Reactivity is one of the most common behavior hurdles that we see working as behavior consultants. A lot of people are living with it, but don’t know what it is or what to do about it. They just know that they are frustrated.
First let’s break down what reactivity is: Reactivity is when an animal becomes overstimulated, hyper aroused or overwhelmed by a particular triggering stimulus and reacts strongly to it, almost always in an undesirable way. This can manifest itself in behaviors such as lunging, barking, baring teeth, air snapping, and redirection. On leash, a reactive dog may become very unruly and often the person at the other end of the leash finds that they have become nonexistent to the dog when trying to get them under control.
Common triggers are other dogs or strangers, but can be anything including bicycles, cars, or inanimate objects such as trash cans or mail boxes. They can be general, such as all novel dogs or specific such as tall men with hats and sunglasses.
Reactivity doesn’t just occur on leash. It can happen while your dog looks out the window as triggers pass by, from behind a fence line, or when the stimuli enters your home. Reactivity is a label for an emotional reaction and the who, when, where, and how are subject to the individual dog’s personal obstacles.
Let’s talk about the why: While I cannot say why every dog reacts without a detailed history, there are most commonly two categories of emotional motivation behind reactive behaviors. One of the motivations is overstimulation from excitement. This happens when we have a dog who wants to go and greet every person or dog. When there is a barrier present such as a leash, fence or window, we see an increase in frustration from the dog, which results in frantic behavior. This is called distance decreasing behavior, as the dog is looking to get closer to the stimuli they are responding to. While these dogs are not fearful, the intensity of frustration absolutely turns into a form of stress that can be quite unhealthy and problematic.
Another common motivation is fear. A dog who is anxious, fearful, and stressed about a particular stimulus may lash out by being proactively defensive. This reaction is an attempt to get the scary trigger to go away. Because of that, this is a distance increasing behavior, meaning the dog is trying to put more space between them and the perceived threat.
With every animal’s form of reactivity, they have their own individual threshold. When an animal goes over threshold, they are no longer able to cope well, or at all, with their own emotional state and this is where it becomes very tricky to redirect them away. Most attempts to get their attention are futile, whether they are negative or positive tactics. Often even the most food-driven animals will reach a point where they turn their nose up at treats. The stress, whether from frustration or fear, is causing their digestive system to shut down or sit on the back burner to conserve energy for either self preservation or coping with that stress.
Because animals struggling with this issue are difficult to get focus from, many owners can feel either hopeless about whether it can be changed or resort to techniques that tend to suppress the undesirable behavior (See our blog post on what tools fall into this category). Suppression can look really effective at first, but commonly unravels at some point down the line and we can end up with a resurgence of the behavior or larger problems than we began with.
Living with reactivity can leave many owners feeling frustrated, stressed, and embarrassed. All of that can lead to a strain on the human-animal bond and a diminished relationship. Walks can be perceived as a dreaded necessary evil, time in the yard may end up feeling miserable, or resentment can build from having to choose between living in a cave or watching your peace and quiet circle the drain. Managing your dog's behavior by avoiding triggering situations is going to be necessary until they have better coping skills. While it can feel like avoiding isn't addressing the issue, a dog who's blowing up at the end of the leash, for example, isn't in a place where true impactful learning can occur. Because of this, continued exposure just creates practice of the undesirable behavior, spikes in stress levels and a whole lot of frustration all around. There are plenty of ways to meet your dog's needs if you're taking a hiatus from walks or applying opaque film to your windows and this can give you both the much needed break to decompress and map out a behavior modification plan to get you on your way to success.
Understanding what is happening with your dog can help expand empathy for what they are going through, but that’s not the only thing we want you to know. We also want you to know that there is help. Working with a qualified behavior consultant to assist you in changing your dog’s emotional response so that the problem is addressed at the root can strengthen your communication and improve your quality of life with them.
If you’re interested in learning more about how we can help, explore our site to learn more about us and book a consultation when you’re ready to begin your journey to a calmer and more enjoyable relationship with your dog.