Category Archives: “Reactive” dogs

Pretty is as pretty does

Today some pictures of the cutest, fluffiest little dog needing a home strayed across my Facebook timeline. So many comments from people on how beautiful she was and how they’d so like to give her a home. She WAS beautiful too. But people were wanting to offer her a home purely on what she looked like? How crazy is that? OK, aesthetic appeal matters and I’d be lying if I didn’t say some dogs attract me visually more than others. But when offering a dog a home what it looks like surely is the least important thing to consider?

Poppy
Poppy – pretty, but could also be pretty horrid!

Meet Poppy a collie I owned. Poppy was very pretty. I had people say ‘She bites? But she’s so pretty!’ as though prettiness excluded any desire to bite people! I knew her history – she was born and reared (presumably with minimal human input) on a Welsh puppy farm and ended up in a pet shop in South London/Surrey before she was 8 weeks old. That she was unsuited to a pet home in an urban area with first time dog owners who had no car to take her to parks or dog training classes, no experience or knowledge to make good decisions about her, let alone deal with the issues such a poorly bred and reared dog would inevitably bring, seemed not to bother the pet shop owner. He sold her to them anyway. It did not work out well.

By 9 months old she was probably going to be euthanised because she was scary, scared, stressed and aggressive. It was sheer chance she ended up with me and I was able to give her a home which I hope was more suited to her needs and give her less cause to want to bite people.

We see so many dogs these days ending up in homes where those dogs and puppies that have NO experience of a life in a home, with people in their lives, wanting to fuss and cuddle them, or take them on leads for walks and expect them to meet other dogs and people – experience a toally alien life – under circumstances they’d never choose for themselves. Up close and personal when that may be the very last thing they want or need. They may have been shut in sheds and barns or shelters with no experience of the lives they are now forced to lead.

That their rearing and experiences are so wrong on so many levels is indisputable. That many learn to cope over time – because they have to – does that mean we should put them through it without a lot of hard thinking first?

So what are the alternatives? That raises other questions and dilemmas for another blog. I guess if we had all the answers we’d not see these dogs struggling and we wouldn’t feel we had to make appeals for good homes based on how ‘pretty’ or superficially attractive a dog is.

“Reactivity” and how to upset other dogs

Imagine…

You are a very sociable person. You were raised in a large family.  They often had friends round.You love people 🙂

wren whoosh and a bc
Getting to know each other – safely

Then as you were beginning to grow up and maybe even reached your teens, you were given away to a family of camels. Yes, camels. An entirely different species. They don’t hug or kiss or chat. They don’t talk to you in any kind of language you can understand – just a load of noises which make no sense to you. They stink too. Worse, they live in the desert, so from that day you don’t see another human being. But you get along OK. You adapt. It’s not a terrible life. Then one day, meandering about in the desert with your new camel family, you see on the horizon not just ONE human being, but a whole bunch of them! You can’t contain yourself. You charge over to them, laughing excitedly and generally making something of an idiot of yourself as you shout ‘HI! HI! OMG! People! Who are you?’ You hug and kiss a couple before they are really aware you are on top of them. But the third one is ready for you – and pushes you away angrily. After all – you are a complete stranger. You not only ignored all the social niceties of a proper greeting – you HUGGED him?? He gets cross.  At least the others just move away and put up with your nonsense. But that one who just got angry – he’s not prepared to let it go. He’s a bad tempered old bugger with a dodgy hip; he can’t evade you and it hurts. And you nearly had him over! He gets hold of you and shouts at you to ‘stop!’  Suddenly all your enthusiasm evaporates. You are frightened. You had never met anyone as grumpy as that before and you were only trying to be friendly and you hadn’t seen a fellow human being in ages.

Very quickly your camel family gallops up and intervenes and hurries you away. But mortified by your totally inappropriate behaviour, and angry with the grumpy old man who’d so viciously attacked you, it is clear they are upset as well. They make angry-camel noises at you. All very stressful. No chance for apologies. No making up between you and the humans you were so desperate to make friends with.  Everyone is angry and there’s a sour taste of frustration that you hadn’t been able to make friends with any of them and worse, finding out that some people are horrible to you. And you don’t know why. A poor encounter on every level.

So we can easily see how a young dog is being set up to make the kind of mistakes that can end in tears when encounters with other dogs are mismanaged, or allow him to behave in a way that upsets other dogs.  But worse than that, if something bad happens, what we humans do in response often compound those worries and fears. Our friend who lives with the camels wasn’t given the opportunity to learn actually most of that group of humans were OK, but, well, if you approach people in a crazy way, they are very likely to going to react badly, especially if they can’t move fast to get out of your way! 

Both our human friend and the grumpy old man might get labelled “reactive” in today’s world. The friendly youngster as he jumps up and down with excitement, shouting hello as he charges towards the group of people; the grumpy old man as he reacts sharply, and aggressively, to stop from being hurt or knocked over.  Very different motivations; potentially very different outcomes in the long term that might have been avoided had things been managed differently.

FINDING A DOG BEHAVIOURIST

Trainer? Or behaviourist?

People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues with their dogs and FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to consult a trained and experienced professional. In the dog behaviour business though, there are no legal requirements; no rules at all about who can set up as a behaviourist or a trainer so you need to check their credentials with care.  

But which do you need anyway? A trainer or a behaviourist?

Essentially a trainer works with owners to help healthy, relatively untroubled dogs learn things. To use the old-fashioned term to be “obedient”. We talk about responding reliably to cues these days, and the techniques used are very different, but training is about helping the average, problem-free dog learn what owners want of them, and for owners to learn what is fair and reasonable to ask of their dogs. Trainers might be called in to help with housetraining puppies, or coming when called, or more specialist needs like competitive sports dog training or assistance dog tasks. The good dog trainer will have enough understanding of behaviour to spot if these training needs are symptoms of a more complex health or behaviour issue, especially if the dog is finding it difficult to learn to be responsive to what the owner needs or wants him to do. If they aren’t qualified to deal with those things (which they might, or might not, be), they should have the knowledge to know when to refer clients to other professionals.

Snowy’s “bad” behaviour was almost certainly in part due to him having dental problems and being in pain. It needed a vet’s input – as well as a behaviourist – to help him.

A behaviourist works with owners to help resolve behaviour problems. For example fearfulness, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, dog/dog “reactivity”. They aim to bring the dog’s behaviour to as near to problem–free as possible; the aim being to enable dog and owner to live in peace and harmony, the dog to live a ‘good life’ and to be more open to learning (training) if its needed. Not just for the owner’s sake of course, but for the welfare of the dog. That may need some ‘dog training’ skills as well, but that isn’t the behaviourist’s main role and they may refer clients to a trainer once underlying behaviour issues have been sorted out.  A good behaviourist works in cooperation not just with trainers, but with vets too. Most work only on vet referral since many behaviour problems result from pain or illness.

Some trainers are qualified behaviourists, and vice versa. There is inevitably a lot of overlapping of skills between the two.

Experienced or qualified?

Any trainer or behaviourist will do their best to ensure that their advice is founded in good science. Unfortunately evidence and good science is not only rather lacking in important areas of behaviour work, sometimes it’s pretty hard to apply to the ‘real world’. But it is widely accepted that a behaviourist would be educated in a directly relevant subject to at least degree level, so will usually have a relevant degree – either undergraduate or post graduate, typically in Applied Animal Behaviour or Clinical Animal Behaviour, and would normally have been mentored or examined in some way in order to demonstrate they can apply their knowledge and skills working with clients.  

If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem then the first port of call should be the vet who can, and should, refer you to a qualified behaviourist. Veterinary surgeons don’t receive much training in dog behaviour at vet school, but they can specialise in behaviour work and some have pursued post graduate qualifications in behaviour, so it’s worth checking out if your vet’s practice has such a person. There are a few vets who are listed as specialists in veterinary behavioural medicine with the RCVS.

Some vet practices have vet nurses that have some extra training in behaviour to handle minor behaviour problems. Some may be qualified to work as behaviourists in their own right.  

Coaching and counselling skills also form an important part of the job. An effective behaviourist will have those too.

Dog behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills, so although there are certain evidence based protocols which a good behaviourist would normally follow, it’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive so there will be variations in how each carries out their work.  There are two important significant variables that makes each case unique – your dog. And you.

So its a real hotch-potch of things to look out for. It pays to do some research to find out who is the right person to help you and to find out what their qualifications and experience can offer you.

LISTS OF BEHAVIOURISTS

There are other organisations than these listed – but these (below) should identify most currently in practice in the UK and some include the members of those other organisations. Each organisation has their own criteria for membership so you may want to check that out.  Typically they will have minimum academic standards, usually an assessment process, a code of practice and/or some kind of ethical statement, how members or their courses are accredited (if they are), if they have a complaints procedure (just in case things go wrong) and how they expect members to behave professionally, and how they maintain their skills. They vary. Note there are also behaviourists who are well qualified, and experienced, who are not members of any organisation. There is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any behaviourist to join any organisation.   

ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.

An organisation which brings together members of a number of organisations, including the long established Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).  
http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/

Register of ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB)

The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) runs a certification scheme and lists those who have fulfilled their criteria.
https://www.asab.org/ccab/

FABClinicians – The Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians

An organisation established in 2020 which is a support organisation for those already academically qualified in clinical animal behaviour and working towards becoming certified by the Association of Animal Behaviour (ASAB).
https://fabclinicians.org/  

The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants is what it says on the tin – it includes a number of respected British behaviourists as members so is worth checking out
https://m.iaabc.org/

Vet referral

Expect to be asked to go to your vet for a formal referral. It is usually best to approach the behaviourist first though to check out they are happy to take on your particular case, to discuss how soon they can see you and importantly how much it will cost. Behaviourists aren’t cheap. But you may be able to claim it on your veterinary insurance. The behaviourist (and your insurance company of course) should be able to advise you on that, so don’t be shy about asking – they will want to you to be able to pay them. You may also need immediate ‘first aid’ advice on how to manage a dog safely until you can see someone. That can be especially important where aggression is involved.

If they don’t want to ask for a formal vet referral, or suggest a visit to the vet won’t be necessary, ask why. It is considered ‘good practice’ to make sure health issues are eliminated and they ought to be able to justify such advice. Some behaviourists like to schedule a short assessment visit first.

Do your research

By now, hopefully its become clear It is important to do your research, even if the person you come across is on one of the registers, above.  Or indeed, if you find someone who calls themself a behaviourist, who isn’t on any register. They may also be good at the job, but be mindful they aren’t under any obligation to adhere to laid out codes of practice, or be answerable to a professional body. So long as your vet can satisfy themselves that person is fully qualified (and insured) it ought not be a problem for you to express a preference.

Other organisations will have their own criteria for membership and have members who may be excellent at the job, and well qualified in most significant respects.

1 – Internet – Check the various registers, above.

2 – Check the websites of likely candidates.   

Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Especially if they aren’t on the registers, above. Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a behaviourist because I love animals and grew up with them” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. experience of specific issues which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems

Are they members of reputable organisation? (See above).

Do they describe HOW they work? Do they state what approach they take? They should. If they say things which suggest they buy into techniques which appear to rely on being a ‘pack leader’ or dismiss using food treats as a tool before they have even met your dog, for example, then you probably want to steer well clear of them.  If they are also trainers running classes, go and watch them at work if you want reassurances (but do ask first – it’s the polite thing to do J).

 3 – Ask other people locally. Get personal recommendations

Chat to local dog walkers, the local pet shop. Other dog owners. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions as well as sing praises of the people they respect though. Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a behaviourist is, and their effectiveness, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.

Now you have a behaviourist on board?

Once you have connected with a behaviourist, work with them as a team. A good behaviourist will want your feedback, and ready to adapt their advice (assuming its in everyone’s best interests to do so of course) to suit the circumstances, so don’t be scared to talk with them if their advice doesn’t appear to be working, or you believe it might be too difficult for you to follow. Check out you really are doing what they intended. 

But let’s assume all goes well and you are happy with the help you are getting. Behaviourists also love to know when things are working out and the problems sorted – so if they don’t ask, don’t let that stop you dropping them a line or giving them a call to say’ thanks! We are all well and happy now’. It will be appreciated.

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.

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.

Is your dog friendly and sociable? Please, please read this….

Sometimes I can be quite grumpy. This is one of those moments. I have news for the owners of friendly, sociable dogs …it’s not YOUR job to socialise mine or give me advice about how to train or manage my dog.

I am really pleased if you have friendly sociable dogs. We need more of them. Really. But the way to do it isn’t to just let yours go up mob-handed to grope and sniff and loom over other dogs that happen to visit “your” park. It isn’t your job to teach my dog how to put up with your dogs molesting them. If and when I want my dogs to be sociable and interact with yours I’ll let you (and them) know and I’ll check with you first if you are OK with it. Isn’t that simply good manners?

Why do I mind it happening? Well, sheer good manners aside about intruding unasked into other peoples’ space, I can’t know if your dogs are as friendly as you think they are. I can’t know your dog won’t guard the ball that is dropped at my dog’s feet. I can’t know that they have never ever attacked or barked at a dog in their lives. That they are always polite and friendly even if my dog objects to their attention.

And you can’t know if my dog is nervous. You can’t know if she or he has a history of being attacked by other dogs so can be defensive if they get into his face or stand over her with hackles up and tail rigid and wagging. You can’t know if she hurts if other dogs bowl her over by accident, so she gets worried when they get too close.

You can’t know if I have had a dog attacked by dogs that behave like yours, or I am worried I’ll get knocked over, so I too might be scared if I see a large dog (or worse a whole bunch!) come charging over to say hi. You can’t know that I mind my dog looking worried by your dogs.

I wonder if you know how many people cannot walk their dogs in “your” park, or sit in the park café peacefully minding their own business, because of the way you let your friendly off lead dog behave? How many dogs and owner are intimidated by them? How many dogs don’t get the opportunity to mooch about minding their own business in “your” park because their owners are too worried your dogs will intrude on them?

Please think twice before letting your dog or dogs go up to other dogs uninvited. I am pleased for you that they are friendly and you never have to worry about their behaviour, but that doesn’t mean I want my dog to be best mates with them. It doesn’t mean I don’t want my dog to have fun, or be friendly, I simply want it to be MINE and MY DOGS’S decision when thaty happens – not that of a random stranger who just happens to be in the same park as me. I wouldn’t want random strangers to come up and molest me – why should my dog have to put up with it?

So please don’t be offended if I ask you nicely to keep your dog away, or less nicely, if you have already let your dog upset mine, or interrupted what I am doing with my dog. If you care about the welfare of other dogs as much as your own, then you will not let it happen. Although, to be frank, whatever my reasons are for not wanting it to happen it’s none of your business. I shouldn’t have to explain or justify not wanting my dog to be pestered by yours. Ultimately who my dog socialises with (and when) ought to be my and my dog’s decision, not yours.

Grumpy person can now take a rest…:-)

I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK…

Older Brits will recall the cheery Monty Python Lumberjack Song. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK…” is how it starts off. Visions of plaid shirted friendly toilers of the earth (well, forest) wielding axes may not seem like an obvious analogy to help us understand dog behaviour, but bear with me.

Imagine…you are in a strange place. A man appears. You pause to observe him. He looks at you. He is waving a VERY large axe about. What happens next? Do you go to him and say hello in a friendly fashion, or run away screaming?

How do you decide if he is a friendly lumberjack just limbering up or a mad axeman intent on parting your head from your body?

THAT Is a situation we might be putting our dogs in every time we take them out and they meet other dogs.

The extensions to this analogy are numerous. If you live in Canada, in a forest, and you know your neighbours employ lots of men to chop down trees you are already going to be predisposed to believing any axe-wielder is a safe and friendly lumberjack, not an axe murderer.

But if you are visiting a strange place – say an empty and isolated old house in the middle of nowhere, not expecting to meet anyone, then your first responses might be very different. What if you had seen the film the Shining? Images of a crazed Jack Nicholson clearly focused on you, heading in your direction, chopping through doorways in his attempts to reach you, are likely to produce primitive fight/flight responses!

What influences our responses is complicated. Our past experience – good and bad, make a difference. If we are raised to believe all people wielding axes are friendly lumberjacks, we could come very unstuck if we go up to the one who is a ‘Mad Axeman’ to say hello. But on the other hand if we believe all axe-wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ and react with aggression to get him to stop his attack then we are in danger of assaulting every lumberjack we meet.

If in the past we have had personal experience of being attacked by a ‘Mad Axeman’, and KNOW (for a fact) that some men wielding axes can be highly dangerous (OK – I accept the analogy falls over a bit here as its doubtful you’d survive the experience to learn anything much from it…) then the chances of us feeling kindly towards anyone we suspect might be a ‘Mad Axeman’ are slim.

We need experience of observing and judging the difference between the two, safely. We need to know which are the safe axe wielders, and the unsafe ones. Whilst there are few ‘Mad Axemen’ out there, we (as are dogs) are hard wired to be suspicious of things that we haven’t learned are safe.

But therein lies problems in handling our dogs in the real world where they see dogs without knowing if they are the doggy equivalent of a ‘Mad Axeman’ or a nice friendly lumberjack. It perhaps raises more dilemmas than answers. Should we expose our dogs to ‘Mad Axemen’ in a safe way so they observe and learn not to go up and to not give them a friendly hug? Or learn what signs of aggressive intent mean, delivered in a less extreme way? Or do we want our puppies to grow up naively unaware that there are bad guys out there?

In theory in would be great if our dogs knew they were safe because they’ve learned to put their trust in the human holding the lead – but in reality most reactive dogs have learned the hard way that human judgements about such things often fall short of ideal and they (we!) make mistakes.

Helping a dog that appears to believe all axe wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ to realise there are in fact a lot of friendly lumberjacks out there is an invaluable lesson. That the ‘Mad Axeman’ is the exception, not the rule. The trouble is they largely (understandably) don’t want to hang about or prolong the encounter in order to find that out. Usually we cannot know why these dogs perceive other dogs as ‘Mad Axemen’ and sometimes its hard to know if they are truly scared since signals when dogs are aroused can be confusing and unclear.

But one thing that our dogs must learn from us is that they are safe when they see what they believe is the doggy equivalent of a man wielding an axe – that whilst it will be helpful to learn the difference so they don’t need to panic any more, they need to know their owners aren’t going to force them closer or expose them to them in a way which neither allows safe, thoughtful observation nor the possibility of escape.  Allow neither then don’t be surprised if he reacts just as you would if you found yourself trapped in a room with a Mad Axeman!

 

 

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.