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.



Small dog syndrome?

We hear it a lot when small dogs show aggressive behaviour – its ‘small dog’ syndrome. But why do some dogs, simply on the grounds of size, earn a label for showing what in almost any other dog would simply be described as ‘aggressive’ behaviour?

I guess it doesn’t really matter though what it is labelled so long as its not forgotten that dogs are dogs – whatever their size. All dogs can show fear. They can all feel threatened. They can all get angry and frustrated. We know quite a lot about aggressive behaviour and we know a lot about what triggers it. Hands going to touch dogs near their food or bed, being physically corrected or punished, being handled in a way the dog is unwilling to accept, intruding into their ‘safe space’. are the most common.

Although the evidence is unclear if there is any direct relationship between aggressive behaviour and breed (but tends to suggest there isn’t), there is even less evidence that there is a relationship between aggressive behaviour and the size of the dog. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a relationship of course – it just means scientific studies haven’t identified it as existing. It might be that no one has asked that question, but it also be that because small dog bites are generally less damaging or threatening to people they get under-reported.

There is also no evidence to suggest that small dogs responses to bite provoking ‘stimuli” (as they are called in the trade) ie to the things that in general trigger dog bites is any different to larger dogs. Most, if not all, appear to reflect a dog being threatened in some way. Not just in the obvious ways of being scared – fight or flight stuff – but its ‘resources’ being under threat of being removed; its safety being put at risk

We have very little evidence about what works to reduce those emotions or change how dogs feel in those situations but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you’d rather take a ‘flight’ option and try and hide away somewhere (probably wisest if you are a tiny dog in a BIG peoples’ world) but can’t because you are being held, or are on a lead, or in a carrier – you are left with trying to look fierce and aggressive to get people to back off. But because, to be frank, small dogs are simply less scary than your average huge <insert type of a LARGE dog that most scares you>, you probably have to show – pro rata- a whole lot more of it to get it to work.
Add into the mix genetic tendencies towards being more vocal (not scientifically studied – but anecdotal evidence is pretty strong) and the ease with which small dogs can be picked up and carried, so reducing even less their ability to take up a ‘flight’ option, and you have a perfect recipe for making the large, scary world even more difficult to deal with that it might be for a large dog. I imagine if you are the size of a person’s foot you become very aware, very early on in life, that you have to act in some way to stay alive around peoples’ feet! It is not possible for a person to tread on and kill a Great Dane or a Labrador. It is with a tiny dog. Far, far too easy.

So maybe there is a ‘small dog syndrome’, but if there is its because we large people, make it so, because we are not heeding what our small dogs are telling us sometimes – that it can be a scary world out there inhabited by GIANTS. If dealing with the threatening or scary things in that world that means barking and shouting a lot, and showing aggressive behaviour to keep the giants away then that’s what we have to do. If we have to bite to stop people trying to touch us when we are being carried and trapped in our owner’s arms or handbag – then that’s what we have to do. All the reasons LARGE dogs have to bite are probably magnified at least tenfold in small dogs.

Wouldn’t it be better if we learned to keep them OUT of difficult situations instead of forcing them into them then? Teach them to welcome the approach of strangers? To teach them to feel positive about giants looming over them or going near them? Or putting out a hand that is as big as they are to touch them? That when we pick them up to keep them safe (which is perfectly reasonable when there are crowds of people about who might tread on and kill your dog – people just don’t see small dogs sometimes) we make sure they are safe and are not then molested by some passing stranger who wants to fuss the cute little dog?

Keeping small dogs safe by picking them up, having them on our laps or carrying them in bags to keep them from  being trampled underfoot is essential sometimes, but we do need to make sure we are not then taking away their right not to not be molested or ‘threatened’ by well meaning BFGs who want to stroke them or don’t notice when they are too close. We should respect their right to feel safe when they are on the ground and teach them to move away or ask to be picked up when they feel intimidated rather than leave them to fend for themselves and bite the ankles of the giants!