Re-activating happiness | What is reactivity, anyway?

All good things take time, so I only hope that the second chapter for my “re-activating happiness” diary is worth the wait.

Today I wanted to talk about reactivity itself because most people are simply unaware of it and many tend to mistake their dog’s reaction for aggression, which can in turn lead to some terrible outcomes.

Take the cartoon above. A lot of people find it funny, but if you look closely, you can see a typical example of two leash-reactive dogs. And suddenly it’s not so entertaining anymore…

So what is reactivity?

Correctly referred to as  “hyper-reactivity”, it is a dog’s over-reaction to something or someone around him because he is unable to perceive it as safe and ordinary, or may doubt his ability to predict and control it. Objects, strangers, kids, bicycles, men in glasses, men in hats, postmen, vets, small dogs, black dogs, giant dogs and spotty dogs, dogs walking towards you or puppies bouncing in your direction… The list goes on. So the dog hides, or runs away (flee), or growls, or barks (fight)… He may pull on a lead (lead reactivity)… Or jump at a fence (barrier frustration)… He may even lunge and try to bite… Oddly to their parents, most of these dogs become soft and cuddly when in a safety of their own home, walking down a familiar empty street or running free in a deserted field.

But because of their outbursts these pups get labelled as “shy” or “noisy” or, worse, “aggressive” even though all they are trying to say is that they are simply scared of something… and do everything they can to prevent the scary scenario from happening again.

Dog's body language / ladder of aggression by BSAVA / reactivity in dogs explained / Perfect cocker spaniel, dog blog & reactivity diary of living with reactive dog

At first, they will use the subtle signs to explain their emotions. They may lick their lips or nose, turn or walk away from the “scary thing”… If this does not work, the body language will become more obvious. The dog will get lower to the ground, tuck the tail under his tummy, or freeze. In the animal world this would be enough to say “Hey, I am not comfortable, I am scared, I want you to go away, and I don’t want to fight…” Because dogs, with a few breed-related exceptions, really are not the fighters or killing machines. Even if they snap, they will never bite to hurt.

However, if the dog cannot avoid the uncomfortable situation (say, he is on a lead, the scary thing is there or approaching, or there is a fence between him and the scary stranger) or make the “object” go away, he will end up growing, snapping and even biting, as the last and most definitely, not his preferred option. He will be acting out of fear and frustration of being misunderstood, not because he is a hopelessly aggressive beast.

If the dog’s message gets lost in translation over and over again, the may eventually learn that the “building blocks” of calming body language are completely worthless and the best way to get rid of the “scary thing” is to bark, snap or bite without warning. This natural reaction soon becomes a learnt habit (also referred to as conditioned response or conditioned behaviour), so next time the dog will skip the entire body language routine and simply use the tactic that worked before – the bark, the grown or the snap.

Worse, the pooch can also end up in a constant state of stress and anxiety, expecting the “scary event” to happen at any point. As his body tries to cope with the emotional outcome of stress, it engages other systems, alters hormonal and nervous responses, uses up essential nutrients, and eventually becomes unwell physically and psychologically. The dog transforms into uncontrollable, hyperactive and anxious animal suffering from phobias that may expand from the initial object of fear to many other.

The latter is the reason why it is so important to be aware of the hyper-reactivity and either prevent from happening or helping your dog to overcome the fear if he does feel scared and has to act up to feel safe.

What can lead to hyper-reactivity?

It can be a traumatic event. It can be stress that leads to altered hormonal and brain responses. Lack of proper socialisation can be directly related to the dog’s perception of life. Pain and fear of pain can make a dog hyper-reactive, too. The over-reaction can also be caused by our own emotional state that becomes mirrored by our dogs.

At this point it is important to mention that some dogs can become reactive or prone to reactivity due to their hereditary traits or any form of emotional stress experienced by their mother during pregnancy or after the birth of the litter. Such puppies can show first signs of reactivity even before they open their eyes.

One of the most recent studies published in the January 2020 issue of Helioyn Journal also looked into microbiome (or gut flora) to discover that reactive dogs seem to have different types of bacteria compared to fearful dogs. “Different behavioral phenotypes in dogs may be associated with peculiar gut microbiome layouts, suggesting possible connections between the gut microbiome and the central nervous system,” the researches concluded.

Ageing can also be the time when a dog may suddenly become reactive, partially due to his declining health, possible aches, pains, and partially because ageing causes irreversible brain changes. Contrary to popular believe, the loss of sight or hearing does not lead to reactivity-related aggression.

The traumatic event at any point of dog’s life can also have a negative effect on his emotional state and ability to cope with any further events, especially if they happen at the same location or caused by the original stimulus. Fearful events during sensitive period of puppyhood at 8-10 weeks and “the fear period” that occurs at around 8 months of age, can make the most impact on the young dog and his life-long emotions. Having said that, even through the memory of the event can become permanent, it may be restrained and prevented from re-occuring though coaching and counter-conditioning.

Prolonged, or chronic, stress, on the other hand, can lead to permanent degenerative changes within the brain areas and alter dog’s ability to cope with any further fear or stress however minor.

What you need to take away from this is that reactivity, regardless of its extent, does not define your dog. It does not make your dog “aggressive”, “violent”, “naughty” or “lost cause”. It does not require castration as a “fix”.

All it needs is an understanding, patience and a carefully constructed plan that often involves counter-conditioning, desensitisation and games to help the dog realise that many things he is so afraid of are actually mundane and not worth his time whatsoever.

When the dog barks and growls, he needs protection and care from you, the person he loves and trusts the most. And the good things will happen… The happiness, and calmness and all that jazz. They’ll take time, but nothing is impossible.




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