Understanding your Reactive Dog

Who’s got an “Aggressive” dog? Who’s got a “Shy” dog?

Who’s got a “Scaredy”* dog?

by Dianna Stearns, M.A., CPDT-KA, CDBC

Is that your dog, shivering in the corner of the training class or going ballistic at the fence on the approach of the mailman? While you might assume a delicate Sheltie trembling in the corner (or submissively urinating on your shoes) to be afraid, how about that big bully-breed or barking Rottie running the fence? Those labels “aggressive” or “shy” (and even the currently, much misused word “dominant”) can be very deceiving. Understanding dog behavior is not that simple. Dog professionals call these dogs “reactive”, and their behaviors are not good or bad, they just “are”. For whatever reason, these reactive behaviors exist and have become coping mechanisms for that individual dog when faced with a stressful situation.

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This past winter and spring, several of my clients have been faced with challenges like this. They adopted a dog or rescued one they truly loved, and that new pet had severe adjustment issues, despite their love and attention. One dog was afraid of male family members and visitors. One was fearful of all unfamiliar people and objects she encountered on her walks outside the house. Another exhibited constant circling and pacing in the house, to avoid contact with his new adopted Dad who truly wanted to bond with him. Yet another one could not relax, and was on guard all the time, with aggressive posture and bared teeth, for any predators or intruders who might threaten his family.

Most problematic behaviors that owners face in dealing with reactive dogs are behavioral expressions motivated by fear. Depending on the individual dogs’ basic nature, some will simply run away or try to hide from something that frightens them; but others will react aggressively, creating a danger to family members and anyone in that dogs’ vicinity.

According to Dr. Suzanne Hetts, in her book, Pet Behavior Protocols*, “Fear is defined as a normal whole-body response to a perceived threatening stimulus that has physiological, emotional and behavioral components. It is associated with specific triggering stimuli.” (*1999, AAHA Press)

If you love your dog, you want to understand why he or she reacts the way they do, and how help them. Reactive behaviors can have several contributing components, and to change these behaviors it’s important to identify what those components are.

Lack of early socialization, during a puppy’s most formative months (3-16 weeks) will produce an adult who is afraid of strangers or a dog that feels uneasy simply walking on uneven or unfamiliar textured surfaces. Because that puppy wasn’t exposed to places or people outside his family circle, during that important time in his emotional development, his self-confidence as an adult, in social or unfamiliar surroundings, is very low. An adult dog, who has been in isolation in someone’s backyard or basement, or who has been rescued from a breeding facility, may naturally love people but be severely frightened and overreact when children reach for her, or when she encounters simple everyday items in the world outside her kennel, like a trash can or a bicycle.

A dog’s genetic programming is also a crucial determinant for their response to life’s situations. A dog’s assimilation of their life’s experiences (positive or negative) is largely a reflection of this genetic wiring. It’s a small step for a dog whose genetic programming is suspicious and reserved, to develop severe shyness and fear responses. Shy and anxious individuals exist in every breed, but humans have selectively engineered certain breed groups to be independent and suspicious of strangers. In order to protect their property or their flocks, both herding and guarding breeds need to be vigilant, suspicious of strangers and alert to even small changes in the environment that might signal danger.

So, that trembling Sheltie may well start out as a shy or suspicious puppy, and continue along that path after adoption. The Rottweiler running the fence is using his natural guarding instincts against other dogs or people who might cause him harm if they intrude on his personal space.

The baseline for understanding and retraining your dogs’ reactive behavior is to know his breed history and predominant characteristics, even in a mixed breed dog. This information is important because it helps you to understand why his inborn, “hard-wiring” prompts him to react the way he does. (Why do Labs love water, and Border collies like to herd? Their brain tells them to!)

The next step is to take into consideration any knowledge of his known background, before adoption, If your dog is a traditionally reserved breed, and has suffered any physical abuse or isolation, he’s not going to love unknown children or adults running up to him, grabbing for him or brandishing sticks at him. (If you had his history, would you?) It’s a testament to the wonderful forgiving nature of dogs that they love us in spite of all this, and that more people don’t get bitten!

The last component in dealing with reactive behaviors is to determine what stimulus triggers the dogs’ emotional, fearful reaction. If we know what sight, sound, smell, or proximity triggers the reaction; we can begin to reduce the power that particular stimuli has on the dog.

Once you have this information, what do you do with it? Since reactions are a “whole-body response”, a whole-body approach to rehabilitation is needed. Classical conditioning, using desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises, is the preferred method in treating emotional, hard-wired responses to stimuli. (Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?) With desensitization, repeated exposure to very small increments of that stimulus over time, your dog’s fearful responses will diminish. At the same time, through counter-conditioning, you train an alternative, more positive response to the same stimulus. If, instead of barking furiously when someone’s at the fence, your dog learns to return to you for a treat or he gets thrown a Frisbee, guess what? That stranger at the fence is not so important and much less scary. The stranger’s presence begins to predict something good will happen for the dog and not something scary!

Because these kinds of emotional reactions can escalate to cause physical harm and financial liabilities, simply asking neighbors and friends’ advice will not help when dealing with an emotionally reactive dog. Consult a professional. Your best ally in retraining a reactive dog is a certified professional dog trainer, a veterinary behavior professional or a certified dog behavior consultant. Because your dog is a unique individual, that veterinary or behavioral professional will design a behavior modification program to address your own dogs’ specific needs and challenges. Resources are also available online, and in reference materials, which will help you ease your dog’s fears and redirect those problematic behaviors. The website www.fearfuldogs.com and Debra Wood’s book, Help for your Shy Dog (1999, Howell Book House, NY), are great places to start. Dr. Patricia McConnell’s booklet, The Cautious Canine (2002, Dog’s Best Friend Ltd, Black Earth WI) is easily read and widely used. Scaredy Dog,* by Ali Brown, (2004, Tanacacia Press, Allentown, PA) has in-depth discussion of these behaviors and exercises.

Most importantly, don’t give up on your dog. And please don’t punish him for being afraid! You wouldn’t punish a child for being afraid, would you? Verbal reprimands and physical punishment destroys the bond of trust between you, and gives your already fearful dog something else to be afraid of. Helping a dog who is reactive takes time and patience; to allow him to understand his environment in a new way and relax, and to be assured that you are there to keep him safe. You both will reap the life-long benefits of your dog’s rehabilitation.

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