Tag Archives: Reactivity

A Pigglepig world

Imagine…

You are a very sociable person. You were raised in a large family. You love your fellow humans. But suddenly you find yourself in a new home. No more humans. None. Your family is the strange animals that care for you. Pigglepigs. They don’t behave like humans. Their behaviour is a complete mystery to you. They don’t talk to you in any kind of language you can understand – just a load of noises which make no sense. Worse, from that day for weeks, you don’t see, let alone meet, another human. You miss them desperately! But you get along OK. The Pigglepigs are kind, albeit bossy. Then one day, out on a walk with your Pigglepig 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 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 have 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 the one that 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. 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 WEEKS.

Three dogs being sociable and greeting each other


Your Pigglepig family gallops up and intervenes to stop things getting out of hand. “It’s OK!” says Dad Pigglepig. “He’s friendly!” They are angry with the grumpy old man who’d told you off so aggressively. Then they turn round and tell you off too. But what for you really don’t know. You did just want to be friends! 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 or upset. You hadn’t been able to stay around and make friends with any of them and worse, there was the shock of finding out that some people are horrible. A poor encounter on every level.

We can easily see how a young dog might be set up to make bad mistakes when encounters with other dogs are mismanaged by us humans, or he is allowed to behave in a way that upsets other dogs. The dog barking and lunging with either excitement or frustration on the end of the lead; the grumpy old man as he reacts sharply, and aggressively, to stop other dogs from hurting him or being knocked over.  Both might be labelled as “reactive”, but they have very different motivations; potentially very different outcomes in the long term.

“Reactivity” – 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.