Thursday, July 29, 2010

What's in a Word?

Is this dog reactive?

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post about whether or not reactive dogs should be allowed at trials. I said this in the comments, but just to clarify: no one is seriously suggesting that reactive dogs will be banned from trials. The Rally Advisory Committee did not suggest this, nor did the AKC. It was the personal opinion of a few list members. Most of those people were pretty clear that their objection was not to how a dog is described, but rather to what a dog does. I reiterated that idea, as did all of you, in the comments.

But I wrote the post as a personal reaction to one poster, who criticized a handler they saw at a trial. That handler had described their dog as reactive, and kept the dog in the car until its turn to show, because the trial site was too busy/stressful for the dog otherwise. Even though the dog worked beautifully, and interrupted no one’s performance, the poster thought it was inappropriate for the dog to be there.

Now, maybe this poster is just a jerk. It’s easy to dismiss a differing opinion that way, after all. But I think there’s more to it than that, and I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss that person’s concerns with an insult. Really, I think it comes down to semantics. Specifically, what does it mean when we describe a dog as reactive?

I’ve tried to explain it before, but each attempt seems to have fallen short of the mark. I’ve captured parts of what it means, but “reactivity” is such a nebulous concept that I don’t know that we’ve really agreed on what it all means. Oh, sure, it is pretty universally accepted that a dog who barks, lunges and growls at something is “reactive.” However, there are three areas that I think are still kind of cloudy.

The first area was touched upon in comments: how do you know when a dog is reactive vs. green and inexperienced vs. excitable and over-the-top? Those are three different concepts, but they can look similar. I suspect that each of us might assign the same dog to different categories. I also wonder if the categories don’t overlap. Maisy is, in general, pretty excitable, and I think that fuels her reactivity at times. But where is the line between excitable and reactive? What’s the difference? Is there an underlying personality trait that makes one excitable dog reactive, while another excitable dog is not?

Which brings me to my second question: is reactivity a personality trait, or is it a specific behavior? If someone describes a dog as reactive, do they mean that the dog as a whole is prone to snarky outbursts? Are they describing a personality type? Or are they referring to the behavior in front of them at that moment, the one that looks like barking and lunging? If so, does that means a dog might be reactive at times, but not at others?

When I describe Maisy as reactive, I mean it as a description of what she’s capable of. In a bad week, one full of stressful things like trials and big scary dogs and bicycles, she has, at most, 60 minutes of reactive behavior- barking, lunging or growling. Sixty minutes out of 10,080 minutes in a week. That’s one-half of one percent of the time.

But I still call her reactive, not because it’s an accurate descriptor of what she’s like most of the time, but because it reminds me that there is the possibility that she’ll go over-threshold. Because I call her reactive, because I have that reminder, I do things differently with her than I would otherwise. I leave her at home instead of taking her to the big family barbecue where there are half a dozen kids running around. I enter her in one day of trials, not two. Calling her reactive reminds me that I need to honor her needs, and that I must protect her from excessive stress.

She’s improved greatly over the last two years, and that number has dropped dramatically. Which brings me to the last thing that I think is confusing: can a dog be cured of reactivity? Is there ever a point where a reactive dog will abandon the bark-growl-lunge behavior? And if it does, is that the result of good training, good management, or both? Assuming that a reactive dog can be trained to the point that it no longer displays reactive behavior, how long does that need to go on before we quit calling the dog reactive? Do we need to worry about the possibility of regression? And, if the dog ends up in a new home, will the reactivity re-emerge or go away entirely?

I ask this last question because I think that if I treated Maisy like the typical American dog- one that hangs out at home instead of going to classes and trials- she would probably have so few episodes of reactive behavior that I would have never realized she has this tendency! But, I like to do performance stuff with her, and I daresay she enjoys it, too, so the reactive behavior is present in our lives. But if it wasn’t, if I had chosen to just hang out with her at home, she would still have the same personality. How would I have described her then? As nervous or fearful or mildly anxious? Because all of that is true, too.

Going back to where we began, do you see now why I wondered how the commenter in question might define reactivity differently than I do? Did he, perhaps, believe that when a dog is called reactive it refers to behavior, not personality? Or did the handler with the reactive dog in that story call her dog reactive as a reminder to honor her dog’s needs, and not as an assessment of how the dog behaves the vast majority of the time?

I know I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what we mean by words, perhaps more time than is really necessary, but I’ve always believed that there is power in words. More importantly, we can prevent misunderstandings and the hurt feelings that result if we are clear in what we mean. I would love to see the terminology around reactive dogs cleared up so that we all know exactly what it means when we give a dog that label.

Now it’s your turn: what does the word mean to you? How would you answer any of the many questions I've asked? Do you think it matters how we define the word, or am I over-thinking things? I'd love to hear your opinions!


Sam said...

This reminds me of a time once on a dog forum when someone criticized me for using the word "shy" in place of "fearful." I coughed it all up to semantics, but he saw a true difference in what it meant to be a "shy" dog and what it meant to be a "fearful" dog.

I guess I don't really know what my definition of a reactive dog would be. When I talk about reactivity to others, I make it a point to use the word "anxiety" as well. If people view reactivity as simply barking and growling, they're going to get the wrong idea about it. Even in the case of dogs who react because they're excited (in a good way) to see another dog/person, I think anxiety is a good word to use.

Raegan said...

Part of my definition of a reactive dog is one who's threshold for stimulus is lower than normal. I think anxiety is a big part of it too, because not only is the environment overwhelming, the dog is anxious about it and over reacts.

If you're in New York City for the first time, you might be overwhelmed by all the people and lights and STUFF, but you can still read a map and find your way to Broadway. But if you're worried about being mugged, run over by a taxi, and being crushed by scaffolding, it's going to be a challenge to OPEN the map and you're likely to lash out if someone stops to help you.

I don't think reactivity is "curable." Treatable has a more accurate connotation to me. I think there are ways to raise a dog's threshold and give him tools to manage his reactions, but especially the longer the reactivity is allowed to be practiced there's always a chance to fall back on that behavior of bark-growl-lunge when the dog goes over threshold.

reactive vs. green and inexperienced vs. excitable and over-the-top

I don't think green and inexperienced falls under the cloud of reactivity. I think a handler who does the trainer equivalent of throwing the dog in the deep end can CAUSE reactivity, but generally a young dog isn't reactive because of his inexperience. A dog can be young and reactive, of course.

I'm less sure about the line between reactive and excitable. Gatsby's reactivity has a very strong component of excitement involved. He wants to sniff this, greet that, play over there, and he wants to do it now now now fast fast fast. That's why I like the word reactivity to describe him, because even though he's throwing a holy hell of a fit, it's NOT aggression. It's overstimulation and his little Schnauzer brain just can't process it any more.

Anonymous said...

It always saddens me to label dogs as "reactive," "aggressive," "dominant," or any other derogatory label. It's even sadder when I read about a person who has managed their dog well in a trial situation by keeping the dog in the car and away from other dogs to keep their stress levels reduced and allows the team to function well, and there is another person who thinks that that management is wrong. Sad and nieve of the person making such a judgement. Every dog is an individual. Every dog needs different tools to help the team function better so they can perform their best. Kudos to the human side of the team for recognizing and understanding that. It makes no difference to me if the dog is "reactive" when stressed or "shuts down" and goes inward when stressed. The result is the same- team is not functioning to their full potential. They are missing a tool to manage the situation. For some dogs, the trial situation will never be something they enjoy and the amount of tools required to keep the team functioning will be too many to be able to use effectively in that atmosphere. For others, the tools give them a level of security that allows them to grow and use less and less tools to function well together. No one can know what kind of dog they have initially and no one can predict how the team will evolve. It's hard not to make snap judgements when witnessing extreme behaviors, and by "extreme" I mean cardinal sins like going so far over the threshold that direct contact or biting is involved. For those situations I do draw a line and say no more showing- too dangerous for all concerned. Yet, "snarks" are warnings and not action in my opinion. Dog/team may be done for the moment, day or week, but use more/different tools and manage the situation better and it may get better.
So, really, I will label a single behavior as reactive, but the dog- nope. It's no different than calling someone "grumpy." They may be grumpy at that moment, but we all know they do not stay grumpy forever. Can we ban grumpy people from shows?


Crystal said...

Michelle, that's a very thought-provoking comment. Although I'm not sure what about the label "reactive" saddens you, I think I understand your point. Labels can be harmful. I think sometimes labels are used as justification for inhumane training practices, abuse, or even euthanization. It can also be used to blame the dog, even if the handler was at fault, or as an excuse to not train the dog appropriately.

But I also think they can be helpful. They certainly provide convenient short-hand for communication, although I do think that some of our labels- like "reactive"- aren't defined well enough. Still, they do provide a starting point for understanding, if we're willing to learn.

When I finally understood that Maisy's reactive behavior wasn't because she was acting naughty or being bad, but because she was feeling anxious, it allowed me to have a lot more empathy for her, and set me on a training path that has ultimately helped her. It's also served as a reminder to honor her needs. Would I do that without a label? Certainly, but it does make it easier to explain to people at trials why I need to scratch entries for my seemingly normal dog.

It is my goal with this blog to help people understand reactive behavior in general by sharing Maisy's story. When people use the term "reactive," I hope to help bring that empathy and understanding, rather than blame and mistreatment.

Thank you for your comment. I love it when people make me think! :)

Sam said...

"When I finally understood that Maisy's reactive behavior wasn't because she was acting naughty or being bad, but because she was feeling anxious, it allowed me to have a lot more empathy for her, and set me on a training path that has ultimately helped her. "

That's exactly why I think that the word anxiety is so important! People are familiar with the term "anxiety" - they recognize it in people.. as a behavior that a person can't really control, and might need help overcoming. To people who have never dealt with fear/aggression/etc. in their dogs, "reactive" might not mean a whole lot.. but perhaps "anxious" will make them think a little bit more about what the dog is actually feeling, instead of just focusing on the behaviors that are surfacing.

Just another thought of mine.. :)

Crystal said...

I think anxiety is a key feature of reactivity. I think that maybe you can substitute words like fear or stress in place of it though... But then, I'm not really sure about the differences between anxiety, fear, and stress. They're all very similar to me.