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

Diary of reactive dog | What is reactivity and how to help the dog overcome reactivity and become resident / (C) Natalia Ashton, Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog

Re-activating happiness | The beginning | Walking into disaster

Fred was named after Mercury. But he turned out to be my Beethoven. No, not the movie giant… The composer. My favourite composer of all times, if I am to be precise.

Far beyond the similarities in hair style, Fred resembles Ludwig in the way he acts… From the gentleness and sensitivity of a being able to compose Moonlight Sonata to mourn the love that was never meant to be, to the madness and outbursts of a man slapping the piano lead, declaring “For such pigs, I do not play !” and storming out of the room.

That’s my boy… The loving, intelligent little boy who became reactive in August 2018…

It took me such a long time to share this. People asked. A lot. And I thought about writing notes for months, too. But a part of me did not want to dissect my pup’s life like a case study because I didn’t want people to misunderstand and perceive him as a “troubled” dog.

And then I realised that whilst I knew what I was dealing with, there were a lot of dog parents out there who had no idea of reactivity or ways of managing it, making dogs feel worse, not better.

I also felt that my diary might be helpful for people who found themselves in a situation similar to ours and are doing their absolute best to get through it, without feeling isolated and alone.

It will take me a few posts to cover everything we’ve done because dealing with reactivity is a multidimensional process. I am not even going to constantly refer to it as “reactivity”. Instead I will focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. The positive ray of sunshine however faint and remote. It’s out there. Hence, it’s not about “going through reactivity” but “re-activating happiness”…

In your dog, in you you, and the life you share together.

So let’s start from the very beginning…

The day it happened… I still remember it. We decided to explore a new beautiful walk, with the woods and the views. The utter perfection in every way. We had such a wonderful time.

We headed back. Excited, happy, tired… Boys were on their leads because we didn’t know the area well. We took the path stuck between a steep, almost vertical heel on one side and a fence – on the other.

The dogs appeared suddenly. Three labs and a boxer. Off lead. Sprinting towards us, no owners in sight. They quickly formed a circle around me and the pups and started bouncing, trying to push the boys to the ground. I tried to cover them with my body, but it wasn’t enough… My husband tried to pull the dogs away, but it was impossible, so he run off to find the owners.

There was growling, but luckily, no biting… And then I heard Fred scream… Like he never screamed before.

Next, the owners run into the scene, still staying away and calling the dogs, “come! come!” – not making any effort to get closer. The dogs ignored them, yet again, so eventually one of the women came over, held them by their collars and told us not to worry because “they wouldn’t bite”…

It was over in a matter of minutes, but that moment changed everything…

We got back to the car. Fred seemed back to his normal self, Coop was breathing heavily and I felt like I could do with a drink, or two, or a sedative… At that point I thought Fred would be find because the boy was so resident and acted relatively calm. I was afraid for Coop known to be extremely sensitive. And deep inside my brain was pulsating three words… “The fear period”… The time in life of every pup aged 8-10 months when any ordinary thing can suddenly look scary… Fred was 9…

As we drove home, I ordered some calming remedies for the boys, just in case we needed them. Upon return we crushed on a sofa, the boys relaxed and fell asleep.

The morning that came seemed no different from any other morning. And so was the next one. In the afternoon we went for a walk and saw our friends with their dogs. Just as usual, we rushed over to say Hello… As we got closer, Fred suddenly stopped and screamed, then barked… and barked again… He tried to hide behind me. The boy who loved his furry friends suddenly felt afraid of them…

It was frustrating, it was frightening, it was very, very upsetting… It was the moment I discovered reactivity. And from that moment on I had to find ways to deal with it.

To be continued…


Photo credit: this photo was taken by me during the walk that lead to the disaster…