Thursday, July 29, 2010
What's in a Word?
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!