Category Archives: “Reactive” dogs

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.



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!