Friday, July 2, 2010
The Conflicted Nature of Reactivity
Katie, over at Lessons From and For 4 Legs, has been posting about reactivity, and what it’s like for her dog, Maizey. The picture in this post is wonderful. It’s a great shot of what I called “the conflicted nature of reactivity.” Of course, Katie just had to ask me what I meant by that, a question which ended up being harder to answer than I expected! But, I love questions that make me think, so here is the expanded version of what I told her.
First, I really think the term “reactivity” is a bit of a misnomer. Every dog will react to environmental stimuli, so to say that a dog is “reacting” really doesn’t tell us much other than the fact that the dog in question is alive. What the term really reflects is the idea of overreactivity; that is, that the dog reacts to something inappropriately. Even this is a problematic statement- it demonstrates a value judgment that we place on our dogs based on a very human understanding of their culture.
Still, problems with the nomenclature aside, it seems to me that the term reactivity has become shorthand for “a dog who is displaying aggressive-type behaviors, but who isn’t actually acting aggressive.” Having a succinct word to describe this concept is important, because labels really change the way we think. If we call a dog aggressive, it changes the way the owner sees their dog. It causes embarrassment and shame at best, and at worst, costs a good dog his life. It also means that others won’t be able to see the wonderfulness of our dogs because of preconceived notions.
By being able to call my dog “reactive” instead, those in the know immediately understand that my dog is all bark and no bite, while the less dog-savvy among us can ask questions and learn what I mean by that without having visions of Cujo dancing in their heads. (As a side note: I think it is important to recognize that all dogs, reactive or not, can and will bite if the wrong circumstances come together. Thankfully, it’s rare that those circumstances converge upon the so-called normal dogs. And if we learn to protect our reactive dogs, it can be a relatively small risk for them as well.)
It is this definition, “a dog who is displaying aggressive-type behaviors, but who isn’t actually acting aggressive,” that really gives us a clue into the conflicted nature of reactive dogs. Reactive dogs are stressed dogs. They are insecure, fearful or simply unsure of their role in the world. If I may be anthropomorphic for a moment, they desperately want to be good dogs, but don’t know how. Although they might bite if pressed into the wrong circumstance, they don’t want to.
What a reactive dog wants is to get away from whatever is stressing them out. If left to their own devices, they will generally choose to run away from the stressor instead of trying to attack it. But when they can’t remove themselves from the stressful situation- such as when they are behind a fence or on a leash- they have to find another way to escape. Some dogs shut down entirely in this situation, and we label them shy or afraid. But reactive dogs are probably afraid, too, but they are the ones who make a big scene. They bark, they growl, and they lunge forward towards whatever has caused them fear. Again, this might be a bit anthropomorphic, but I presume that they are trying to out-scare the scary thing. If they can look tough, perhaps whatever is stressing them out will go away.
Thus, reactive dogs are conflicted. They don’t really want to hurt the other dog (person, balloon, whatever is scaring them). They don’t want to get into a conflict, but they don’t see any other options to resolve the situation, so they pretend that they are the baddest dog on the block, in the hopes of bluffing well enough to get the other dog (person, etc.) to back off. It’s pretty clever, really- reactive dogs are pretty much the equivalent of Vegas card sharks.
Even though the behaviors displayed are basically the same, careful observers will be able to see the difference between a reactive dog and a truly aggressive one. In the picture above, Maisy is encountering the Bob-a-Lot toy for the first time. It has a weighted bottom which makes it rock back and forth- something that is a bit scary for her. You can see how she is feeling conflicted in the picture: she's both leaning back out of caution (look at the diagonal in her front legs) and leaning forward out of interest (her head and neck is stretched forward).
Katie’s picture of Maizey is an even better example, though, as it catches the dog in a stressful moment, as opposed to my Maisy's cautious interest. Katie very rightly notes that Maizey is both “hunched back on her haunches yet at the same time stretching toward the trigger.” That is two very different communication signals. Her dog is saying both, “please leave me alone,” and “I can be scary, too,” hence my comment that the picture perfectly captures the conflicted nature of reactivity.
I think the most important thing an owner of a reactive dog can do is educate themselves on canine body language. I love The Language of Dogs DVD by Sarah Kalnajs. It’s broken down into small segments, so it’s easy to watch a few minutes here and there. For those who want a book, Turid Rugaas’ Calming Signals is a short, easy read, but packed with great information. There are lots of other great resources on body language, too, so pick one up and start learning!
But once you’ve done that, you need to see what your dog’s particular accent is. A prick eared dog’s communication will look different from one with drop ears, and a full tail will express things a docked tail cannot. Once you learn which signals mean that your dog is stressed, you’ll be able to see the conflicted nature of reactivity, too.