Walking in their shoes – The truth behind reactive dogs.

We’ve all seen these dogs. Lunging, pulling, barking with hapless owners dragged behind them. Many people have crossed the road or walked the other way to avoid these dogs and their owners. Some of the dogs are wearing the “Yellow” jacket asking owners to give them space. There are countless dogs like this up and down the country.

Let’s be honest now, we’ve all formed an opinion, we’ve all thought unfair things about these dogs and the owners. Who hasn’t had these thoughts go through their heads “That dog is out of control” “There is something wrong there” etc.

But the truth behind all of this is far more distressing on so many levels and these dogs and their owners need empathy and not judgement.

Owners often contact behaviour specialists when they are at their wits end. By the time we get to them their nerves are shattered, they are emotional, often tearful, the stress has gotten to them and their confidence has completely gone. Why? Because living with a reactive dog is hard, let’s make no bones about that, it is really stressful. These owners do not need judgement or comments they need help to work through it and help their pet. I remember one woman just crying and crying because she felt unable to walk her dog because of other walkers and the looks and comments she received.

What about the dogs? Well they are an emotional wreck, unable to cope with the constant stress of facing the things that are causing the problem. Unable to cope with the stress of their owners and struggling to rationalise or think their way through it.

I’m not just talking as a professional here but also as the owner of a reactive dog – a terrier. It’s even worse when you are a trainer/behaviourist. People expect your dogs to be perfect. They should be well trained and not behave like that but this thinking is flawed. Why? Because dogs are not robots. They are sentient beings with emotions and feelings, and yes, that is proven by science. They will have off days too just like us, and don’t forget we behaviourists often take on the problem dogs!

There are so many reasons behind reactivity and it is never simple so let’s have a brief look at some of them:

  1. Fear – The dog is genuinely frightened of objects/people or animals. They may have been abused, they may be ex puppy mill dogs who’ve never had proper interactions with the world and of course they may have been attacked by another dog.


  1. They may have been handled with unpleasant devices such as shock collars and other things. The dog may have learned the presence of another animal, person approaching = shock /punishment. These dogs will do anything to avoid the shock happening and that could mean driving the associated object away. There is plenty of scientific evidence behind this and The Pet Professional Guild have plenty of information on this in their shock free coalition campaign.

See https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/

  1. Then there are the dogs that have been labelled Dominant! Another view that is far from the truth and scientifically flawed. See https://www.dogwelfarecampaign.org/why-not-dominance.php


  1. Diet can be a contributory factor – certain ingredients and high protein levels can affect the supply and demand of important neuro- transmitters essential for learning.


  1. Breed Specific Behaviour is a major factor – Dogs that are bred to hunt and herd such as terriers and border collies will often have issues with traffic and small furry things because the movement and speed activates that predatory pattern and instinct takes over. This needs careful handling.


  1. Medical Problems – There are times when our pets’ behaviour can quickly and suddenly change. This happened with my dog Koda last year. There were 3 instances when she suddenly turned on a dog. This was really out of character for her so we went straight to the vet. An auto immune problem was diagnosed via a blood test and she was put on medication. It is now under control but she does remember those 3 dogs so we are in management when we see them. The other medical issue affecting reactivity is pain. Like people. intense pain can cause real changes in a dogs’ behaviour and let’s not forget the effects of certain medications.


  1. Hormones – During adolescence hormones fluctuate in peaks and troughs. As testosterone and oestrogen peak some dogs can become more reactive. This is a normal part of their development and just needs to be worked through. But it can appear that those dogs are out of control and are often mistakenly labelled aggressive. My terrier has a very clear pattern. When oestrogen is peaking she will bark at anything and everything. When she’s like that we avoid things like walking along the road or busy walking areas. She needs calm and quiet until her hormones have settled down.


  1. Trigger stacking – This is often interpreted as random reactivity. For example, the dog has walked past 5 people and then reacted to the 6th What has happened here is that the dog has been able to hold himself together for a while but by the 6th person he just can’t do it anymore and there is a reaction.


With all this in mind how about next time we see someone struggling with a reactive dog let us not judge but exercise compassion and give them the benefit of the doubt.

© Sam Redmond Dog Training and Animal Behaviour 2017

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