In my previous entry, I told you that Maisy is “reactive.” What I didn’t tell you is what I mean by that. The short answer is that a reactive dog is one who overreacts to stimuli, usually by barking, growling or lunging. To a dog geek like me, though, the long answer is much more interesting…
When a dog is confronted by an experience, whether it’s something the dog has seen a million times before, like other dogs, or whether it’s a novel stimulus, such as the sudden appearance of a man carrying helium balloons, the dog must decide how it’s going to react.
Some dogs, the so-called normal ones, are relatively unconcerned by the stimulus. They may or may not be interested in whatever it is, but either way, their internal process can be described as, “Oh, another dog. I’ve seen those before. No big deal.”
Another dog might be momentarily unsure, especially if it’s a new experience, or a sudden change in the environment, but will recover quickly and go about his business. “Woah! What’s that? Oh, it’s a guy carrying balloons. Well, that’s a bit odd, but I guess it’s okay.” These dogs are also what we might call normal.
Reactive dogs, though, are the ones that overreact. “Holy crap!” they shout, “I’ve never seen that before. I think it’s going to eat me!!” Of course, dogs don’t actually shout, so what you and I see is a dog who is growling, barking and lunging.
"But wait!" I can hear some of you thinking. "Isn’t that a sign of an aggressive dog?"
It can be. If you encounter a strange dog who is growling, barking and lunging at you, it can definitely look aggressive. But where the aggressive dog actually means you harm, the reactive dog typically just wants you to go away. The aggressive dog is probably reacting from a place of confidence, or acting offensively, while a reactive dog is usually reacting from a place of insecurity or fear, and thus acting defensively.
Author's update, April 2011: In the two years since I originally wrote this post, I've come to believe that reactivity and aggression are more like a continuum or a spectrum. Most experts I've spoken with don't use the term "reactivity," and instead call it "fear aggression." Indeed, much of what I've read since posting this suggests that the vast majority of dog bites are due to fear, not confidence. As a result, I no longer differentiate the terms based on the dog's emotions.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Dogs, like most animals, including humans, have a fight or flight response. The aggressive dog chooses to fight. The fearful one would rather pick the flight option. Unfortunately, our dogs so often don’t get to make such choices. Stuck behind fences or on leashes, they get backed into metaphorical corners. Since they cannot escape the scary situation, they may try to intimidate whatever they’re scared of, in essence saying, “See? I’m big and scary. You should be afraid of ME instead. Go away!” It’s an act of bravado; last thing the reactive dog generally wants to do is actually fight. (Don’t think this means the reactive dog is safe, though. If he feels threatened enough, he may bite.)
Not all reactivity comes out of a place of fear, though. Some dogs, especially young ones, get very excited when they see other people or dogs. When this happens, they may rush forward, eager to greet a potential new friend. When they find they can’t, either because they’re on leash or behind a fence, they often become frustrated and bark. “I want to come see you, but I can’t!” they say. What you’re seeing is a lack of impulse control on the dog’s part. Reactive dogs almost universally have issues with self-control.
Of course, we owners don’t like this behavior. If we perceive it as the dog misbehaving- after all, he knows better than to pull when on the leash- we might discipline him by yelling or giving a leash correction. And while some dogs understand that their person is telling them, no, don’t pull and rush toward that other dog, others get the message all mixed up. “Wow, I tried to be friendly to that other dog, and my neck ended up hurting. I don’t like that dog.” The dog may decide that other dogs are a Bad Thing to encounter, and will begin to bark and growl the next time they see another out of anxiety and fear that it will happen again.
On the other hand, if we are simply embarrassed by the dog’s over-exuberant and rude behavior, we might become worried, tense, and tighten up on the leash in our attempts to control or contain him. Dogs are very sensitive, and can discern even the smallest change in our body language, and may begin to wonder if they misunderstood the situation. “Wow, my person really doesn’t like that other dog. Maybe I shouldn’t, either.” Again, the dog might begin to overreact in anticipation of our response.
Thus, we can see that reactivity can be both an emotional reaction and a misdirected frustration response or lack of impulse control. No matter why the reactivity started, though, the dog continues the behavior because it worked. Maybe they got the scary thing to go away. Maybe you loosened your leash and released the pressure. Maybe it was something else that we can’t figure out, but the bottom line is: behavior only continues when it has been rewarded. It then becomes a pattern, an almost-instinctual way to respond. This habit is reactivity.
Genetics and early experiences (called socialization), greatly affect whether a dog is one of those normal ones or not. The way we react, or don’t react, also influences the dog’s responses.
In future entries, I’ll tell you about Maisy, what her reactivity looks like, and how it affects our lives. I’ll tell you what I did right, and perhaps more interestingly, what I did wrong so that you can learn from my mistakes. I’ll tell you what I’ve done to help Maisy overcome her fear, and how I manage her environment so that her fear doesn’t get the best of her.
Until then, enjoy your dogs!