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Monday, September 19, 2016

Reactive dogs need help to feel empowered when faced with their triggers

It's not unusual for a dog owner to be uneasy when they first contact me about caring for their furry friend. And beyond the anxiety of not knowing what to expect going in when hiring a caregiver, or having had a previous experience that was less-than-ideal, the angst they feel often has more to do with how I might react when I have the opportunity to get to know their furry friend a little better.

"They're not welcome back to the day care facility we been using… " and "...our previous pet sitter voiced some concerns about their behavior especially when encountering other dogs on walks" are common nervous refrains. 

As is often the case, observing how the guardian interacts with the dog, my spending a little time with the family—even suggesting that all of us walk together—and asking the humans good questions quickly gives me some clarity about what might really be going on.

Often I discover that what is at the root of the issue likely isn't at all what the family has been told. 

Case in point: reactivity. It's a common issue that plagues pet dogs and we've all been witness to it. Barking, lunging, jumping, vocalizing, carrying on, that sort of thing.

One assertion that I often hear when a dog is exhibiting reactivity is that they are aggressive or dominant, while another frequent quip, '...they are not obedient' gets tossed around. This only leaves the family feeling all thumbs, and wrongfully so. In fact, what I find is that obedience is not a problem with most reactive dogs; I observe most of these dogs understanding and responding appropriately to cues they're given and they're quite eager to engage and listen. The problem arises when they are thrust into a situation where they don't have a sense of safety.

With reactivity, what some mistakenly view as willfulness, aggression or dominance is simply an emotional response to a trigger (think the UPS truck, a bicyclist, another dog, a runner). This emotional response—referred to as a distance-increasing behavior—is spurred by being frustrated, anxious or even fearful. To clarify, the dog is articulating in the best way he knows how, 'I don't know how to deal with this [dog/person/vehicle] and I want it far away from me!', and with the lunging and barking and such, they hope to achieve that. Simply, the dog feels better when that trigger is gone. So if we don't facilitate getting the dog the space they need from that trigger to feel more comfortable, they'll try and make it happen by using what they have to work with.

It's not only frustrating for both ends of the leash, but potentially dangerous. Many a time I've seen a human physically struggle to maintain their hold onto the leash—even worse when a retractable is being used—or to not get tangled in the leash and knocked down and dragged about by the dog who is going bananas. By the same token, hopefully the leash, collar or harness doesn't fail and if there's another dog in the scenario, fingers crossed they don't break loose. 

For those reasons alone it makes sense to not try and do what to most might feel is wise and force a dog to sit and calm down and wait until the trigger is out of sight. (Are you with me?)

A much better solution is to get the dog as much physical space as they need to feel okay. In my experience—and depending on the dog and the scenario—this might mean casually changing direction and heading down another street or simply crossing the street. Often I find myself in this situation with a charge, but I might be on a country road with no where to go besides into a field or a driveway. Space is space. I should add that I frequently encounter other dogs and their handlers who are clearly struggling with reactivity, and giving them the space they need is a priority for me as doing so could avert a dangerous situation. If I see that's the case, my charge and I cross the street, change our intended course, whatever I think might be most mindful.

Steeping a dog in a situation that makes them reactive will not only reinforce and escalate what you don't want, but can lead to other unwanted behaviors.

While giving a dog the physical distance they need to help quell their reactivity in the moment (and you can certainly use it to stave off an encounter by being vigilant), it doesn't resolve the root issue: the dog hasn't been afforded the opportunity to draw from wellspring of positive experiences with their triggers. You see, with proper socialization in the crucial early months of life and positive experiences with those things that might otherwise become a trigger (two things that I find many reactive dogs lack), young dogs naturally gain confidence and the ability to make good choices when confronted with their subsequent interactions with them. Victoria Stillwell wrote a beautifully crafted piece on helping reactive dogs gain the confidence they need in situations that they've found troublesome in the past. Click here to read, Teaching a leash reactive dog to make the right choices.

Some families find that they need one-on-one help with this or in other situations. If you feel a training professional's expertise is needed, be sure to do your homework and vet the person carefully. Your family's needs might be able to be met by a reputable trainer, a behaviorist (there's a difference) or in some cases, consulting a veterinary behaviorist might be necessary.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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