You’ve heard folks talk about their reactive dog. Maybe you’ve spotted our Reactive Rover class while perusing our class offerings. Perhaps you’re more familiar with the term “Feisty Fido” or, perhaps, you really don’t know what a reactive dog is.
Reactivity is a behaviour and manifests itself as an overreaction to stimuli. That stimuli may be a person, another dog a specific breed or colour of dog, a noise, a movement (things with wheels!), men with beards or a combination of all of the above. This reactivity may be an inherited trait, a product of their environment or even a learned behaviour.
Some breeds are designed to react quickly. Think of the German Shepherd Dog, for example. Reactivity is a benefit for detection. Many working dogs wouldn’t be as effective if they weren’t wired to react quickly to all manner of stimuli ! Can you imagine a herding breed who doesn’t react quickly to its environment ? Reactivity can be an important ingredient for working dogs and sporting dogs.
Most of the reactive dogs we work with at the Ottawa Canine School, however, are easily excited and frustrated. In fact, many times I’ve heard folks tell me that their dog is really friendly! Rover is just pulling them towards the other dog. In some cases, this is true: the dog is over excited and anxious to get to the other dog. Others, on the other hand, have learned that lashing out gets them the space they crave. The dog lunges and barks as an attempt to make the scary thing go away. In both cases, the behaviour is usually unwanted.
Hemingway, our Great Dane, would never hurt a fly. He was kind and gentle but boy-oh-boy was he a project ! At the sight of another dog, he would leap in the air, drag me towards the other dog while barking incessantly. If the thought of a 140 lb dog bouncing and barking towards you isn’t scary enough, imagine Great Dane sized drool flying around his head. After an “episode”, I’d literally have to wipe all the drool off of his face. He was excitable and had little impulse control. One trainer, after meeting Hemi, told me “He is SO RUDE.”. I knew I had my work cut out for me, and work hard we did. I am proud to say that Hemi responded well to training and became a joy to walk in the neighbourhood. He became a more polite dog that didn’t get carried away by his emotions.
My other dog, Everest, is a very different dog. He likes his space and would never try to excitedly drag me over to go see another dog. His behaviour towards other dogs changed (and not for the better) after a specific incident and he started barking in a threatening and unfriendly manner when he saw large dark coloured dogs. Today, he very rarely reacts to another dog being in his space. I manage his environment and, every chance I get I reinforce that other dogs mean good things happen. The last time we were at the veterinarian’s office, for example, we played a game where every time he looked at another dog then looked back at me, he got a piece of tasty kangaroo (his favourite!).
The tricky part is that some of these reactive behaviours are normal canine behaviours. Is the dog barking or is the dog reactive? Is the dog friendly and enthusiastic or is he reactive? How can we tell ? The answer is to look at the context of when the behaviour happens. It is normal for a dog to get all excited when he sees a squirrel. It is not normal, however, for my dog to bark incessantly when he sees a 10 year old child. It is normal for my dog to bark excitedly in a flyball tournament. It is not normal for my dog to bark and lunge at other dogs I pass by on the street. Context is key.