In recent months I have noticed a real increase in the number of people contacting me because their dog is struggling with other dogs. In fact having spoken to many other professionals we are all saying the same thing – that there has been an unprecedented increase in dog-dog reactivity.
So why might this be? Where is it going wrong and what is going on? I believe there are a number of reasons behind this, from where it’s going wrong in puppy hood to the routine neutering programme, to an increase in available knowledge (some of it unfounded and inaccurate) and much more. So let’s just touch on some of these many issues. Many are huge topics so do forgive me for not going into full detail as I’d be here forever if I did!
We’ll start with young puppies and socialisation.
We are all told that in order for a dog to become a reliable, resilient animal we have to socialize them correctly. For many years we have all been told that puppies need to be introduced to pretty much everything before they are around 16 weeks. BUT we know that the brain continues to mature and grow beyond this period. There are notable periods of neurological growth in the second year and these continue for a prolonged period. So why do we feel we need to cram all this into the first 16 weeks when we have time to introduce new experiences gradually and at a pace each individual is comfortable with? By cramming every possible experience in by 16 weeks of age we are flooding our puppies brains and often overloading them with information before they can cope with it and this can have long lasting effects, especially for those with nervous personalities. Doing it slowly over time whilst understanding what is right for the developmental cycle and brain function can build a much more resilient dog.
The next trying time for both dogs and owners is adolescence.
Adolescence is a tricky time for any species. Hormone fluctuations can cause behavioural changes and our dogs need help getting through it. Typically many young dogs have poor social skills and these need teaching. A common mistake is allowing dogs to sort it out themselves. At this stage the dogs are not equipped to sort it out and things often go wrong. Dogs will only resort to “telling each other off” if all other signals get ignored. We should never let them get that far instead we should be stepping in teaching our young dog to read the signals and respond appropriately. I can’t tell you how many dogs have issues with other dogs because they have been inappropriately told off!
At this time we also start to think about neutering and spaying. I’m not going to get too much into this one as there is still a lot of research going on. What we do know is that removing the sex hormones and expecting our dogs to live their entire lives without them is causing a problem. Several studies have noted that in males particularly many dogs develop increased aggression after neutering and this is related to removing testosterone. In females we are noting the removal of progesterone which has a calming effect is also causing problems. More and more vets are reporting an increase in problems with the endocrine system and auto immune disease in spayed and neutered dogs. In the behavioural world we are seeing much of this evidence in practice. Humanly speaking if a man has a vasectomy the hormones are left behind and if a woman has a hysterectomy she is given hormone replacement. Why are we not doing this with dogs? Personally I’d like to see sterilisations and vasectomies happening more so hormones can stay intact. References to research papers and articles on this can be found online and in a list order in a file on the Facebook group called “ Against the routine neutering of dogs.
Whether your dog is a puppy, adolescent, or adult, there are considerations when dogs get together in groups.
Large groups of dogs milling around may look like a load of fun but the reality is that these situations involve a large number of dogs of differing personalities and issues and there are always casualties. We all know when we mix a large number of children together and just let them run riot it can all end in tears. The same thing happens in large groups of dogs only most people don’t notice it or just think it’s funny and lovely. The truth is most dogs can’t cope with it. Young dogs are out of their depth ill equipped with the necessary social skills. If they are in critical developmental stages recall and the ability to listen may be out the window. This kind of excitement encourages high arousal states which some dogs are unable to manage. The nervous dogs suffer too as they are unable to escape the rabble. Some are being bullied and pestered, others just find it overwhelming. Dogs in these groups learn all the wrong things, they go home exhausted from the stress of it all. Some find it so stressful they develop issues with other dogs as a result.
Now, for some other important factors.
Medical issues have an impact on what your dog does. Something that isn’t often taken into account is how health and underlying medical problems can affect behaviour. When we are unwell our emotional state changes and we can be off kilt. Generally society doesn’t allow animals the freedom to be “grumpy” or have an off day! We are in an epidemic of auto immune problems in our pets, genetic breed specific problems and reduced gene pools in many breeds. Some breeds are having real problems with brain chemistry. All of this is contributing to reactivity levels. I worked with a young dog that narrowly missed being put to sleep at 9 months old. Working with a good vet we identified severe allergies, a gut infection and a problem in his back end. He was in a lot of pain and very sick. Correcting his health problems and working through a behavioural programme altered his whole well being and he is now a happy dog.
What to feed your dog is a huge and contentious subject, but often focuses on the ingredients for physical health and misses the effect it has on the mind. As a consequence, many people just don’t know what to feed their dogs. There is so much choice but some will agree with your dog and some won’t. Some contain ingredients that will interfere with brain chemistry and others, while a good food, have too much protein and that will contribute to reactivity levels. Again advice from a good behaviourist with nutritional experience will help.
If that isn’t enough we are convinced we have to “control” our dogs. Dogs are mammals and all mammals share the same brain. The set up and function is the same but of course there are differences in depth and thought between species but the brain is the same. It stands to reason that we can’t control anything that has a brain! Many people think that if their dog isn’t good with something they just “have to get used to it”. They might put their dog into a large day care facility or go to a training class to “socialise” them. In fact this is the worst thing we can do as we are flooding the brain. We are forcing them to be ok and what happens is the pre frontal cortex shuts down and our dog becomes swept away in the emotional brain which cannot think or be rational. Constant exposure to this means constant raised cortisol levels and this only fuels the reactivity.
Finally, let’s have a brief look at training methods. With the advent of the internet and TV dog trainers there has been an increase in available knowledge but not all of it is accurate. Owners will often take some of this and try it out at home often without any real knowledge of how to apply it or why it may be unreliable information and this can make things a lot worse. There is no substitute for a qualified and experienced behaviour specialist.
As you can see there are many different factors involved and not all factors will apply to all dogs. Each dog is an individual, careful thought and observations will help to determine how and why our dogs react they way they do.