Publishing Author : Jay Gray
Date Published : 15/11/18
Canine reactivity is the most prolific behavioural issue in modern day Britain. Over seventy percent of dogs arriving at Obsidian K9 for training have some link to reactive or aggressive behaviour (Figures as of November 2018). Within reactive and aggressive behaviour there are a multitude of various issues more specific to individual situations. Reactive behaviours span from the mildest forms such as frustrated greeting and span all the way through to true aggressive behaviours where the dog in question would cause substantial damage to another dog or person (type of reactivity dependant) should it be given the chance.
Reactivity is a behavioural issue in which dogs become overly vocal upon the introduction of an external stimuli. These stimuli can be a multitude of different pictures depending on the dog in question but the most common two issues are dog to dog reactivity and dog to human reactivity, followed fairly distantly by prey driven reactivity such as the desire to chase bicycles, scooters or runners. Fast moving objects are always the triggering influence in prey driven reactivity and generally the smaller the stimulus in physical size, the worse the prey response is.
The reasons for reactivity are often different depending on the dog in question. Most often, frustration and over arousal are the reason for excitement-based reactivity issues but these are not the most common issues statistically. By far, the most common issues of reactivity are based out of nerve. These are often mistaken for dogs protecting their owners, which when tested is quite obviously not true. Dogs with fear reactivity will often look extremely aggressive, but when it comes time to actually engage, they will often pick flight over fight, or nip, like a collie with a sheep.
Reactivity, like many other aspects of dog training is a spectrum, rather than a digital issue. Digitality refers to the behaviour being ‘on’ or ‘off’ whereas a spectrum describes a measurement in which the dog can be anywhere on a scale. Some dogs are minorly reactive, some dogs are majorly reactive, and most dogs fall somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, thousands of dogs in the United Kingdom suffer from these issues but many are too low on the spectrum for owners to be concerned about the behaviour, so it remains unsolved. It is important to remember, however that no matter how minor or major the issue is, it should be solved because it is unhealthy for the dog to live with any amount of excess stress stemming from fear, anxiety, aggression or even over arousal or excitement.
True aggression, unlike reactivity tends not to be based out of over excitement or nerve but is based in a true desire to fight with the external stimulus in question. Again, this can be people or dogs, or other animals but tends to be the former. Dog to dog aggression is the most common true aggression issue, followed by dog to human aggression. True aggression is considerably less common than the majority of pet owners are led to believe and in fact less than 1 in 50 dogs that come for rehabilitation are truly aggressive.
The reasons for reactivity can be widespread but the two most common are that a dog has had a negative encounter with another dog and genetics. Nerve based reactivity is almost always due to a single (or multiple) learning experience(s) where the dog in rehabilitation has had a severe conflicting issue with another dog. This usually appears in the way of an unprovoked attack in the younger days of the dog’s life. If this is severe enough, one occurrence of this event can be enough to create severe fear reactivity that will last until the problem has been addressed. The most common reason for true aggression is genetic factors, where the dog has been bred with inherent dog to dog aggression or dog to animal aggression that has passed over to other dogs. The APBT was inherently bred for dog aggressive tendencies so it is not uncommon for a true, game-bred dog to show these tendencies. Alongside this, the Patterdale or the Jack Russel Terrier were both bred to catch and kill other animals, so it isn’t uncommon for this trait to pass over to other dogs. Statistically, the most common breed to exhibit true dog to dog aggression is the Jack Russel Terrier (Statistics: Obsidian K9 2017-2018).
Frustrated greeters (FG) are the easiest cases to deal with for a professional trainer, because the dog has very few actual behavioural issues, regardless of how severe they can look at a first glance. Frustrated greeting is a behaviour where the dog is generally over excited to greet the other dog in question. This results in excessive barking, lunging and sometimes even snarling if the excitement is high enough. The lunging of FG dogs can often look extremely severe because of the desire behind the external behaviour. If the desire is high enough, many owners can wrongly diagnose this as aggression or an aggressive based behaviour.
The intensity of FG behaviours can vary hugely from minor whimpering or pulling on the lead to a show that looks almost identical to aggression. In order to spot a FG it is important to address and observe the entire picture. FG behaviours are usually based out of a general over excitement so the dog in for training will tend to show other behaviours prior to the greeting of other dogs such as moderate to severe ILT, general disobedience, general over excitement, jumping up, nipping, grabbing the lead etc. Of course, not all dogs will show these behaviours, so it is imperative to have an appropriate experience of FG dogs before addressing them alone and diagnosing the problem.
FG is generally treated through counter conditioning. The dog learns to associate the presence of a new dog with engagement games toward the handler. Alongside this, positive punishment can be added to extinguish unwanted behaviours, but it is important to remember that FG behaviours are generally through a pre-conditioned response to an external stimulus so without any further understanding or counter conditioning, it is unfair to punish at high levels. As training progresses, more severe positive punishment can be added to further solidify the extinction of the unwanted behaviours. Counter conditioning should continue throughout the training programme to solidify wanted behaviours and transform the conditioned response into something more desirable.
Fear/Anxiety Based Reactivity
Fear or anxiety-based reactivity (referred to as fear reactivity (FR) for the sake of this paper) is a moderately difficult case to solve for professional trainers, but unfortunately is the most common behavioural issue of the modern age (statistics Obsidian K9 2018). There are multiple assumptions as to why fear reactivity is on the rise from lack of correct socialisation, to the force free movement being unable to deal with severe cases appropriately. Ultimately, all the assumptions are nothing more than heresy at the time of writing this paper (15/11/18) so it is difficult to properly determine what the underlying factors are.
FR dogs generally show worse behaviour when on lead, because the fight or flight response is forced by being trapped by a lead. For this reason, FR dogs are often referred to as lead reactive dogs. Whilst this is true, it doesn’t address the underlying psychological issue which is paramount for a complete and successful rehabilitation without masking the issue with shut down or diversion. Many trainers are guilty of masking FR with excessive compulsion (often from E-Collars) which looks very successful on marketing videos but as time passes and the compulsion is faded, the underlying psychological issues start to surface again through the behaviour that was nothing more than a band aid. On the contrary, force free trainers are often guilty of addressing FR with the use of threshold training alone which often results in the issues being prolonged for far longer than is needed and ultimately never being solved in their entirety.
The successful treatment of FR relies on an educated psychological approach which simultaneously addresses the external behaviour of the dog and the underlying psychological issues causing the behaviour in the first place. Grisha Stewart is one of the forefathers of reactivity training and parts of her approach are very efficient in dealing with the issue.
This paper will not comprehensively cover the most successful methods in dealing with FR cases, but the above instructions are the foundations for proper programme building toward fixing this issue.
True aggression (TA) cases are extremely rare and usually a falsely diagnosed issue by the owner of the dog. As stated previously, around 1 in 50 cases show appropriate signs of true aggression and they can be difficult to spot when directed toward other dogs. When directed toward people, true aggression tends to be diagnosed too late, when a dog has already caused substantial damage. This is also true when the TA behaviour is directed to other dogs but most dogs who have already gone to this extreme behaviour tend to be put to sleep before a trainer can rehabilitate the issue in question.
The important thing to remember about TA is that it is often based out of genetic disposition. If this is the case, complete rehabilitation tends not to be possible, but appropriate management of the issue is far more important. If TA is based out of predisposed genetics, then management methods can allow the dog to have a completely stable and happy life but training will be ongoing and intensive. TA dogs can live together, but careful supervision is needed to ensure that nothing escalates, and old habits are not brought to the surface
Reactivity is a blanket term for a variety of smaller issues, and many of them are completely disconnected from one another. With this in mind, it is important to remember that the issues need treating in accordance with their specific attributes. Some forms of reactivity can be a blend of issues for the dog. For example, a dog may be a frustrated greeter and fear reactive. When this is the case, problems can be blended together, and the method of training can be from such an angle that both issues can be addressed at the same time. Although this paper has only covered three types of reactivity, there are other types that should be understood before anybody decides to train professionally within this field.