Reactivity is a complex behaviour challenge. It comes with behaviours such as lunging, growling, and barking and it is important to remember that these are symptoms of the problem - they are not the problem itself. When working our dogs through reactivity challenges we want to address the underlying cause of these behaviours.
In a sense, these behaviours can be good things to see. They let us know that there is something emotional happening in our dogs. It is important not to punish these behaviours. Although punishing a growl may make it go away, without addressing the reason for the growl all we are really doing is removing the warning system. It is like taking the batteries out of the smoke detector.
Reactivity tends to come from either fear or frustration. A dog who is uncertain about a stimuli may put on a big show in hopes of keeping the stimuli away. And it works. No one approaches a dog who is lunging, growling and barking. Because it works we see the problem grow - the reactions seem to get bigger. It is a self rewarding behaviour. In order for these behaviours to lessen, we need to address the fear that is driving them. A dog can also develop reactivity out of frustration, although it seems to be less common in my experience. These dogs are typically over-the-top social and struggle with not being able to immediately see and play with everyone they meet. The frustration tends to come out very audibly which makes the dog owner uneasy. This dog is less likely to be allowed to say hello (or less likely to have other people wanting to say hello) and then the problem escalates as the frustration builds. In this case we need to address the dog’s impulse control in order to see a reduction in the reactive behaviour.
Counter Conditioning and Desensitization
Counter Conditioning and Desensitization are the two main plans for helping our dogs through fear and reactivity challenges. Counter Conditioning helps them to learn a different association when they see their triggers. Right now, the sight of a dog brings out feelings of frustration, fear and/or excitement and puts your dog into an over aroused state. With Counter Conditioning we purposely pair this stimuli with something pleasant (in this case, food). With continued pairings the emotional response begins to change. Instead of the trigger meaning something frustrating or scary, it begins to mean something good - treats from mom and dad!
Desensitization has us working our reactive dogs at a distance from their triggers. We want to be far enough away that we can have success. A dog 100 feet away is much less scary than one who is 10 feet away. As you work with your dog you will see them start to feel calmer about their triggers. Once they are having some good success, we can begin to decrease the distance. We always want to wait until they are ready before moving forward, if they start to struggle it could be an indication that we went too fast. If we back off a bit we’ll have better success!
Drae Fitchett Baker, CBCC-KA has been training dogs professionally since 2008. She lives in Calgary with her partner, Ryan, their two cats, Presley and Cash, and of course their two dogs, Slugs and Diego. In addition to working with animals, Drae spends her time gardening, cooking, reading, watching soccer and sings with her grandmother in a choir.