Working with reactive dogs
I thought quite a bit about this blog before writing it. Working with reactive dogs is my specialty as a dog trainer, and while the work isn't easy or quick it is, by far, the most rewarding work I've ever done. So what constitutes the framework surrounding what we do when brought in to work with a reactive dog? Well, it looks a lot like this:
1. It's often slow-going. And when I say slow, I mean incrementally slow. Reactivity is habitual, can be difficult to pin down (in terms of first causes), and is often informed by fear. Identifying what is provoking the reactivity, the environments in which it is most deeply habituated, getting a handle on the behavioral and medical history of the dog, what motivates the dog, and what management methods have been used before, are all critical components of this process. And not necessarily in that order!
2. It's a lot like working with a person who has panic attacks. When a human has a panic attack, reasoning and rationality goes out the window. There is no explaining to the panicked person that the danger they perceive is not an immediate threat, that they are safe with us, and that their reaction is disproportiate to the issue at hand. All we can do is hang in there, wait for the panic to pass, and then start to address the underlying cause. The method by which we manage reactive dogs in action is very similar.
3. No immediate response on our parts to the episode of panic will change or stop it. What we can do is prepare for the next spell which will, invariably, appear at some point in the future. It might follow close on the heels of the previous reactive spell, or not appear for some time. Much of this is inextricably linked to what we do in the interim.
4. It has a great deal to do with a pair of hormones: cortisol, and adrenaline. Having, at minimum, a baseline understanding of how these work in the body is critical to helping reactive dogs recover from its mental and physical fallout. Cortisol levels alone take up to 72 hours to return to normal and its over-production is often activated by stress. Adrenaline, on the other hand, is a much swifter 10-20 minutes, and is what informs the fight-or-flight response. The role of these hormones starts to make sense when you think about the behavior of your reactive dog.
5. Every dog's reactivity looks a little different. Some dogs bark uncontrollably, some lunge and growl. Some jump in the air, others still spin around in circles. Some dogs are excitable in their reactivity, some are positively terrified. Canine body language provides the clues we need to determine what's informing the response, and it is our job to read those cues while the dog is sub-threshold. That is to say, we have to catch these physical cues often within a second or two of their presentation and a) get our client dog to a safe (non-reactive) distance, or b) capture their full attention (at those times when there's just nowhere to go) until the reactive trigger has passed.
6. Reactivity does not have to be forever. Reactivity can be addressed, and when it's done with appropriate canine handling and scientific behavior modification principles, we can make a massive contribution in relieving our dogs from this terribly uncomfortable, certainly unpleasant, and socially maladaptive state of body and mind. Embarking on this journey may be the most important work you do with your dog. You may even find you have a real knack for it (like I did), and that not only does it change your dog's life, but like me, it changes yours as well.
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Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.