As far as behavior consults go, it’s fair to say that reactivity is probably my most commonly encountered issue.
The term ‘reactivity’ has become, I feel somewhat of a buzzword over recent years but what I’m referring to in this post is dogs who are reactive on the leash when they encounter unfamiliar dogs. Symptoms might include vocalization (barking, whining, howling, growling, yapping for example), lunging, pulling and straining, wild and frantic spinning, attempts to bolt and multifarious postural displays – from the very subtle to the overt.
Some dogs may be very specific in the criteria of dogs they ‘target,’ for example black dogs, brachycephalic breeds, larger dogs, males only, or only dogs who barge into their personal space/offer a lot of direct eye contact/meet in narrow confined spaces. Other dogs may exhibit seemingly random reactive behavior.
Leash reactivity may occur with a variety of different correlates or causative factors, such as a lack of, or poor/detrimental early socialization, aversive experiences, previous environmental conditions or circumstances (for example, rehomed overseas dogs who have been used to living in social groups, scavenging, free foraging and protecting and maintaining territorial boundaries).
There is much advice available online regarding leash reactivity, but what I want to focus on here is what happens after your behavior change program – because to achieve success, support and continued revision of the initial strategy is essential.
Get the right help from the start
As I said, there is so much advice available to dog guardians regarding leash reactivity. There are social media groups focused on the topic, discussions on various platforms, online articles…you name it.
However, I cannot stress enough that, at the very first recognition that your dog is having issues with other dogs, seek expert, assistance from a qualified individual who has practical experience with the behavior. This is incredibly important.
Symptoms of reactivity can look so similar. Two dogs may both bark, they may both raise their hackles etc. But what is the underlying emotion?
Just like the warning that comes with prescription medication: ‘Your symptoms may be the same as someone else’s, but don’t share the medicine!’, working with an inexperienced or unqualified trainer will bring little success if they cannot correctly interpret the complexity of the contextual cues the dog is displaying which conveys his emotional state in each particular situation. And it may not be the same with each encounter.
In the above, oversimplified example, Dog 1 may be barking and the pattern of his raised hackles/stiffened fur (a.k.a. piloerection) may convey that he is anxious. Dog 2 may also be barking, but the pattern of his piloerection may convey that he is overly excited and frustrated because he cannot interact with Dog 1. And, of course, there would also be many other contextual cues involved.
Having the right help on board from day one is critical because you need someone who understands your dog and how both of you work together, how to adjust your program if need be, can understand and interpret canine body language and signals, and who has the tools to think round any eventuality that may present.
Don’t ever think dealing with leash reactivity is quick or easy fix. It’s not! This issue especially is an emotional rollercoaster which can have many ups and downs. Some days you will feel elated that your dog has done so well, while other days you’re right back to square one, or so it seems. But you’re really not, so just keep going.
Again, this emphasizes the importance of having a great team behind you. When things go wrong, don’t sit there and stress. Contact your behavior consultant/trainer to help you get back on track. It’s normal to experience lows as well as highs.
Change of plan
As part of our behavior change plan, we need to be prepared to constantly review and modify. Our dogs’ behavior doesn’t stay the same and neither should our strategy.
At the same time, we are looking to make small, incremental steps forward. An example of this is, say, when I see a dog who is reactive because he’s fearful. I may not be able to have him anywhere remotely near a live dog to start with. With another dog I can use a toy/stuffed dog or have a real dog far in the distance. Each dog’s threshold will be different and we must work to keep them below threshold at all times.
In this case, my progressive aim would be to get a dog-dog meeting, but every goal is based on reality and the individual. We might begin with standard desentiziation and counterconditioning (DS/CC) but always keep in mind that what we do may be up for review at any time.
There’s no point putting in this hard work and then becoming lax! This – is – tough! It’s human nature to stick at things for a while and then become a little less committed. But to get really good success, it’s crucial that you follow the plan that’s been put forward, that you keep to the recommended distance if you’re employing DS/CC, that you’re ultraquick with your timing of delivering rewards and moving away from potential triggers, and are paying attention all the time – because reactive dogs are quick. So we have to be as fast! You’ve got to be sharp to be good with assisting reactive dogs, it’s no good being slow, looking at your phone, looking around, chatting etc. You’ve got to be totally switched on – because your dog is.
Don’t push it. Keep your practice sessions short and if your dog is a little buzzy one day, that’s fine. Quit whilst you’re ahead. You might get a longer session tomorrow and your sessions shouldn’t be fixed to the same length each time. You’re aiming for success, i.e. calmness, each time you’re out, not a specific length of time.
Leash reactivity is a long, hard road but if you’ve started on that journey, you’ve made a commitment to get to the end of it. With the right support behind you, you’ll be successful and it’s certainly worth the effort for both you and your dog.