As harvest comes to an end and leaves begin to change color and fall from trees, the imminent beginning to the dark and cold days of winter looms in the shadows. In Celtic history, this change in season is often associated with the afterlife, leading weary people to dress in costumes as they hope to stave off impending ghosts. Today we know this annual celebration as Halloween, a holiday that shares some surprising parallels with reactivity in dogs.
Like people wearing costumes to ward of haunting spirits, dogs will dress up in different behaviors to avoid encounters with their own stressors or “ghosts.” Merely costumes for an underlying and treatable emotion, barking, growling, lunging and biting are just a few of these natural behaviors that disguise their cause.
Now you are probably asking yourself, if behaviors like barking, growling, lunging and biting are merely symptoms of reactivity in dogs, what are the underlying causes they disguise?
The most common are:
1. Fear and anxiety
Fear and anxiety are present when a dog is afraid or nervous to be around a trigger, while frustration is seen when a dog cannot reach a trigger. Overstimulation occurs when there are so many things going on in a dog’s environment that it becomes overwhelmed and can’t process them all at once, usually resulting in hyper-arousal. Then there is aggression, when a dog does not like something and intends to harm it.
Reactivity vs. Aggression
Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, describes reactivity in her book, “Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals,” as animals who respond to normal stimuli with an abnormal level of intensity. In other words, when dogs are reactive toward something, they do not intend to cause it harm.
Many dogs that are tagged as “aggressive” actually belong squarely in the “reactive” category, an important distinction as improperly classifying dogs as aggressive can earn them injurious labels like “dangerous” when intent to harm is actually absent.
As certified canine behavior consultant Pat Miller describes in The Whole Dog Journal, reactivity often begins as a series of subtle and sometimes fleeting stress signals that are specific to a moment in time, which often go unnoticed and unaddressed by owners.
For dogs, these cues in body language are communicative, serving as warning signals that they are not comfortable in the current situation. It is not until these signs of stress are ignored or overlooked that a dog will change costumes and escalate its behavior in order to reduce its stress.
In other words, not all reactive dogs are aggressive, but reactivity can certainly lead to aggression. And as Steve Frost reminds us in Animal Wellness Magazine, dogs displaying reactive behaviors are not “giving us a hard time,” they are “having a hard time.”
So what are some common ghosts or the things that cause dogs stress? The most common triggers include:
1. Other dogs
2. People (children or adults)
3. Other animals
4. Foreign Objects (hats, brooms, bikes, skateboards, strollers, etc.)
5. Noises (doorbell, vacuum, thunder, jingling dog tags, etc.)
All behavior is contextual. Write this on a post-it note, spell it out with the letter magnets on your refrigerator, draw it on your mirror after a steamy shower. Whatever you do, do not forget it. This truism is key to identifying, understanding and treating reactivity, so let’s break it down.
We learned earlier that the early warning signs of reactive behavior often goes unnoticed by people. Why? Because many signs of stress are also seen when a dog is not stressed. As applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell explains in her blog, these seemingly out-of-place behaviors may be indicative of a displacement activity.
Take yawning, for example. If you notice your dog yawns as it settles in for a good night’s sleep, this is an entirely normal and uneventful observation. But if your dog yawns after passing a skateboarder on your walk, chances are this does not point to tired but rather a stressful moment for the dog. Context matters.
But context extends well beyond individual behaviors. Situational and environmental variables can also trigger stress.
Some of the most common situational influences include:
1. Distance—how close (common with fear) or far away (frustration) a dog is to a trigger
2. Duration—how long a dog is in the presence of a trigger
3. Distractions—if there are multiple stressors present (overstimulation)
4. Movement—whether or not the trigger is moving
5. Leash—whether or not the dog has the ability to retreat from a trigger (fear) or is prevented from reaching a trigger (frustration)
Some of the most common environmental influences include:
1. Genetics—when reactivity is biological
2. Exercise—reactivity can be worse in dogs that are under-exercised
3. Unbalanced Nutrition—reactivity can be worse in dogs that lack proper nutrition
4. Medical Issues—reactivity can be in response to an illness or injury
5. Socialization—whether or not a dog has been properly exposed to a trigger
6. Owner-dog Relationship—whether or not the dog has been punished for reactivity (more on this in a moment)
7. Learned Experiences
Probably the most common reason dogs become reactive is through learned experiences. This is when dogs suffer from a (repeated) trauma and learn that escalations in their response to these triggers stop them from happening again. When these traumas occur plays a factor, too, as puppies go through developmental stages similar to babies and humans. In fact, two of those stages for a puppy are “fear imprinting” periods, where traumatic incidents between (roughly) 8-11 weeks and 6-14 months can cause lifelong fears toward triggers of trauma.
At this point, you are probably feeling overwhelmed by all of the complexities that contribute to canine reactivity (imagine how the dog feels!). Well, the good news is that there are proven models that are successful at staving off all of a dog’s ghosts, regardless of the underlying cause.
Consider this example. When people contract the flu, we are susceptible to experiencing a wide range of symptoms, from a cough and fever to nausea and vomiting. While these are unfortunate consequences of our illness, treating the symptoms alone will not cure us. Instead doctors prescribe medication that targets the underlying cause of our symptoms; in this case: the influenza virus.
In order to effectively eliminate the symptoms of a reactive dog (barking, growling, lunging, biting, etc.), we need to address the underlying cause and change how the dog feels (fear, frustration, overstimulation, aggression) toward a trigger.
At Pawgress, we use Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), a force-free and reward-based methodology that pairs desensitization (controlled exposure to a trigger) and counterconditioning (changing how a dog feels about a trigger) with the use of a functional reinforcer (giving the dog what it wants at that moment) to prevent and rehabilitate reactivity.
Let’s take a closer look at how this works by breaking down a common problem.
In her must-read book, Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0, BAT creator Grisha Stewart explains how a dog’s stress level is analogous to rising water levels at the beach. As handlers, our job is to help keep them dry.
Let’s say Stacy has a Labrador named Dexter, who lunges and snips at other dogs during on-leash walks, but he does not react to those same dogs when off-leash. When Stacy takes Dexter to the dog park, she notices that Dexter prefers to play away from the other dogs. This is likely an example of fear-based reactivity toward other dogs. When Dexter is on-leash, his ability to remove himself from the presence of another dog has been taken away, forcing him to be in the presence of something that scares him.
Similar to with humans, when Dexter’s flight option has been taken away, he only sees one option left (fight) if his desire for space is not accommodated.
BAT teaches Dexter how to safely approach and retreat from other dogs while on leash, empowering him to confront his fear of a trigger.
How is this accomplished? We follow Dexter toward his trigger and allow him to approach at his own pace. If he takes two steps forward and five steps back, we follow. Because Dexter is afraid of his trigger and wants distance from it while on leash, allowing him to retreat helps him build enough confidence to take a few steps closer next time. Soon Dexter will be comfortable enough on his leash to know that his flight option has not been taken away from him, and he will be able to calmly approach a trigger without reacting.
No Pace For Punishment
Remember that with behavior, the dog (learner) determines what is considered rewarding and punishing, not us. While we may find yelling to be run of the mill behavior as humans, a dog may find it to be positive punishment. And as we learned earlier, if a dog has multiple negative experiences with someone yelling at it (even if it is to stop reacting aggressively), this can cause the dog to direct its reactivity at the yeller. This is why the owner-dog relationship is of paramount importance.
Finally, it is incumbent of us to remember that rehabilitating reactivity must be done at the dog’s pace. If we push our four-legged friends too hard too fast, we can inadvertently cause a dog’s emotional response toward a trigger to strengthen, prompting it to change costumes to ward off an even scarier ghost.
Remember that reactions like barking, growling, lunging and biting are all entirely natural ways for dogs to communicate discomfort in a particular situation, and punishing these behaviors only suppresses the symptoms, leaving the problem itself unaddressed. When this happens, escalations in behavior will continue to occur as the dog continues to change costumes in order to find one that will reduce its stress and rid it of its ghosts.