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Rethinking Reactivity

Last week’s poll yielded some not so surprising results.  There were (last I checked) a few more votes for reactivity than It’s Yer Choice which works out since I can’t find my video camera to get footage for an IYC video.  I will probably end up writing a bit about reactivity and a bit about IYC as the week (or two) goes on as I get things filmed and such.

I had a great conversation with my friend Casey Lomonaco of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training  (and Dogster’s Behavior Blog) this past weekend and part of what we talked about was this very limited idea of reactivity to which most people subscribe.  I will admit that when most people say their dog is reactive, I absolutely jump to a fearful or an insecure or an easily overwhelmed dog.  But that really is a narrow way to look at reactivity.  Could there be more to reactivity than fear?  Is a physical reaction, not based in fear, still called reactivity or called something else?  Is there some other word that describes a reaction not based in fear?  Would it be over arousal, over stimulated, anticipatory, frustration, or do all of these also fall under the umbrella of reactivity?  I suppose it’s just semantics (for now) but there is often a need for precision of language amongst professionals so at some point or another, I know that I’d like a consensus to be made (perhaps there is one that I just haven’t been privy to yet).  So, I’m considering all of these types of reactions as reactivity whether fear based or not.

Let’s talk a bit about some of the various types of “reactivity” since there are quite a few different ’causes’ for dogs to become reactive.

Fear based reactivity is very wide in its scope–covering dogs who have very specific fears and also those who have been under socialized and are overwhelmed by a wide variety of stimuli.  When a dog, who is fearful of a specific (or a few specific) stimuli encounters the object of their fear, they feel they must put on a huge aggressive display in order to make the scary thing go away.  It’s a big front that they put on so the object of their fear doesn’t mess with them.  It’s a pretty effective defense mechanism; when most socially appropriate dogs see another dog reacting like a pro, he/she will often move further away, give calming signals, or do what they can to avoid the reacting dog.  What makes reactivity so ingrained for the dog is that it seems to work… strange dog approaches…. huge reactive display…. dog eventually passes and walks away.  To the reacting dog, their reaction made the scary thing go away–they don’t understand that the dog would have come close and then walked away again on his/her own.  This is the reason that it’s a behavior that can take a lot of time to fix… because to the dog is is extremely effective and has worked many, many, many times in the past.

Other dogs will put on large displays of barking, lunging, spinning because they are simply quick to get too aroused by a very exciting stimuli and don’t know how to control that arousal level.  I have seen this often in dogs who come from dog sports, particularly flyball.  Flyball dogs are often pushed to a level of arousal that gets them barking, lunging, spinning, putting on a huge display in anticipation of doing their run.  I’ve seen flyball dogs, outside of that environment, respond to high, and even just moderately high, arousal situations with very large reactive displays.  I was at a canine event where there was a flyball demo and while the dogs were not pushed to a crazy level arousal for their demo, they were responding to exciting moments with big reactive displays.  One of the dogs was hanging out after a demo when some kids went running, laughing, and squealing passed him (not too close, 15-20ft away) to get to the play ground and the dog (who had been previously pet by some calm kids with no problems), put on a very large display of barking (with a few air snaps), lunging, and spinning.  This dog was crazy fast to go from calm to over arousal with a big display.  Dogs who regularly live on the edge of arousal could easily begin to have reactions to over arousing stimuli.

Similar to dogs who get overly aroused and puts on a display, there are dogs who let the anticipation of good things happening build until they can’t contain it.  I think it’s different from the over aroused reactivity (thought they could be in the same dog) in that they aren’t reacting to a sudden change in the environment that causes them to get too aroused, these are dogs who are slowly building and building in anticipation of some event and get to a point where they explode with a reaction.  Dogs who see another dog at a distance and want to greet them but whose anticipation builds and builds until they can’t control themselves and have a reaction as they approach the other dog. Dogs who see a person and want to get pet but who start to pant, to shake, and then ultimately bark, lunge, and have wild movements as the person gets close.  There are dogs who wait for their turn on the agility field, who watch a few others go as they stand outside of the ring, all the while their anticipation building and building and as soon as it’s their turn to go they hold the start-line stay, take a jump or two and then break into the barking zoomies.

Finally we have the dogs who have barrier frustration type reactions.  I think these are some of the scariest out there (along with fear) because the dogs are driven by frustration–and we all know how humans can get when they are frustrated (which can be quite scary).  These dogs desperately want what they cannot get to because of a physical barrier and that starts to build frustration until it comes to a head in a big reaction with barking, growling, lunging, teeth snarling, etc.  Like I said, these can be some of the scariest reactions because they are based in frustration.  I sort of connect them to the hulk… when he reaches a level of frustration he turns into this big scary monster.  Eventually with enough repetition or reactions, it becomes and automatic response to whatever the dog actually wants.

Understanding what type of reactivity you are dealing with is important to treating the reactivity.

*My apologies for the lateness, I finished this early in the morning and I must have forgotten to schedule it to post LOL!  Finally hopped on the computer and realized it wasn’t up yet!

6 Comments
  1. Once you know what kind or reactivity you are dealing with; how do you help the dog?

  2. I tend to subscribe to Ali Brown’s definition of reactivity. One that is based in fear. Non-fearful dogs I would classify as ‘easily-frustrated,’ ‘having a low-arousal threshold,’ ‘having self-control issues,’ ‘wanting to start a party,’ etc. But that’s just me!

    And I am totally the ‘Hulk-type.’ It just builds and builds and then I explode! 😀

    • I don’t disagree, when i think reactivity i picture fear.. but i feel like we need some other type of language (new words or soemthing) to talk about all of these things together because they all are so related and are treated in many of the same ways.

  3. I see a lot of reactivity at work. It drives me crazy because I **know** there is something we can do to either redirect that energy or otherwise manage it in a decent way.

    We had a drug detection police dog (Belgian Malinois) over the 4th of July weekend and he ended up biting me (really, more of a powerful nip) because he was so, as you put it, frustrated by the physical barrier of his kennel-run. I really don’t think working dogs or, like you said, dog-sport dogs should be put into situations like boarding unless they have a way of releasing that energy in a different way… which this dog clearly didn’t. And several others at work don’t either — two cattle dogs who’ve been living at the kennel for nearly two months with VERY little to do other than the basic necessities (eat, drink, potty, etc). So they end up barking their heads off at every single dog that passes by, once even getting into a fight with a fence between them and drawing blood!

    Needless to say, I’m looking forward to reading about the methods you use to treat dogs with reactivity based issues in the coming weeks!

  4. I agree fear based reactivity is one thing and frustration based is another. I have seen nice, friendly, good dogs suddenly go off the deep end because of the frustration they develop in being in the shelter environment too long. “Kennel Stress” has been the terminology when this happens, but “Barrier Frustration” is so much easier to understand and hopefully deal with.

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