Category Archives: “Reactive” dogs

Mrs Oblivious

I was out walking my dog yesterday. On lead. Urban streets. She’s a friendly, well behaved dog. She didn’t spot the dog about 60 yards away the other side of the road, but I did. I stopped. THAT other dog had not only spotted my dog at that distance, she was rigid, right out on the end of her lead, owner in tow. The dog’s expression was hard, her whole body was tense and it said ‘Don’t you come near me! I’ll have you if we get any closer!’  The owner, on her phone, seemed blissfully unaware. Mrs Oblivious. By now my dog had noticed them and was looking in their direction, tail waving, interested, and friendly, if a wee bit unsure. Mrs Oblivious didn’t notice me making sure my dog made a good decision to break off looking at her dog, to turn and move away behind me as I moved calmly into a gateway to be as far away from them as I could be.

Owner and dog, pulling against each other, the other side of the road, managed to get past me and my dog. I could see her dog’s body relax a bit as they got past and off they went on their not-so merry way.

I wonder how often that dog had been forced to walk past or close to another dog it didn’t want to? I wonder how many dogs had been on the receiving end of that threatening glare and tension? All my experience told me that dog was not wanting to be friends. I have worked with enough dogs that are aggressive towards other dogs to know the difference between the ones that mean business, and the ones that don’t. This one meant business.  I didn’t want her to get any closer that’s for sure!

It’s baffling how some people don’t see how damaging it can be to ignore what their dog is telling them and want to force them into situations the dog is so obviously deeply unhappy about.  More worryingly though, is how potentially dangerous it can be. The lead only needed to break, or be pulled out of the owner’s hand, for that dog to be running across the road and reach my dog.

Try this analogy for size…

You are a passenger in a car driving along a motorway. Of necessity, you put your trust in the driver to get you home safely since he is in charge of which direction you go, and what speed you travel at.

A few hundred yards ahead of you see some blue flashing lights. Small, insignificant lights to start with, but enough to put you on alert because you have, unfortunately, been involved in a crash before, so you know it can end badly. You tense. You can feel your foot anticipating the need to push on the brake pedal. Your hands clench slightly. Your heart-rate has gone up a tad. You want to be sure the driver has seen them. ‘Whoa! Slow down a bit! I think there’s something wrong up ahead!’ Nothing happens. He is oblivious to what you are saying, whistling along to the music on the radio, not paying much attention to the road, or you. Your alarm increases as he keeps driving inexorably closer to what to you is looking like a major hazard. Stressville!! Panic is kicking in. He squeezes past the pile-up without incident. Just. But it’s a close call and you feel you were just a whisker away from death!  Still blissfully unaware or uncaring that your heart rate has rocketed, or you were trembling in fear, he carries on. Still whistling along with the radio. That you have just experienced the very real stress and tangible fear that can arise from the anticipation of disaster, and a near miss, seems not to concern him one iota.  Related image

If you knew you could trust him to never to crash the car, and knew his judgement was always spot on, maybe you would panic less, but you know from past experience you can’t always trust him, or other drivers, to exercise good judgement.

This is exactly what some people, like Mrs Oblivious, do every day when they take their dogs out. Hanging on to the lead, supposed to be in control, as they move unerringly towards a potentially dangerous situation, paying little or no attention to what is going on. Blissfully unaware of the stress and anxiety he or she is causing their dog.  When your dog says ‘whoah!’ you really ought to notice and heed that early warning.   Slow down. Take a good look before carrying on. You may even need to stop. Your dog might be wrong about the risks in getting too close to that other dog across the road, but she may well be right. She may well be better at reading other dogs than you are, and may be a better judge of the situation. She may be paying more attention than you! Her experience and history could well be that she knows she can’t trust the judgement of a human holding the other end of the lead. She might well have learned, as this dog seems to have, that pulling towards other dogs, looking fierce and in a threatening way, is an effective way to make sure other dogs back off. Getting in with a preemptive attack isn’t unusual in a dog that is forced into close encounters by an unwitting owner.

As for Mrs Oblivious? Well, fingers crossed she doesn’t find out the hard way just what her dog is telling her. She was like that driver, blissfully unaware of what was going on, so completely oblivious to the risks she was taking. I hope I don’t meet them again. Scary.

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Observe more, interfere less

So your dog is worried by other dogs…?
I mean worried. Not terrified. Just that he’s uncomfortable around dogs he doesn’t know. He’s not kicking off every time he sees, or even meets, another dog out on walks and he’s never bitten, although you fear he might snap at another dog if he were pushed too far.

Distractions
Well, there’s no doubt distracting a dog with food treats, or playing a game with them (if they are willing to do either), can be a useful tactic to make sure your dog chooses to engage with you, rather than bother about the other dog. Giving your dog a job to do, like agility, or obedience exercises, which takes their focus off other dogs when they are around will serve much the same purpose.

Avoiding and escaping
It’s also going to help your dog feel more comfortable, and safe, if they know you are going to move away from other dogs as soon as you see them, so the subject is never broached. Diving into the shrubbery, ducking behind cars or going for 5am walks so the stress of even seeing other dogs at a distance is avoided – yep, all part of the package of advice to make life with the reactive dog easier.

Carried out correctly, with good timing, distracting and avoiding have their place in managing the worried, reactive dog.

But allowing your dog to learn how to predict whether other dogs are safe, or unsafe, and have the power to change how you behave around other dogs, is a skill distracting and avoiding interferes with. Sometimes we need to interfere less, and interfere differently. If our dogs never get to meet or see other dogs, how can they learn how to engage with them? That doesn’t mean we should just “let the dogs get on with it”. Or allow them to “sort it out for themselves”. Despite being recommended by a lot of trainers, this approach can go horribly wrong. It’s just not worth the risk. It’s not fair on any dog and is very likely to make many dogs far worse. So here’s something else you can do to help. Help your dog learn to observe dogs from a safe distance. Then consider if closer encounters, progressed carefully, under safely managed conditions are appropriate.

Observation
At a nice safe distance, when your dog sees another dog and alerts to it, with a slight lift of the head, ears and tail perhaps beginning to lift, eyes focusing on the other dog, you should draw calmly to a halt. Relaxed. Standing still(ish). Not frozen. The rabbit in headlights look is not wanted. On a loose, long lead, watching and waiting. Saying nothing. Doing nothing except observing your dog. You want to see your dog observing the other dog, not just looking or glancing at him, and then looking back at you. We want to see (as far is possible) your dog’s behaviour as if there was no owner attached to the lead. We don’t want to see actions taught by the owner. Food may need to be kept in pockets; toys away somewhere else. The dog should not be pestering the handler for food. If there was a safe way to do this offlead, we’d do it offlead, but it rarely is.

What you are looking for is for your dog to DE-arouse. To make the decision that the other dog, at that moment in time, in that place, is OK. To see him drop and or turn his head, relax his body. His tail to lower. You are looking for changes in millimetres. In some dogs that can be really hard to see. Others, it is very obvious. What happens as a consequence should be to your dog’s advantage. You can either drop some food on the ground or you could make the decision to move away from the other dog and/or go on your way in a different direction. Or do both. You haven’t interfered, except to respond to what your dog has shown he needs to have happen. That when he said to the handler ‘whoah! Dog up ahead! Let’s stop and see what’s what before going on!’ and then followed by ‘Oh – it’s OK. I can see we’re safe’ you noticed, and acted on that information.

But what if….
But if instead of relaxing, and his arousal levels increase, rather than decrease, he is heading towards a point of no-return, and you know in the next second he is going to kick off, that needs interrupting. Promptly. The window of opportunity to do this is limited. So if your dog stands up higher on his toes, even by a millimetre, his tail and ears come up higher, his body tenses still more, that’s when you do need to interfere. Just a little. If your dog is relatively calm (and being calm enough may need preparatory work), it should only need the handler to take a backwards step and movement, or just light touch with a finger somewhere on his body to have him glance to see what is happening behind him, and so interrupting that inevitable build up to kicking off.

Festina lente
If those subtle signals don’t work immediately, then your dog is already too aroused to behave appropriately, and the likelihood he is going to kick off is high. Not what is wanted! So cut your losses and move AWAY. Create distance. Fairly rapidly, but not in a rushed or panicky way. You don’t want the dog to believe there really is a reason to panic or run away. That cool, relaxed ‘Let’s Go!’ strategy may need teaching to the dog first, away from other dogs. Next time avoid being so close that an escape is needed.

Over time, with repetition, your dog will learn he can STOP you taking him closer to other dogs until he has them sussed out, knowing you aren’t going to make him go closer than he is comfortable with. It should also start to enable less antagonistic communication. As the dogs observe each other it gives them the opportunity to exchange the more subtle, gentle signalling that dogs are so good at if they have the opportunity and stress and over-arousal are taken out of the picture. You, and your dog, will also learn to be quicker at making decisions about other dogs, because you are both going to get practice at doing it. You DO need to practice it too. Just doing it once or twice won’t hack it.

So observe more, and interfere less whenever you can.

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What’s in a label?

In recent years it has become common for dog trainers to use the word ‘reactive’ to describe some dogs’ unwanted, noisy, lunging behaviour that they show towards other dogs. But what does ‘reactive’ actually mean? Most definitions agree that ‘reactive’ means “showing a response to a stimulus”. Well, the so-called ‘reactive’, lunging barking dog is certainly doing that! But does it help to describe that as reactive? Well, perhaps. if It tells us that the dog has noticed something (the “stimulus”) and has reacted to that.

However, the word in itself fails to describe how a dog has reacted. If a dog reacts by wagging its tail and gently sniffing the other dog – that’s a reaction. If it looks, then turns and walks away that is also a reaction. Both can quite legitimately and accurately be labelled as ‘reactive’. If a dog barks, lunges, snaps or snarls at that other dog those are also reactions.  What should be of most concern to any dog trainer or behaviourist is if a dog doesn’t react in any way at all when it sees another dog!

But the term ‘reactive’ has evolved to cover the kinds of reactions that tend to be seen as difficult or unacceptable to owners, trainers and Joe Public alike. The barking lunging dog is often labelled as ‘reactive’. The label ‘reactive’ doesn’t attempt to ascribe motivation (which is fine – since we can’t always work that out). Special classes which state they are for ‘reactive’ dogs are increasingly common now but I have yet to meet one that means it’s for dogs that react to other dogs by turning and wandering away in a benign and bored way. It invariably means it is for dogs that behave in a way that is perceived as ‘bad’. 

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, Using words to make a problem behaviour appear more acceptable is a sensitive and sometimes necessary way to help distressed owners who are upset at their dog’s behaviour. Maybe it is just part of linguistic evolution to tweak a definition in this way, but the danger with this particular euphemism is that it seems to be commonly used to blunt the reality of one dog showing aggressive reactions towards other dogs and suggesting to owners it is something other than aggression. Sometimes those barking and lunging reactions are aggressive, sometimes they aren’t. For the owner of the dog that lunges and barks out of frustration and/or excitement (often labelled as ‘reactive’) it could perhaps be doing them a disservice. They may not want their dog’s behaviour to be lumped in together with dogs that want to bite and threaten other dogs.

I guess time will tell if it becomes a more precisely defined term or whether it simply falls out of favour.

 

 

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