In my day job, I work with children with disabilities, and roughly half of them have autism. They range from non-verbal to incessant talkers. Some are completely dependent on others, while others are thriving in society. A few of them have intense behaviors, while others are well-adjusted kids. In other words, none of them are the same. There’s a reason they call it the autism spectrum.
The more I learn about dogs, the more I become convinced that reactivity is also a spectrum. While we tend to label any dog who demonstrates over-the-top behavior as “reactive,” there are an almost infinite number of variations on the theme. It’s not a neat, linear spectrum, either; there’s no orderly progression of behaviors going from one end to the other. Just like with autism, things combine in unexpected ways in reactive dogs.
Some reactive dogs are like my own. Much of Maisy’s over-the-top behavior was fueled by a clinical anxiety disorder. Although we’ll never know for sure, I tend to believe that there is probably a strong genetic component to her behavior.
Speaking of genes, we have created breeds of dogs that are very focused on their environment. For example, many herding dogs are sensitive to motion- they need to be in order to move stock! But when left unchanneled, this tendency can look a lot like reactivity.
Dogs who don’t receive adequate socialization as a puppy can grow up to be fearful or unsure about novel experiences. This fear can result in a fight-or-flight reaction, and “fight” behaviors are often what we call reactive.
On the other hand, puppies who were allowed to greet and play with everyone they met may be wonderfully socialized while simultaneously having no manners. If they don’t learn how to control their impulses, their frustration may turn into reactivity.
This list goes on and on... I’ve met dogs who were wound too tight, who had medical conditions that impacted their behavior, who had learned they could get attention by acting a certain way, who were trying to gather information about their environment, and I’m sure you can come up with even more.
What’s clear to me is that while it makes sense to group all of these dogs under the label of “reactive” to make it easier to talk about them, it’s nearly impossible to make generalizations or definitive statements. While we can certainly discuss training approaches, handling strategies, and the use of medications or supplements, there is no one-size-fits-all.
It’s the same in my day job. Just as none of the reactive dogs I work with are the same, neither are any of the kids with autism. But what I tell all of my clients, human and canine alike, is the same: they are the experts, not me. Since there is so much variation in behavior, the parent/owner will always understand their child/dog better than I do.
This doesn’t mean that I’m not an educated professional. I know a lot about autism and reactivity, but I don’t live with my clients. I have no way of ever knowing all the ways it plays out in their lives. Despite this, I'm quite good at what I do. In my day job, I am able to find the resources parents need to help their kids, and in the evenings, I can coach people in training exercises that are highly likely to help their dogs. But in both contexts, they get the final say.
The way I see it, my job is not to be right, it’s to help my clients find what’s right for them. I have to be willing to listen to my clients, and then to respond flexibly. It has to be this way, because whether we're talking about autism or reactivity, it's a spectrum. And that means that every case will be just a little bit different.