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Can reactive dogs be helped?

15/09/2020 - Dog Training Advice

Reactive dogs can make wonderfully rewarding pets, but of course, they do bring challenges. Can reactive dogs be helped? Usually, yes – we can help you to improve quality of life for your dog and yourself.  With patience and training their behaviour can be greatly improved. However, in order to help your pet, you will need to learn some management techniques.

What are reactive dogs?
A reactive dog is one who behaves inappropriately (in our eyes) to a particular situation or a stimulus. If your dog is aggressive to other dogs, hates strangers or copes badly with certain situations, dog trainers would potentially describe them as a reactive dog.

Reactivity in dogs comes in many different shapes and forms. At the top end of the scale it manifests itself as barking, lunging and even biting. But there is also whining, hiding, shaking, panting, pacing, hyperexcitability and worse, shutting down completely.

Some dogs are very specific in what triggers reactivity – men with beards, large dogs (but not little dogs), bicycles (but not skateboards). Others are just generally fearful, anxious or frustrated, but there can be many reasons why and not just one reason sometimes too.

Why are dogs reactive?
In order to attempt to help a reactive dog, you need to understand what drives the behaviour. The reasons for canine reactivity vary enormously, but the physiology and the psychology are similar. And funnily enough, the brain activity in reactive dogs is similar to that in anxious people.

Dogs, like us, have brains and bodies that are programmed for survival. They learn through experience and by association. Which is why reward based dog training works so well – the dog’s brain learns to associate certain behaviours to the feel-good factor. Once that behaviour is embedded in the brain, it becomes automatic. The dog will do it without even thinking about it.

We call that, creating a neural pathway. It’s like an information superhighway in the dog’s brain so that as soon as a trigger or a cue is detected, the brain sends messages to the body to initiate a behaviour.
How reward based dog training works

That association works the other way too – if a dog’s brain associates an external stimulus with danger, fear, excitement, it will automatically trigger a response in the brain. That response will be either determined by your dogs experiences and may result in a fight or flight reaction, depending on the dog’s temperament and on past experience. When your dog reacts to a trigger, he isn’t always making a conscious decision, all of this activity happens in a part of the brain to aid survival. Once a neural pathway is in place, the reactive behaviour is often practised which makes it stronger and stronger over time and that’s when owners describe an explosive behaviour occurring.

What can cause a dog to become reactive?
There are too many possibilities to cover in one blog, but here are a few of the most common reasons for reactivity

  • Poor breeding: The stress hormone cortisol can pass through the placenta from mum to pup before the puppy is even born. Puppies from puppy farms often have very distressed mothers. The poor things are born with the potential to be more stressed or reactive later in life.
  • Lack of socialisation: I can’t stress enough the importance of introducing young puppies to a multitude of items, places, people, animals and situations. This must be done sensitively, without making the pup anxious, and it must be started before the puppy is 4 months old….that’s when the brain is most receptive to new experiences. However most of the work should be carried out by the breeder before the puppy comes to your home. The importance of finding reputable breeders with comprehensive puppy rearing plans is very important.
  • Pain: Training your reactive dog always starts with a thorough vet check. If a dog is in pain, of course it will be more reactive. Aren’t you more sensitive when you feel unwell? If it’s an accident that caused your dog pain in the first place he or she may become reactive to an object, an animal or a place associated with the accident. Eg, being bitten by a big dog may make your pet reactive to all big dogs – not just the culprit. Being squeezed to hard by a well-meaning stranger can induce a weariness of new people.
  • Fear of the unknown: This is a sideshoot of socialisation. A dog that is suddenly thrust into a different environment, confronted with a new species of animal, or surprised by a loud noise will learn to associate unknown things with fear if this is not carried out sensitively and with support to your puppy or dog. Training your dog to be obedient and resilient is very important.
  • Unkind treatment: A dog who has been beaten or berated in the past will come to associate people with pain. Old fashioned training methods were incredibly unkind to dogs and are potentially responsible for many behavioural problems. Even something as seemingly simple as shouting at a sensitive pup who has peed on the floor can cause significant stress and distrust in their caregiver makng them feel vulnberable at a time they need the most support.
How to help reactive dogs
My job as a dog behaviourist (and actually my passion too) is to help reactive dogs. Working with their human family, I use training methods to slowly retrain their brains. The aim of the training is to first of all, identify the triggers (there are often more than one). And then teach the brain that it doesn’t need to fire up the bodies fight or flight mechanisms every time that trigger appears on the horizon.

In other words, I’m learning about the neural superhighways in your dog’s brain, and re-training the little grey cells to create an alternative route. The ultimate aim of the training is one of two things.  What we want to happen is……..either
  • The subconscious brain notices and then ignores the trigger that would normally cause a reaction
  • Or, the subconscious brain gives that trigger a different meaning. I.e. that item X is over there but it’s not a danger to me.

Please be aware though – just like creating a diversion in our road systems, the original superhighway will never be deleted. Your dog’s experiences will always need to be carefully managed otherwise he or she could quickly revert to reactivity.

The first way to help a reactive dog, once the vet has confirmed there is no physical reason for the behaviour, is to reset their internal stress management system. I usually recommend a complete break away from all triggers. That might mean restricted walks for a few weeks, or even no walks at all. I call this a cortisol holiday. Replace the walks with lots of mental stimulation at home.

Then, very carefully and with help from a qualified dog behaviourist, they will help you with a tailored plan to associate more positive emotional responses with the things that were once a problem to them.  Eg, if your pooch is dog-reactive he’s probably never going to want to be surrounded by other unknown dogs day in day out, BUT we can teach him that there’s no need to go on the attack.

Training for reactive dogs
Training a reactive dog requires patience, time and very careful management. I can’t emphasise enough that dog training classes are not the right place for a reactive dog. There’s just too much for them to cope with all at once. They won’ “get used to it”, the problem will just get worse. Bringing a reactive dog to training the classes is the equivalent of emptying a box of spiders into the lap of an arachnaphobe.

Training for reactive dogs should always be calm, controlled and very much tailored to the individual.

Some reactive dogs might be able to progress to join something like a scentwork class. This is a long term goal however – not a starting point.

Training your reactive dog should start with a thorough assessment with a qualified dog behaviourist. COVID-19 has changed the way we do this at Best Behaviour Dog Training. Rather than visit you in person, we use questionnaires, phone and video calling to get to the bottom of the problems and start building a training programme. There’s lots of support available – albeit remotely.

The upside of this means that this year I have been able to help reactive dogs and their owners from all over the English speaking world. Which is great.

What does the future look like for your reactive dog?
I’m the proud caregiver of 14 rescue dogs, some of whom were given up by their owners for being reactive. I’d like to hope that, with help, you will be able to rehabilitate and keep your reactive dog. But, you may need to re-think some of your hopes and aspirations for your pet. It may be, that long walks will be entirely possible and thoroughly enjoyable – but a busy pub lunch with your pet is off the menu in the short term at least. A visit to the dog park might never be on your calendar, but this is all about understanding what your dog enjoys rather than what we thought they should like.

Having a loving, characterful pet who is fun to be with is the best experience in the world. In my experience, living with a reactive dog works has a really positive effect on the owners as you really do learn to have the best relationship and understanding of your canine friend. By training a reactive dog you will learn more about yourself and your dog than you ever thought possible. 

So the answer to the question “can reactive dogs be helped?” is that yes, they can be helped, they can live a normal life and they are definitely worth the time and effort that goes into it.

Learn more
Help with training your reactive dog  https://www.bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk/dog-behaviour/

Hints on dog training for rescue dogs  https://www.bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk/news-and-advice-post/dog-training-for-rescue-dogs/

Managing fear periods in puppies and young dogs  https://www.bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk/news-and-advice-post/why-is-my-puppy-suddenly- more-fearful/

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