Where does reactivity come from?
One of the biggest hurdles our furry friends have had to deal with over the past few years are the constant succession of lockdowns. Lockdowns, and being away from all the hustle and bustle that usually comes with everyday life has had a massive impact on something called ‘socialisation’ with our dogs. Contrary to popular belief: ‘A new puppy must meet 100 people and 100 dogs in the first 3 months of life,’ can be extremely harmful to some pups. A lot of pressure is put on young dogs to be able to slot in with our lifestyle without any thought to whether they can handle it or not. Reactivity can start incredibly early in puppies’ lives if they are forced to interact with dogs and people before they are ready. In order to know how to read your pup better here is my best guide to how they are feeling.
Tail: Should be relaxed, hopefully wagging. If it’s tucked right under your pup is worried. If it is straight up and stiff, your pup is on high alert.
Ears: Soft and relaxed is the ideal, if they are pinned back this can mean they’re anxious. Erect and forward can suggest arousal.
Body Posture: A rigid body posture, stiff from head to tail like a statue, is a sign of a dog being unsure of a situation. Nothing about their body looks ‘relaxed.’ A confident pup looks loose and wiggly!!
Lip licking: Especially if they’ve not had a treat or water recently.
Yawning: This is what’s called a displacement signal and doesn’t always mean they’re tired.
Shake Offs: A big shake from head to tail when they’re not wet. This is a behaviour I always praise as your pup is attempting to calm themselves down and regain composure after being over-stimulated. This can also be after lots of running around or playing! I usually reward by saying “Good shake” and reward instantly with a treat or a cuddle.
That’s where reactivity can start with puppies, by being put into situations where they feel worried and don’t have an escape route. So how does it progress from looking a bit anxious to dogs that are launching themselves aggressively towards something or someone?
At least 50% of the dogs I have worked with have been attacked or been played with too boisterously by another dog. There’s a huge scale here between rough play and a full-blown attack. Rough play can be anything from your pup being chased to the point where they start to panic, being pinned down in play by bigger dog, or maybe a playmate has bitten down a bit too hard and they’ve yelped. A dog attack however is outside the realms of just a play session. Teeth and claws fly and sometimes progress to full bite wounds. Its horrible and scary and super traumatic for everyone involved! Obviously, a responsible owner would have their reactive dog on a lead, but unfortunately other owners can be, at best, lax with letting their dog approach other dogs when they’re off lead. The shout of “Don’t worry they’re friendly!” can strike fear into the hearts of many a dog owner when they know full well that their pup isn’t. Drama then ensues as the reactive dog owner desperately tries to keep their terrified dog away from the ‘friendly’ intruder to their previously peaceful walk. Sadly, in most situations the reactive dog is always blamed as the 'aggressor’ and many of my clients are shouted at and told that their ‘dangerous dog’ shouldn’t be allowed out in public.