Re-activating happiness | The action plan

It took me time to write this part because, in all honesty, it’s been a while and our situation changed so much that my brain somehow blocked a big chunk of the negative memories and our initial attempts to deal with reactivity.

Nevertheless, I will try to go backwards, to the point where I began gathering my initial ideas and putting them together.

At first I felt helpless… I knew something wasn’t right anymore and felt lost and a failure. But Fred was my boy, he loved me and trusted me, so it was my job and responsibility to help him. Since my knowledge of Fred’s reaction was minimal, I did what I’ve always done in the past – I turned to Patricia McConnell and got two books of hers, Fiesty Fido and The Cautious Canine. Both were small, leaflet-like, perfect to be devoured over a couple of nights.

They taught me what reactivity was, gave me foundation and some very helpful tips. They also made me realise that Patricia’s advice, as good as it was, didn’t suit our particular situation.

So I had to look further and learn more… And it hit me then. Why not just learn canine psychology and read the volumes normally reserved for people who study animal behaviour? Said and done, I enrolled in and gradually completed two courses, in Dog cognition and behaviour and Animal behaviour, and invested in a few fat and heavy books that explained everything in detail, starting from the brain development and behavioural changes, to breed-specific behavioural traits and protocols that addressed every issue.

Basically, the way I approached and saw this was similar to when I studied nutritional therapy. As a therapist I addressed every particular person as a unique combination of several factors, and so I then worked with these factors to create a very personalised action plan. For example, if somebody wanted to lose weight, they could have read a diet book or two because those books worked for some people. Yet reading those popular books would never meant to work for everyone because they are simply generic texts – nothing more. So a lot of people ended up at my practice because my advice would work for them specifically (and it did).

Dog training is exactly the same.

I realise that this might have been a bit extreme, but I knew I could do it, so I read, processed, learned and put everything into practice. Even more so, I knew my boy better than anyone else because we are together 24/7, so his actions and behavioural nuances would not be misunderstood.

Training-wise, I was looking to counter-condition and desensitise Fred using positive reinforcement, aiming to create relaxed and positive experiences that would eventually push the negative memory far, far away and make scary and unfamiliar things – seem ordinary.

I STOPPED…

… asking Fred to sit in a stay position if we saw a dog approaching. Some suggest that it could work, but in our situation it made Fred anxious and over-reactive.

… telling Fred “it’s alright” and petting him whenever there was a scary dog because it’d create mix messages for him – and certain touches could even make him more reactive.

… making Fred look at me and get a treat when a dog approached, as suggested in some popular literature. Doing this only lead to a situation when Fred would never look at other dogs and never learn that dogs weren’t actually that frightening to look at.

… ever using high pitched and excited voice because it can put most dogs into alert mode.

… getting into situations when the lead would need to be kept short or tight.

… creating expectations and judging our life by the number of successes and failures because it created a lot of frustration and helplessness whenever things didn’t go as planned.

I NEVER USED…

… punishment in any form, physical or via recommended devices such as shock or citronella collars etc.

… the flooding method that means full exposure of the dog to his fear (by taking him to places full of dogs such as a dog park or unfamiliar and often crowded locations such as markets or public squares) with an idea that he will eventually give in and stop being afraid (this technique is still used, so I thought I’d mention it).

… getting into situations where the fear was obvious yet allowed no escape or created frustration (something as ordinary as being stuck in a very narrow street where you’d have to pull your dog close to you and keep the lead tight and short, especially to avoid an approaching dog, can become extremely stressful for a reactive pup).

WALKS

We changed where we walk and when we walk to avoid over stimulation and bumping into other dogs, especially those who were likely to lunge and bark. Everything had to be under my control and thought through in advance. This helped to lower stress levels and cortisol response (in both of us…).

Our initial walks were also shorter as they seem to create calmness rather than over arousal that could have been brought by both the physical stimulation and Fred’s strong prey drive and amazing ability to sniff out absolutely everything.

During each walk we moved in a rhythmic motions, either walking or jogging (swimming can also be great if you can do it) because such an exercise is believed to address specific brain receptors that process both fear and sense of happiness and can eventually rebalance the former with the latter.

Whenever possible, we’d stop to sniff and explore the surroundings, so Fred could fulfil his natural needs.

We also varied locations as much as we could, so Fred would learn that positive experiences can happen anywhere.

Eventually we also played games whenever the scary dogs were nearby. Play releases endorphins and stops the dog being preoccupied with fear because they want to focus on fun.

Ironically, the most obvious positive changes were achieved when we actually had to stop going for walks. We got house-bound for the first three weeks of COVID pandemic and I had to focus the boys’ attention on house-based exercise, training and play. Within days Fred became much calmer as the outside stimuli were completely removed from his life. He became more chilled than he’d ever been. Once we resumed the walks, he was able to relax and enjoy them.

TREATS

Whenever we were out, I always had plenty of treats with me. Whenever we saw a dog, I’d wait for Fred to look at him, then quietly praise him and as he looked back at me (after calmly observing the “scary thing” for even a second) I’d give him a treat. At first we practised when the dogs were pretty far away. I’d then say “Let’s go” to calmly walk back and away from the approaching dog, keeping the lead loose at all times.

The takeaway point to remember here is that fear and appetite are mutually exclusive, so a dog cannot feel fearful whilst eating, a natural psychological reaction that eventually leads to a new positive experience.

But the dog must face the fear (at a safe distance) first, recognise it completely, and only then get the treat. Failing to follow this and simply giving him food to drive his attention away from the fear (as I already mentioned in the beginning of this post because some books and trainers still advise it) can, in fact, make the situation worse, not changing the dog’s brain response to the fear stimuli and consequently never altering psychological reaction to it.

It took a while, but eventually we could walk by all dogs barking behind fences without any acknowledgement from Fred’s part whatsoever; walk towards dogs reducing Fred’s perception of “danger” to a minimum until we could walk in a parallel fashion alongside or towards most dogs (I still avoid dogs known to be highly reactive)

BUILDING CONFIDENCE THROUGH PLAY & GAMES

Fred has always been a very curious and confident pup, but the event changed his views on things and made him cautious. To improve it, I included various and very brief training sessions to practise everything he knew and learn a few new tricks and skills.

Each session was a little different to avoid repetitiveness and prevent boredom, lasted a few minutes and as long as Fred was happy. We stopped at any signs of hyperactivity to avoid any stress build-up.

The basics we practised included sit, down, recall, loose lead walking (in various locations), sit-stay for 1 minute and down-stay for 1 minutes (building up slowly and as long as Fred was relaxed), settle and training together. Karen Overall’s “Deference” training was also very useful (her book, Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Dogs & Cats, is a fantastic source of information – and if you can get a copy, do. It addresses every question and psychological condition and is one of my Bibles). The latter basically means that dog needs to sit down and wait calmly whenever he wants your attention – or anything. This ability essentially helps them to remain calm because they’d expect you, as their guide, to provide them with information or specific response (a bit like a pack leader would do – however I never mean, use or advise on applying the dominance meaning to it).

Additionally, I used relaxation protocol by Victoria Voith, which is similar to another one used by many trainers. However I decided to stick with Victoria because a) it was the original version b) it was designed with an idea that dogs were not restrained to stay – instead it was their choice to remain in a sit or down position for a set period of time. This freedom of choice can lead to positive changes in psychological response – unlike the situation when dogs are made to stay, which can negatively affect dogs if they suffer from reactivity, anxiety, fear or aggressive behaviour.

I did try to teach both boys Overall’s Breathing technique, but we are still working on it, though it’s rather sweet to watch my pups learning inhaling and exhaling on request.

I also got more food toys in addition to the familiar ones we already had, plus scattered treats around objects Fred wasn’t sure about, but was happy enough to explore eventually (and because there was food involved)

We played a lot of “find food” games around the house and garden, first I’d scatter the kibble on the grass or floor, then I’d start hiding pieces in boxes and toys, then I’d fill the boxes with paper or use unfamiliar textures for Fred to explore.

I even created an “obstacle course” in the garden using all sorts of random objects and teaching Fred to jump and walk over or around them, or using them as yet another sensory and sniffing tool.

It is important to mention that all our games and training sessions were done to set Fred up for success because many dogs who go through traumatic experiences end up feeling anxious and fearful of anything new simply because they expect to fail in any situation that seem threatening or new.

As a result, Fred’s famous curiosity and insatiable desire to explore returned with gusto. He began taking his time to sniff in a calm and explorative manner, and even approached a few calm dogs to say “Hi”.

I think this is a good place to stop for now… I still got a couple of areas to cover, but will save them for my next post.

Fred, chocolate & tan english cocker spaniel pup, copyrighted image (C) Perfect cocker spaniel / Natalia Ashton

Re-activating happiness | Lost (& found) in translation

The day you learn that you have a reactive dog is also the day when you realise that you will now have to explain it to people around you.

And this is the moment when you can feel like an utter idiot. A very miserable and frustrated idiot who tries to converse with a brick wall.

It is true that people love dogs – and know about dogs. It is also very true that many people who call themselves dog lovers don’t actually understand dogs that well. They see a wagging tail and assume that the dog is “nice”… They see a dog who isn’t sure about approaching them and decide that “something is wrong” with that pup or worse – still insist on reaching out to stroke him, often without even asking you first.

If they see a dog who isn’t comfortable about physical contact with strangers, barks at other dogs or reacts in any other way that is not considered “normal”, people label your dog “naughty” or “aggressive”.

There are also people who let their unleashed dog run towards your pup on a lead because their dog is “friendly”. They either ignore your polite requests to put the dog on a lead or end up yelling…

Normally, none of these events would affect us much. They happen and they pass without making any particular impact on my life. However, this time every single occasion could make an impact on my little boy, so I had to do something to prevent them.

First things first, we changed our walks schedule and locations to avoid any unpleasant dogs.

Secondly, I started working with Fred on feeling relaxed and comfortable when we do end up bumping into other dogs. And since this part required certain exercises, setting up safe (threshold) distance to desensitise him, I had to occasionally walk away from people we knew. Upsetting them was most definitely not in my rule book.

They all loved and knew my boys, many had dogs, but not all of them understood reactivity or Fred’s emotions, so I decided to become my pup’s interpreter.

I went and spoke to everyone I cared about. If I couldn’t talk to people, I’d leave a card with a story, explanation and “I am so sorry” message.

In other words, I became Fred’s interpreter.

And even though some people still didn’t quite get it, others showed me support and encouragement and did their best to help if they saw us walking down the street. Some cheered me up (very quietly and gently) whenever they noticed any improvements – and it meant the world!

Not only it helped Fred to chill and relax, it made me more comfortable and relaxed, too. It suddenly felt like we were getting somewhere, making progress… re-activating happiness.

Together.

 

Photo source: Fred photographed by me

What is dog's reactivity / Hyper-reactivity in dogs, barking, lunging, biting dogs / Leash reactivity, barrier frustration / Perfect cocker spaniel Dog blog

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.