People often talk about their dogs being reactive, but what does this mean? What does it look like? We throw around terms such as reactive, proactive, responsive and so on as though everyone should just “know” what that means, but often we don’t stop to think about what it really means to have a dog who is “reactive” and what we should do about it.
To begin with, let’s understand that every animal will and should startle at some things. For some animals like my chessie, D’fer, a jet plane taking off is nothing to really bother with, and when he has been close by, this is nothing he is concerned about in the least. He is the least reactive animal in my life at the moment.
My horse Kayak on the other hand startles at many things. Somethings she startles at are predictable. She does not like motorcycles zipping by us; and when she startles, she will jump sideways and sidestep and sometimes buck a little bit. Somethings she startles at are not at all predictable. Rocks. Large rocks startle Kayak. The thing about rocks is that they don’t run around and jump out and say “boo”. They are rocks. But if she is walking calmly down a trail and she encounters a rock, she will often stop suddenly and stand still and if it is a particularly large rock she is prone to backing away from it. The rock is on the horizon, and everything is going well until we reach about ten metres. Ten metres from a large rock and she will sometimes startle.
Kayak doesn’t startle as much as some of the dogs I work with. I was working with a dog today who over the course of an hour habituated to the room, the dogs barking in the next room, the toy dog on the floor and then he noticed my hat! Yikes! Hats probably eat dogs, or at least that is how he was behaving. He didn’t just startle either, he shivered and he barked and he stared. The dogs like this are dogs who baffle their owners because it can feel like he is busy acquiring new fears on the fly. What I think often happens to these dogs is that they are so overwhelmed that as they become less aroused and overwhelmed, they start to notice more and more things to worry about. Some of these dogs are highly visually reactive. Some are highly sensitive to sounds. I am betting that there are a number of dogs who are sensitive to smells, and I know that a lot of these dogs are also very sensitive to touch.
While I wouldn’t describe D’fer as reactive, he will notice things in his environment. And although Kayak notices more things in her environment I wouldn’t call her reactive either. Some of the dogs in my classes though absolutely ARE reactive; I would describe a dog who barks at leaves falling as reactive and when they don’t bounce back readily, I would consider them highly reactive. All this brings me to “what is the anatomy of reactivity”.
The first part of a reaction is before the reaction occurs, when the dog is calm. With dogs who are stable and confident, this calm behaviour is when they look at the world and they are able to make accurate predictions about what is coming up. Are all of the stimuli in the environment predictable? Can they explore things that might be surprising? Calm, confident dogs use this time to evaluate what they are seeing and what is happening around them, while reactive dogs might use this time to worry about things they don’t understand. It is like they are always on a slow boil, anticipating bad things coming up. Reactive dogs use this space between startling events to worry and think about the dangers inherent in the environment. Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle; they don’t spend all of their time worrying about things that might go wrong, but they also don’t hang out not worrying at all either.
Once a stimulus has occurred that might be concerning, then you have one of two situations. Either the dog is not at all worried about it and remains calm, or you have a reaction of some sort. In the most extreme situations, you have a dog who barks and carries on and ascribes to the idea of “when in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”. The alternate side to this is the dog who experiences fear and shuts down. The stimulus is frightening but his tactic is to shut down and go into that part of his brain that is related to self protection. He may become quiet and unresponsive. The common element to either of these reactions is that the dog is unable to follow a simple cue like sit or lie down. When a reactive dog is presented with a stimulus and you ask him casually to do a behaviour he knows really, really well, if he is unable to do it the behaviour right away, then regardless of his apparent level of concern, he is over his threshold.
Once a dog has reacted, then the next thing to look at is what he does after the stimulus has been removed. Does he immediately return to a calm state? When you startle my mare Kayak, she is pretty quick to settle down; in less than five seconds she is usually back to her calm state. D’fer is pretty unflappable and rarely startles, but if he is startled, he comes back to a calm state pretty much as soon as he recognizes whatever startled him. Along the continuum of dogs I see on a daily basis we get everything from dogs who settle back down immediately to dogs who take hours or even days to really recover from even a mild surprise.
When working with dogs with behaviour problems it is essential that we are responsive to situations instead of being reactive. The first step in success if having a plan. Being proactive means preplanning everything that you have control over. Do you know what is on the other side of the closed door? If not, can you check before you take your dog through it? Do you know what the dog you see in the distance is likely to do when he greets your dog? If not, can you avoid meeting him? Do you know that the person you are handing your leash to will take as much care as you do in handling your dog? If you don’t, can you ensure that you are not putting your dog into a situation where he might be at risk?
Being proactive actually means more than just preplanning. It means always thinking about the possibilities without terrifying yourself. It means taking reasonable care to avoid situations where your dog might go over the threshold and be triggered into a reactive state, and thinking about what your actions will cause in the environment around you. It means being observant and figuring out what you can do to keep your dog’s wellbeing in the forefront. Often it means doing things differently than you might otherwise do.
I learned about being proactive as most of us do; the hard way. I had a dog named Crow, a German Shepherd who had never been off the cow farm he had been born onto until he was 7 months of age. Crow was not extremely timid, but he also wasn’t overtly confident, and he was quite reactive. He did have some quirks that were very difficult to live with. He had a total fear of new flooring. Crow would walk calmly and confidently on cement floors, grass and asphalt. When I first brought him home, he trotted into my cement floored porch, and over the threshold into the kitchen where the floor was linoleum and promptly back peddled with all his might. I carried him in and put him onto the hardwood floor and he stood stock still for about ten minutes before he dropped his head and sniffed it. We had to repeat the ordeal to get him back out again. It took Crow a solid two weeks to decide that my home with hardwood, linoleum and two different types of carpet would not eat him. It was really sad and if I knew then what I know now, I would have approached the situation very differently.
Trains didn’t phase Crow, but people in long coats, people on bicycles and people playing musical instruments would send him into fits of barking. Tractors, heavy machinery, cows, elk and deer were not a problem. The shiny police motorcycle that was parked at an agricultural fair was terrifying. The officer in a helmet was not a problem. Over time, I was able to title Crow in Novice Obedience, but we could only show out of doors. After the first indoor show I entered required him to walk over a parquet floor to get to the shiny tiled floor of the fair building it was held in, I didn’t feel I could ever do that to him again. I did show him at the National German Shepherd Specialty mind you; they hold it on a concrete pad in a hockey arena and they bring in sod to cover the ground.
The kind of pre-planning and proactive thinking I had to learn to do with Crow was not just a day to day thing; it was also a minute to minute thing. When I walked out of my house every day, I had to think about the weather (would there be people in long coats that I would need to be aware of?), and the time of year (would we encounter a parked motorcycle?) and the time of day (would the diverse group of university students who lived in the apartment building across the street be going to the bus, wearing a variety of coats and hats?), but I also had to think about the larger picture too. Did I really want to continue training Crow in Obedience when there were so many variables that I could not control when we showed?
Even though I learned to be very proactive with Crow, I could still from time to time run into huge issues. Things might be going along just fine and then a sudden environmental change, or "something that Crow considered different and difficult" might appear and startle him. I realize now that when I am faced with a dog or dogs who are reactive I have a mental check list that I run through that helps me a lot with helping my dog when this sort of a situation arises.
The first thing I ask myself is “Am I safe?” I learned this in every first aid class I ever took. If I am not safe, then I cannot help and I am better to get out of the way. Recently, I was in a situation where my three horses were behaving unpredictably. The weather was really bad, there was ice falling off the trees and the horses were frightened. Frightened horses tend to bolt and although none of my horses would intend to hurt me, three horses running in a small paddock are not safe for the people. I was in the paddock with them when I realized I was not safe. Recognizing that I was in a dangerous situation, I chose to leave the horses. Yes, they were at risk, but I couldn’t help them if I got hurt, so I got out.
Once I got to safety, I could think about what to do to help. The second step I go through when I am working with reactive animals is to ask if they are safe. In the situation above the horses definitely were not safe, and going back into their paddock was not a good idea. I thought about things for a moment and decided to get a bucket of grain and the horses’ halters and I leaned over the gate in the shelter they have access to, and I was able to catch two of them and tie them to a wall. Once I was safe, I could make sure the horses were safe.
Once two of the three horses were confined, the third horse stopped running around in the ice and the rain and the wind. Then I put a riding helmet on so I wouldn’t get hurt by falling ice (keeping myself safe), and went around the paddock to another gate(avoiding getting the first two horses excited) and caught the third horse. I was able to safely catch the third horse. Once all the horses were safe, I was able to think about the next step.
The third step is to ask myself if there is something in the environment that I can change. Our shelter is small and the two horses I had tied in there would share it once there was room to do so. I took the third horse and put her in the barn. Then I went back around to where the first two horses were and let them loose so that they were safe for the night.
Only once I had determined that I was safe, that the animals were safe, and that I had changed the environment to make it as safe for the horses as possible could I begin to address the behaviour of these frightened animals. When everyone was safe, I spent some time with the most frightened of the horses (the one I put indoors for the evening), grooming her and soothing her.
For clarity, the steps are as follows:
- Ask myself “Am I safe?” If I am not, get myself to safety.
- Ask myself if my animal is safe. If he is not, address that issue next.
- Check to see if there is any way to make a change in the environment to make it safer for the animal.
- Address the behavioural needs of the animal.
So let me run through a possible situation. You are out in the park with your dog on leash. Your dog is reactive to other dogs and you see a loose dog on the horizon. He is still at a distance, but he is running towards you and your dog. What can you do?
1. Are you safe? At the moment you notice the dog, yes. This means without doing anything else you can go to the next step.
2. Is your dog safe? At the moment, yes. If he knows how to lie down between your feet, now is a time when you might ask him to do this so that he will stay safe.
3. What can you change in the environment? If your dog will do a reliable down stay, you can put yourself between him and the dog. You could throw hands full of treats at the approaching dog. You could call out and see if an owner will appear. You can even yell at the dog “You come here you bad, bad, bad dog!” Many dogs will run away if they have heard that line in the context of being punished! Once the dog has either left or been caught or been scared off our an owner has appeared, you can go to the final step.
4. Address your dog’s behaviour. If he is lying down calmly because you have drilled him on this sort of situation, you can probably give him a pile of treats and then continue on your way. If he is upset, you may need to stop and do some massage, or it could be that the best thing you can do for your reactive dog is get him home to a safe, quiet crate.
Living with dogs and other animals who are reactive can be really, really challenging. It can be extremely difficult to predict where the next motorcycle is going to come from, or where the next giant dog is going to come from, or where the next falling leaf will occur. With good proactive handling and a plan, you can often decrease or minimize the unpleasant consequences that occur when frightening things happen. The more you can decrease the impact of the unpredictable situations, the easier it is to implement a successful classical conditioning program.