Causes of Reactive Dog Behavior and How to Train Accordingly
Dealing with dogs who go off or lose it in certain circumstances.
by Pat Miller
About 85 percent of the time, my Scottish Terrier, Dubhy (pronounced Duffy) is laid-back and phlegmatic. He methodically solves every training challenge I give him (although I don’t expect him to break any speed records on the agility course). His low-key approach to life won our hearts and earned him a permanent home after we found him running loose in a Chattanooga neighborhood in January of 2001 at the tender age of six months. Residents said he had been roaming the area for at least six weeks; a search for his owners proved fruitless. His uneventful introduction to the rest of our pack sealed his fate, and Dubhy joined the Miller family.
Thus his behavior at a Tennessee trainers’ meeting some 16 months later came as a complete shock to me. I arrived early at the Knoxville location, and was sitting on the far side of the training room when fellow trainer Claire Moxim entered with her Labrador Retriever, Pete. Dubhy knew Pete well; they had played happily together at my training center on several occasions.
Dubhy looked up as Claire and Pete entered, then went nuclear, raging and snarling at the end of his leash.
My trainer brain immediately leaped to the obvious “restraint frustration-aggression” conclusion. Here was a dog that Dubhy knew from prior positive play experiences. Dubhy was excited to see Pete, and his frustration at not being able to greet his friend was manifested in a display of aggression. Or so I thought.
“Let’s have them meet on loose leashes,” I suggested to Claire. “Once Dubhy gets to say hi to his pal, he should be okay.”
Fat chance. As Dubhy and I approached Pete on a loose leash, Dubhy did, indeed, seem to settle down. I mistook his controlled behavior for calm behavior. As we came near the big black dog, Dubhy redoubled his hostilities. When I reached down and touched my dog’s hip in an attempt to interrupt his attack, he whirled around and punctured my hand with his teeth in a classic display of redirected aggression. Yikes! Overnight, seemingly without warning, Dubhy had turned into a reactive dog.
Talkin’ ’bout excitation
“Reactive” is a term gaining popularity in dog training circles – but what is it, exactly? In her book Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen Overall, M.A., V.M.D., Ph.D., uses the term to describe animals who respond to normal stimuli with an abnormal (higher-than-normal) level of intensity. The behaviors she uses to ascertain reactivity (or arousal) are:
• Alertness (hypervigilence)
• Restlessness (motor activity)
• Vocalization (whining, barking, howling)
• Systemic effects (vomiting, urination, defecation)
• Displacement or stereotypic behaviors (spinning, tail- or shadow-chasing)
• Changes in content or quantity of solicitous behaviors
The key to Dr. Overall’s definition is the word “abnormal.” Lots of dogs get excited when their owners come home, when they see other dogs, when a cat walks by the window, when someone knocks at the door, and so on. The reactive dog doesn’t just get excited; he spins out of control to a degree that can harm himself or others around him. In his maniacal response to the stimulus that has set him off, he is oblivious to anyone’s efforts to intercede. He goes nuclear.
Dubhy has demonstrated reactive behavior in other situations as well. Our neighbor’s black and white cat, Barney, has appointed himself Official Rat Patrol in our barn. Barney’s casual strolls outside our fence send our Scottie into a frenzy; Dubhy runs the fence line like a maniac, barking hysterically and doing stereotypic spins at each corner. When I place myself in Dubhy’s path and wave liver treats in his face I might as well be invisible; he darts around me and continues on his mission. If I let him, he would run himself into heat stroke.
Causes of reactive behavior
There is definitely a genetic component to Dubhy’s out-of-control level of excitation. If I had researched Scottish Terriers before I decided to keep him, I would have learned that this behavior is actually a desired trait for that breed (see sidebar).
The excuse is that good breeding maintains the original temperament and behaviors of purpose-bred dogs. Labrador Retrievers should be able to retrieve ducks, for example, Border Collies should be able to herd sheep, and Scotties and other terriers should display the pugnacious behavior that makes them good vermin-killers. I had heard this all my life, and was quite familiar with the terrier reputation for feistiness. I now have an intimate understanding of what that really means.
As with most behaviors, environment also plays a role in the responses of reactive dogs. With careful handling, a dog with reactive tendencies may never exhibit the abnormally intense reaction to stimuli that lies dormant in his genes. A dog who could have been a reasonably self-controlled canine in normal conditions, might be induced into reactivity if kept in a highly stimulating environment.
Had I been smarter and realized Dubhy’s propensities earlier, I might not have taken him to doggie daycare, where he experienced a heightened level of stimulation in the presence of other dogs that might have contributed to his Jekyll and Hyde reaction to Pete. He might never have been able to “play well with others,” which he did nicely for over a year, but we might also have avoided the “can’t even control himself in the presence of other dogs” behavior that I found myself dealing with in Knoxville.
Managing reactive behavior
Even if you have a highly reactive dog, all is not lost. A reactive dog may be a challenge, but there are things you can do that will help you cope with the stress of living with a dog who tends to flip out. Let’s start with management:
1. Identify his triggers. Make a complete list of all the environmental stimuli that set off your dog’s nuclear reactions. Be specific. For Dubhy that would be: A) the neighbor’s cat flaunting himself on the other side of the fence; and B) some other dogs – mostly those who are taller than Dubhy. Since I can’t successfully predict which dogs will set Dubhy off, I assume all dogs will, and act accordingly.
2. Prevent his access to the stimuli. Change your dog’s environment so his reactive behavior isn’t frequently triggered. For example, you can block his visual access with barriers, control it with training tools, or simply move your dog to another environment when the stimulus is likely to be present.
For Dubhy that might mean: A) asking the neighbor to keep his cat home (which probably won’t happen), or erecting a solid wood privacy fence so Dubhy can’t see the cat, and B) using a head halter when I walk Dubhy in public so I can easily turn him away from other dogs, breaking the visual contact that triggers his reactive behavior.
Modifying reactive behavior
If you are particularly successful at managing your dog’s environment, that may be all you need to do. Lots of dog owners get by on management without ever retraining the dog. If, however, you’d prefer to change your dog’s behaviors in case your precautions should slip, or if you’d like to be able to relax when you take him out, you can learn to put a behavior modification program in place.
The most powerful tools you can use to reprogram your dog’s reactive responses are classical and operant conditioning. Don’t be frightened off by the technical terms; these behavior modification tools are easy to put into practice.
Say your dog is reactive to people walking their dogs past your house when she is inside, and she barks hysterically and scratches at the windows whenever she sees a dog walking past. You can manage the behavior by closing your drapes, moving the sofa to the other side of the room so she can’t jump up and see out, or putting up a baby gate to prevent her access to the front room. But if you really like having the drapes open, the sofa fits perfectly under the front window, and you enjoy your dog’s company when you are watching TV, you might be more motivated to undertake a behavior modification program to change your dog’s annoying response for the long term.
Think of it this way: There’s a little switch in your dog’s brain that gets flipped whenever she sees a dog outside your window. She likely sees each dog-human pair as a trespassing threat. The instant one appears, her brain kicks into overdrive and she goes nuclear. This is a classically conditioned behavior. She is not thinking, “If I bark hysterically and run in circles, climb the walls and claw the curtains, something good might happen.” Her brain is screaming, “Alert! Alert! Intruders!” and her body reacts accordingly.
Of course, her behavior is reinforced by the fact that every time she does this, the intruders leave. Her canine brain doesn’t comprehend that they would’ve left anyway; she may well think she made it happen. This negative reinforcement (the dog’s behavior made a bad thing go away) only increases the likelihood that the behavior will continue, or even escalate.
This is operant conditioning. In reality, classical and operant conditioning work together all the time to mold our dogs’ behaviors. We use food to operantly condition our dogs to respond to our cues with a desired behavior. At the same time we give our dogs a very positive classical association with the whole training experience because they love food (and playing with us), so they come to love training, too.
To change your dog’s classical association with the presence of a dog walking by from negative to positive, you need to convince her brain (the automatic response part, not the thinking part) that the presence of dogs walking by makes something wonderful happen. This is called counter-conditioning.
Build an unconscious positive association
To succeed at counter-conditioning, begin by preventing your dog’s access to the windows when you are not there so she can’t practice the undesirable behavior. Plan your training sessions for a time of day when you’ll have high traffic past your window. If there is no such time, convince several of your dog-friends to leash their canine companions and – at different times – march back and forth past your window for 15 to 20 minutes. You can take them all out to dinner afterward as a reward!
Be sure your friends know they need to march out of sight in each direction before they turn around. Mark the place on the sidewalk where you want them to turn, just to be sure.
Meanwhile, back at the house, have your dog on leash, using a head halter if necessary. As soon as the marchers come into view, start feeding your dog something totally irresistible, such as tiny morsels of canned chicken. Be sure your dog has noticed the pair before you begin feeding, but don’t wait for her to work herself up into a frenzy. The instant she notices them, begin feeding her. Feed the morsels nonstop as long as the marchers are in view – treats raining from the heavens! As soon as the dog and human passersby are gone, stop feeding your dog. When they reappear and your dog notices them, start feeding her again.
Your goal is to convince your dog that a dog walking by makes chicken happen. You will know you’re making progress when you see your dog notice the walkers and, instead of getting tense and barking, she turns to you with a smile and a “Where’s my chicken?” expression. When she realizes that chicken only happens in the presence of a dog outside the window, she’ll want them to be there, rather than wanting to chase them away.
Build a conscious positive association
When you have successfully changed your dog’s automatic or unconscious association with the stimulus, you can start using operant conditioning to teach her that the presence of the previously offensive stimulus is a cue to sit and look at you.
It’s easier than you might think; just ask her to sit when she gives you the “Where’s my chicken?” look, before you feed her a treat. Slow your rate of reinforcement (how fast you feed treats), and reward her only for the desired behavior, rather than shoveling treats nonstop.
Eventually you can fade the verbal “sit” cue; the mere appearance of a dog walking by your house will become the operant cue for your dog to sit and look at you.
All is calm
Counter-conditioning is definitely more challenging with a reactive dog than with one who responds to stimuli with a normal level of intensity. It may take you longer than it would with a “normal” dog, but it does work. Don’t give up! The more you can saturate the reactive dog’s environment with the concept of “calm,” the more successful you will be at managing and modifying her nuclear reactions.
Help your dog understand that calm behavior is universally rewarded (see “Practiced Calm,” WDJ February 2002). Keep your own interactions with her calm and cool, even when you are tempted to scream at her to startle her out of the high-intensity behavior pattern. Your own intense behaviors are more likely to elevate her energy level than tone it down.
Learn about calming massage, acupressure, and T-Touch™ techniques to help your dog relax. Research herbal, homeopathic, and flower essence remedies to see which ones might be appropriate for your dog. (You may need a holistic veterinarian to help you with this; go to the Web site of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association at ahvma.org for a directory of holistic vets in the United States, listed by state, to find one near you.)
It is possible to make progress with a reactive dog. While my Scottie is not yet ready to show off his piano-playing technique at the next big dog trainer conference I attend, I am much more comfortable taking him to relatively small gatherings where other dogs might be present.
We recently helped staff a booth at a fair. Our two-hour stint was uneventful despite dozens of dogs walking by on leash – except for the bad moment when a thoughtless lady allowed her dog to run 25 feet to the end of her retractable leash and get right in Dubhy’s face. I did a quick about-turn with Dubhy to avoid disaster and a setback to his modification program, and then proceeded to explain to the lady why retractable leashes weren’t a good idea in a crowd. She was offended and indignant. I was just thrilled that Dubhy had come so far with his reactive behavior.
-Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, and president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. She is also the author of The Power of Positive Dog Training, and the just-released book Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog. For more information, see "Resources."