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.



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.



Reasons to change and vary dog food / Changing dog food to prevent sensitivities / Why dogs develop food sensitivities / Perfect cocker spaniel, dog blog, breed & puppy guide book / Puppy tips, training, cocker spaniel grooming, handstripping, canine nutrition diet advice / (C) Natalia Ashton

Changing food for good

It’s not that our little lives are that uneventful, but this change needs to be documented here as it is pretty important to us.

Last week I changed the boys’ food. Not dramatically, but I did it. They have been eating a chicken based diet for a few years. It’s been great, really. They love it. Almost too much.

I’ve loved it, too, because it was a good recipe, organic and natural, no junk included.

But at the back of my mind I had this silly little brain worm reminding me about food sensitivities and ways they tend to develop. And I definitely did not want my boys to experience that. So I decided to add another source of protein to give them a bit of variety and reduce the risk of any reactions in the future.

Even though the risk of suddenly becoming sensitive to chicken (or any other protein) is minimal, it can happen if the dog is fed the same protein every single day for a lifetime. He doesn’t need to be sensitive to begin with, but his immune system may question the presence of high amounts of a certain protein in the system and eventually react to it.

Of course, the real situation isn’t as simple as it looks here because it takes a lot of factors and underlying reasons to create such a reaction, but I wanted to explain the basics and encourage you to read the Nutrition and Allergies chapters in Perfect cocker spaniel to learn more.

As I like things to be safe and balanced, I chose the same food company and simply picked a lamb option for the pups to try. After three days of a gradual swap, the boys embraced it fully without any complains or issues. I even think they love it more than chicken…

As of today, we have chicken meal for breakfast and lamb – for dinner. I also use both chicken and lamb kibble for training. Coop and Fred are also continue eating their favourite fresh treats and occasional home-cooked dinner (this really is random).

In three months I am planning to add another flavour to the menu, most likely duck. We’ll see how it goes…

Photo credit: Cooper photographed by me