing, which would increase the likelihood of a reaction, rather than reduce it. Therefore, our response will include things like:
- Managing our own stress well.
- Being able to self-calm and help the dog to self-calm.
- Teaching the dog some games and behaviours that are effective tools in managing triggering situations when they arise.
- Learning techniques like TTouch Stroking the Lead that helps to communicate calm to the dog.
- Using home-based activities like Animal Centered Education (ACE) Free Work, to understand preferences and coping strategies and observe for signs of physical discomfort.
- Dealing with our dogs in a calm, sensitive, and supportive way rather than punishing them when they are reactive with lead jerks and verbal reprimands.
- Offering de-stressing activities like lickimats and nose-work at home to calm them before walking.
- Avoiding triggering encounters, or maintaining enough distance for the dog to remain comfortable.
- Walking in areas where you are less likely to encounter the dog’s particular triggers.
- Using equipment that is gentle, comfortable, maintains balance, and supports communication between both ends of the lead.
- Advocating for the dog whenever needed – e.g. this dog needs space, please keep your dog away.
How can we help support you and your reactive dog?
Reactivity in dogs can be a big problem when it comes to finding appropriate professional care for dog walks and holiday cover. This is where Custom Canine Care can help. For 10 years now we have gradually been building our knowledge and experience (as a team) of reactivity in dogs and all that this can mean. Several of our team have completed Janet Finlay’s year-long course, Your End of the Lead 2.0. All have access to our internal Reactivity for Dog Walkers course. We understand that every reactive dog is:
- Unique in terms of their responses and triggers.
- Not defined by their reactivity. They are just dogs who for a few minutes, most days, are responding with a behavioural reaction to emotional stresses.
- Capable of not reacting, given enough distance and support.
- Capable of learning.
- Deeply relational with their own circle of friends (human and often canine too).
What can we offer your reactive dog?
We are here to help you when you need extra help with dog walking, home visits, or holiday care in your home – allowing you to leave your dog(s) knowing that they are in supportive, kind, and well-informed hands. All of our methods are kind, non-coercive, and include using helpful equipment (such as, the Mekuti balance harness and double-ended-lead), maintaining distance, teaching Pattern Games*, and positively reinforcing desirable behaviour. Call Alison now on 07954 313 702 to discuss your needs.
*Pattern games create a familiar, predictable structure around the dog that enables them to feel safe and in control in difficult situations. Here’s a video of teaching the Up/Down Pattern Game – it’s very easy and effective but needs to be practiced repeatedly before you take it on the road!
Call me – 07954 313 702 for more information.