Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reactivity is a Spectrum

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. 


Tegan said...

Crystal, you do so well relating your everyday-life to your dog-life.

I really like the take home message of this post, being that owners know their dogs best. It's something I always say, "You know your dog best and so only you can truly assess..." whatever the case may be.

That being said, some owners really don't know their dog very well at all. Just yesterday I was doing a meet with a rescue dog. The rescue and the existing resident met at the park, and we walked back to the existing dog's house. As soon as we went through the gate, the existing dog's behaviour changed. I commented on this, and the owner hadn't noticed. All was okay, and it seems like my rescue will be a match for their household (yay), but sometimes we may give owners a bit too much credit, too. ;)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Absolutely. I meet parents and pet owners alike who are clearly not seeing things about their child/dog... but then, that is usually why they've asked for my services. They know they need the help, and I absolutely LOVE having the opportunity to educate them.

I typically find that if I ask the right questions, the people already know the answers. Things like... "So, I noticed that Fido's behavior just changed. Can you tell me other times he's started licking his lips around other dogs?"

...and... "Typically, when dogs do that, it indicates stress. I think that might be the case here. What do you think?"

...and... "Can you watch for this behavior over the next week and let me know what other contexts you see it in?"

...tend to work well for me. I like to balance education and my professional assessments with respect and acknowledgement of their role as parent/owner. Most of the time, the owners/parents have (or will find) the answers if you give them the tools they need.

Susanna said...

I so agree that reactivity is a spectrum. Different dogs react to different stimuli, in different circumstances, and/or for different reasons. To refer back to an earlier thread -- this is one reason I think it's so important, especially for relatively inexperienced owners, to focus on the behavior rather than try to interpret it: "My leashed dog lunges at other dogs when they get too close" is more useful than "My dog doesn't like other dogs," not least because it suggests some things the owner/handler can do to help the dog manage his reactions.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

I think I wrote about that once, Susanna- describing the behavior you see, not making assumptions. It's definitely better to say, "I'm seeing lip licks/head turns/tucked tail/etc., which is typically a sign of a fearful dog," than to say, "Your dog is scared." The first educates. The second- even if correct- does not.

Michael Burkey said...

Hi Crystal,

Excellent article. I too can relate having been a former social worker (and law enforcement officer) and now full time trainer. Behavior flows in that spectrum and our job is to be an advocate for the dog and a consultant, coach, educator, listener, etc. to the human companion.

I feel that this is where the profession many times fails the client by blaming the client or insisting on a certain course of action or tool that does not help the client.

We as trainers would do better by our clients to seek to understand their position and help them come up with solutions that are workable for them. We must remember we are not the ones who lives with their dog and their skill set is not one of a trainer.

Thanks again. Great article!...Michael : )

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Thanks Michael. I find SO MUCH crossover between what I do in my day job and in my night job. Learning to listen to your client and respect what they're telling you is key. :)

Anonymous said...

I saw your blog linked onto facebook and I instantly remembered your avatar from LJ! Funny, we're both dog trainers now. :-) You probably don't remember me - I have a really freaky-good memory. So cool to see how far you've come with your dog!

Anonymous said...

Such a great article; I loved it. I might also add that with my own "Reactive" boy, he is ever changing. What upset his "applecart" one day might not cause any problem two weeks later. Moral of the story - stay tuned in and go with what is safe, makes you both happy, and continue to learn. Thank you so much for your wisdom!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

I might remember you if I saw a picture, anonymous! Or knew your LJ name... my memory is hit or miss, to be honest. :)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Second anonymous,

YES! You raise SUCH an important point. Our dogs change over time, especially as we work with them. That was very hard for me to adjust to as Maisy started to improve- I kept expecting her to be the same and she... wasn't.

Anonymous said...

My LJ name is into_focus, though I haven't used LJ in quite some time! You can add me on facebook if you use it:

I've been meaning to start an e-blogger. Maybe I should get on that!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

I recognize the name, but can't say why. So... I half remember you, lol. You should DEFINITELY start a blog. I really enjoy it. :)

CAANUFF said...

I’ve always said my girl is on the spectrum. I love her & wish we could get that reactivity out of her. Until then we will keep to our 4:am walks & going to deselect lakes/beaches where we can keep our distance. On the plus side C19 did not impact our habits 😆

CAANUFF said...

I’ve always said my girl is on the spectrum. I love her & wish we could get that reactivity out of her. Until then we will keep to our 4:am walks & going to deselect lakes/beaches where we can keep our distance. On the plus side C19 did not impact our habits 😆