Sunday, July 25, 2010
Should reactive dogs be allowed at trials?
The AKC recently released its Rally Advisory Committee Recommendations on proposed changes to the rules and exercises of the sport. Now, I don’t currently do AKC rally, but I do belong to a general rally obedience email list, and these changes have been one of the prominent topics of discussion lately.
I’ve been skimming most of these posts- they don’t really apply to me, after all- but one thread did catch my eye. It started out discussing the committee’s recommendation for a new class (Rally Master) in which there are group stays, but ended up being about reactive dogs. Some people were worried that rally has become the sport for “unsocialized, reactive, or aggressive dogs,” and strongly felt that such dogs shouldn’t be allowed at trials.
While I agree with the people criticizing the presence of dogs who are acting poorly at a trial, I disagree with those who completely dismiss all reactive dogs, simply because they are reactive. Don’t get me wrong- bad behavior has no place at a trial. It is not fair to anyone involved. It is not fair to the other dogs and owners who are on the receiving end of snarky behavior. It is not fair to the dog itself, who is clearly over-stressed. And it’s not fair to the handler, who will be embarrassed, ostracized or just won’t have fun.
But some people were upset with those who simply describe their dogs as reactive, or with people who leave their dogs in the car between runs because the dog has difficulty with prolonged exposure to a trial environment. I really think such criticism is unfair, because if you’re trialing a reactive dog, you need to protect your dog. Beyond that, though, just because a dog is reactive does not automatically mean it is going to behave badly. In fact, I have taken Maisy to trials where people looked at me with disbelief when I said she was reactive- that’s how relaxed and happy she was.
I’ve said before that our current terminology just isn’t very good, and in this case, I suspect that those critics- the ones who say no reactive dogs should be allowed at trials- understand reactivity differently than I do. Where others seem to see reactivity as a problem that is fixed in stone for life, I see it as something changeable. After all, when it comes down to it, reactive behavior is just that- behavior. And behavior can be modified.
Surely part of the problem is that the label of “reactive” really doesn’t get at the root cause of the behavior. Is it due to genetics? Is it due to poor socialization as a puppy? Is it due to a bad experience? It might be just one of these, it might be a combination, or it might be something else entirely. But I think it makes a difference when it comes to predicting future outcomes.
Many reactive dogs can recover to a normal (or at least near-normal) state. A dog who learned reactive behavior as a response to a traumatic incident can overcome its anxiety through careful counter-conditioning. A dog who missed out on critical socialization as a puppy can make up for it as an adult (although it is slow-going, and will never be as good as it could have been).
Even dogs who have a questionable genetic background- dogs like my Maisy, for example- can make huge strides in improving their reactive behavior. They may not recover fully, but they can learn to keep it together well enough that they can successfully attend a trial. They may need modifications to the usual routine- they may need shorter days or to rest in the car- but they can do it.
Even so, I don’t think this is the case for all reactive dogs. For some, the damage is just too deep, the behavior is too ingrained. Some will always be right on the edge, always in danger of falling off the wagon, so to speak. Some of these dogs will never be able to manage a trial environment, and for those dogs, I believe it is inappropriate to enter them in trials, no matter how talented they are.
So, those of us with reactive dogs need take a critical look at our dogs. We need to be honest with ourselves about where our dog is at, both in general, and on any given day. We may need to forfeit entry fees on days where our dogs just can’t pull themselves together. We may even need to retire them entirely.
After all, when it comes to working with reactive dogs (and maybe the normal ones, too), the process is more important the result. I am certainly aware of the fact that, despite my dreams of championship titles, we may never attain them. Regardless of how far we go, whether Maisy retires tomorrow or whether she gets an OTCH, in the end, I will know that we have done our best together.