Since learning that Maisy is a reactive dog, I’ve learned a lot about how to work with her, both to keep her from reacting, and to help her calm down once she does. One thing that still confused me, though, was about thresholds. Specifically, about what I should do when she goes over-threshold.
First, a quick lesson: a “threshold” is the point at which your dog can no longer remain calm in the face of a trigger. These triggers are not static; they can change dependent on the situation, such as location, time of day, or even the dog’s mood. They can also “stack” on one another, where two mild triggers together become a single, scarier one. For example, Maisy tends to find men carrying bags of dog food on their shoulders scary. She also finds a particular PetSmart more stressful than others. She can handle being there just fine, and she can handle seeing men carry bags of dog food when we are at other pet stores. But if she sees that happen at the “scary” PetSmart, she is almost guaranteed to react.
It is important to learn to identify a reactive dog’s thresholds to different things because once your dog reacts, she can no longer think rationally. During a full-blown reactive response, the part of the brain that processes learning is shut off. This means that once your dog has gone over threshold, your sole purpose is damage control: you need to prevent anyone from getting hurt, and help your dog calm down.
The reason I’ve struggled with how to best manage Maisy when she’s become reactive is that there are conflicting opinions on what to do. Some people say that once your dog has gone over threshold, you should immediately remove them from the situation and help them calm down because they are no longer capable of learning. Others say you shouldn’t do this because if you do, your dog is learning they can get out of something by demonstrating reactive behavior. I can see both points.
Further complicating the matter is that Maisy seems to have two motivations behind her reactive behavior: truly emotional and over-threshold responses, and learned behaviors in which she appears to be over-threshold, but isn’t. I can tell she isn’t actually emotionally upset because her body language is fairly relaxed, and because she will self-interrupt herself, and return to me for a treat. This is a very clear example of a behavior chain but it’s not really reactivity any more. It just looks like it.
This means that when Maisy demonstrates reactive behavior, I need to quickly assess her body language and decide if she’s truly upset or not. I’ll talk more about Maisy’s reactivity as a learned behavior and the way I respond to those instances in the future. But what should I do when she really is upset?
I already know that I don’t want to force her to stay in a scary situation (also called “flooding,” something which can have dangerous side effects), but I do want her to learn to calm herself down in the face of a trigger. As a result, in the past I have settled on having her move away from the trigger a considerable distance to a location where she could still see it, on the theory that this reduced the intensity of the trigger while still allowing her to learn to calm herself in the presence of a visible trigger.
Over the weekend, though, I had two very similar experiences where she became emotionally reactive and either went over threshold or was very close to doing so. In both instances, the best way to move away was to go out of sight. I was astonished by how much more effective this was. In both cases, the intensity lessened much quicker while we were out of sight. Even better, when we returned to the situation, she was much calmer than she has been in the past when we’ve re-approached a trigger which had remained in sight. I found this interesting because we both did pretty much exactly the same things we usually do in order to calm down.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it was easier and faster for her to calm down out of sight of the trigger; she’s always been very visual. However, I am surprised by how much calmer she was upon returning to the situation. As a result, I’ve decided that when I know she is truly emotionally upset, I will honor that, and allow her to leave. If I can’t tell if it’s emotional or learned behavior, I’ll err on the side of caution by allowing her to leave anyway. In order to prevent this from potentially reinforcing the reactive behavior, once she’s calm, I will have her return so that she also learns that she can remain calm and control her emotions, even when there's something scary nearby. I think this strikes a nice balance, and I’m excited to continue working with her with this new, best of both worlds approach. As always, I’ll keep you updated on how it goes.