A four month old Maisy and the elliptical. Although you can't tell from the picture, she was barking and lunging at this scary new thing.
In my last entry, I told you a bit about reactivity in dogs. I think the easiest way to sum it up is in an equation:
anxiety + poor impulse control = reactive behavior
Today, I’m going to tell you how that applies to Maisy. Let’s start with the first component: anxiety. This is probably the largest contributor to Maisy’s reactivity. I’ll talk more about this in the future, but I believe her anxiety is the result of both genetic and environmental factors.
Anyway, Maisy was always a fearful puppy. Although I didn’t know it at the time, there were several incidents during her early puppyhood that I now recognize as warning signs of what she would become. I wrote this in my journal when she was four months old:
Maisy isn't a barker at all, but once in awhile, something will totally get her going. For example, a soda can. Seriously, there's a soda can next to the bathtub (left over from my hot bath), and that totally freaked her out. Also, the elliptical. That scared her so bad [the first time she saw it in use] that she refused to go in the living room for several hours.
When she took her Canine Good Citizen test at 10 months old, she passed all of the elements with flying colors. However, the evaluator wrote in one comment: “Seems a little worried.”
These days, she tends to be worried about a lot of things, but she has two main “triggers”: sudden environmental changes, and new or unfamiliar things. The latter is likely due to insufficient socialization as a puppy. The former, though, is something that has always been with her; that incident with the soda can is a classic example of an environmental change (which likely seemed sudden to her, since it wasn’t there when she left the room, and it was when she returned).
Sudden environmental changes are one of the hardest things for her, probably because it is difficult to prepare her for them. With new or scary things, I can give her the space and time she needs to get used to them (and I’ll discuss how I do that in a future entry). But when things suddenly change, there isn’t much I can do to prepare her. Some of the things which might startle her include people or dogs “appearing out of nowhere” (typically coming through a doorway that she hadn’t noticed), or loud and unexpected noises.
The second component is poor impulse control, which is a classic hallmark of reactive dogs. Maisy has this as well, but it’s gotten better with time. Unlike genetics and a lack of socialization as a puppy, I can fix my mistakes a bit easier. We spend a lot of time working on relaxation and impulse control.
Because Maisy is a corgi mix, almost all of her impulse control issues are about movement. More specifically, it’s about wanting to chase something that is moving, and being unable to do so, resulting in frustration. Typical things that makes her want to give chase include bicycles, skateboards, children playing with balls (she loves balls), and selected other dogs.
When you put these two things together, the end result is reactive behavior. Maisy’s reactivity is very typical: She will lunge, growl and bark at things. The interesting thing is that I can usually tell if her reaction is coming from a place of anxiety and fear, or if it’s an impulsive, frustrated response.
When Maisy is reacting out of fear, she tends to freeze first. This is often a very quick thing, making it easy to miss, with almost an air of uncertainty about her. It’s like she’s trying to decide what to do. Once she does, she almost always chooses to lunge towards whatever is scaring her. If she’s on leash, she will hit the end of it, but if she’s off leash, she will lunge towards the scary thing while keeping a safe distance- usually 10 to 15 feet. Depending on how scary the thing is, she will either growl or bark. If you rank things by how scary they are, for the least scary thing, she will lunge and give a soft “wuff” as a warning. For scarier things, she’ll lunge and growl. For the scariest things of all, she’ll lunge and bark loudly and repeatedly.
It’s a different story when she’s reacting due to frustration and impulsivity. It may seem like a fine distinction, but instead of lunging, she’ll rush forward. If she’s on leash, she’ll strain and pull, but if she’s off leash, her reactivity diminishes (probably because there’s less frustration involved), and she will give chase. Either way, she may growl, but it takes on a different sound, becoming more playful in tone. And, she’s quite likely to bark, perhaps more likely to bark than growl.
Interestingly, other dogs seem to fit in both categories for her. Some dogs are scary for her, and while it’s hard to predict which dog is going to evoke a fearful response, they are often large and dark-colored. They may have erect or cropped ears, as well. And, regardless of size, any dog (or person, for that matter) that stares at her is guaranteed to provoke her. But some dogs intrigue her, and she will want play with them, which is evident by her use of play bows and/or a “helicopter tail,” my term for a tail that goes in wide, loose circles. These are also very brief signals that can be difficult to see.
When I set out to write this entry, I knew that both anxiety and impulse control issues were contributing to her behavior. What I find fascinating is how her behavior differs depending on the emotion behind her response. The differences are very subtle; so subtle, in fact, that I wasn’t fully aware of them until I began writing. Previously, I’ve always responded the same way, regardless of what was going on. But, upon further reflection, it does seem that I can either prevent or interrupt her behavior easier depending on why she’s reacting.
Going forward, I will be very curious to see if I can identify her emotional state during the heat of the moment, and then adjust my responses in a proactive and ultimately more helpful manner. This is why I'm so excited about this blog- writing tends to help me organize my thoughts, think through what's going on, and come up with new ideas. Kind of like training, I guess. Anyway, I'll keep you updated on our progress!