Preventing Reactivity… A little Management goes a Long Way
Flight (or avoidance) is also a strategy which young animals will use more often, however, once a dog reaches adolescence and becomes bigger and stronger, they will start to experiment more with using FIGHT as a strategy to cope with a threat. The reality is that while we find flight or appeasement more socially acceptable, animals need to be able to use whatever strategy is necessary to get out of danger – being able to do this could mean the difference between life and death. If you are trapped and appeasement does not placate the threat, fight may be your only option.
The thing that we need to understand about survival behaviour, is that it is:
Hardwired into all animals
Think about it – while an animal can miss a meal or fail to find a mate, but still go on to have another chance at success the next day, if you fail to escape danger, you are done. There are no do-overs, no going back to begin - you are eliminated from the game altogether. Therefore, survival behaviour is of the utmost importance to all life forms and takes precedence over all else. In fact, the circuits in the brain that trigger survival responses have the ability to bypass any logical thought. I will never forget how I almost jumped into the back seat of the car when I heard a “ssshhh…” sound while my husband was driving, and I was in the passenger seat. I am not scared of much in the way of critters, but I have had several traumatic snake experiences and am VERY familiar with the sound that a Puff Adder makes. The sound I heard that day accessed my limbic system (emotional brain), which highjacked my cortex (rational, thinking brain) and I started flinging myself away from the noise. As I started to move, of course my cortex caught up with events and on processing the information more carefully let me know that it was in fact the air brakes of the bus in front of us. Yes, I felt like an idiot!
The point is that when a dog is faced with something scary, they will engage an instinctive, inherent response. They don’t have a choice. However, the ability to engage the 5F’s only starts from around 5 weeks of age and develops during a period of high social attraction - what we call the socialisation period, which lasts from about 4-14 weeks of age in the average pet dog. This is why we stress the importance of exposing puppies to positive social experiences with everything they will encounter as adult dogs during this time – because they will react with more attraction and with less fear and will learn to regard things they have positive experiences with as a normal, non-threatening part of life. Being used to lots and lots of different people, dogs, animals and “stuff” will mean that there will be less for the puppy to regard as threatening and react with one of the 5F’s towards later in life.
So where does it all go wrong?
While social attraction may outweigh the fear response during the socialisation period, this does not mean that puppies are immune to bad experiences or that they are not capable of showing us that they are feeling anxious or afraid. Puppies may be less likely to “freak out” about new things, but they still do have the capacity to use the 5F’s. The problem is that we tend to ignore everything but aggression. The only F that we pay attention to, tends to be FIGHT. Time and again, we see puppies that are showing clear discomfort in a situation, but their discomfort is ignored. A puppy may be frantically back-peddling away from a person or dog and the owner will simply drag them forward and tell them: “Don’t be silly, say hello!”. Or we will see a puppy that pretty much flattens himself on his back every time another dog approaches and no one intervenes to allow him to get up and move away. Then, as these puppies turn into teenagers, everyone is horrified when they start to become reactive and snappy. The reality is that they have tried to use other strategies – they tried to use appeasement, they tried to escape, but it didn’t work. They didn’t find any way to feel better or get out of the situation, so they eventually turned to the only option left – FIGHT.
The next stage in what goes wrong is the humans then approach the situation in one of two ways:
Punish the behaviour (this is unacceptable!)
Ignore the behaviour (he’s only a puppy, he’ll get over it)
Neither of these approaches works. I have written so many posts and articles on why we do not use positive punishment as a training method, that I am not going to go into this in detail again, suffice to say that punishing a dog for a behaviour that is driven by fear will only make the dog feel worse, create more behaviour problems, break down your relationship with your dog and fail to address the underlying cause of the behaviour (how the dog feels). What I want to focus on here is the second approach – ignoring the behaviour and hoping it will go away.
Have you ever had the experience of a young dog running up to you barking and the owner calling out “Don’t worry, it’s okay, he’s just a puppy!” Well, it isn’t okay, least of all for the puppy. I mentioned earlier that survival behaviours, while hard-wired (in the sense that all animals have the capacity to use them and will use them if necessary), are also subject to the laws of operant conditioning i.e. they can be reinforced. Survival behaviours are usually negatively reinforced: something that causes a negative emotional response (fear) triggers the behaviour and escaping from the thing that caused the fear brings strong feelings of relief. Relief is an incredibly reinforcing emotion. Relief is caused by dopamine flooding the brain and dopamine acts on recently fired neural pathways, strengthening them, so that they are more likely to fire again in the same situation. Going back to my snake story – why did I try and jump into the back seat of the car? Because in previous encounters with Puff Adders I learned that running away was a REALLY good option! I was terrified, I ran and put distance between myself and the snake and felt a WHOLE lot better! Flight was heavily reinforced repeatedly (yes, I have encountered lots of snakes!) and is my go-to strategy. It has even been generalised to any stimulus which could signal the presence of a snake.
Similarly, when a young dog lunges or runs up to a person or dog barking, successfully making that person or dog go away, brings relief which reinforces the behaviour. In fact, even just surviving the situation is reinforcing. The dog’s brain basically says: “I felt threatened, I barked, I lived, therefore barking works”. Every time the dog rehearses this behaviour, dopamine is strengthening those neural pathways, cementing reactivity or FIGHT as the go-to option for dealing with that threat. And the more the strategy is used, the more it starts to generalise to more and more situations and anything that might be just remotely threatening.
And there’s more: In some cases, with regular rehearsal of the behaviour, the relief gained from running and barking or lunging on the lead can actually become something that a dog will deliberately work for. Sounds a bit crazy, right? But think about people who jump off bridges or perfectly functional aeroplanes for fun – why do they do this? People will say it is for the adrenaline rush, but in fact, it is the dopamine rush when you survive that is so reinforcing. Ever see a dog that rushes up and barks at someone and then trots off looking very pleased with themselves? That is a dog that has developed their own “extreme” sport.
While there may be times when allowing a spooky puppy to choose to approach a stooge person or dog in a CONTROLLED environment and not intervene if the puppy does a little spooky barking, giving the puppy time to figure out that this person or dog is not something to be afraid of, it is NEVER acceptable to allow puppies or young dogs to run up to strangers and unknown dogs and do this in public. In a controlled set-up, with a young puppy that is just a little spooky, you can ensure that the stooge person or dog (and it better be a one in a million, extremely reliable, experienced individual) reacts appropriately by ignoring the puppy until the puppy figures things out and calms down. In public, you have no idea how the person or dog will react and the chances of the puppy or young dog managing to work through their fearful response and relax are just about zero. By allowing puppies or young dogs to do this, we are only giving them the opportunity to rehearse behaviour that we do not want (which strengthens the behaviour) and exposing them to the possibility of having a really nasty experience with a person or dog who reacts aggressively towards them, creating even more negative associations with people or dogs.
So, what should you do to prevent your puppy or young dog developing reactivity?
Allow your puppy or young dog the choice of interacting or walking away – don’t force them into situations they are not comfortable with.
Observe body language carefully and allow avoidance or appeasement to be successful – if you see signs that your puppy or dog is anxious, help them to get out of the situation.
DO NOT put them in situations where they are likely to rehearse reactive behaviour
The first two I have spoken about quite a bit before. We need to give our puppies, adolescents and all dogs choice. We need to be sensitive to signs that they are not comfortable, we need to call or lead them out of the situation as quickly as possible and reinforce them for moving away. If we do this consistently, calm avoidance will become the learned strategy when your dog starts to feel uncomfortable.
But how do we avoid our young dogs or puppies getting into situations where they may want to run and bark at someone or at another dog? Well, we need to be aware of what tends to spook them and if there is any chance of that scenario arising, we need to keep them on the lead so that we have the opportunity to prevent them from running and barking and we can move them out of the way to where they feel safe instead.
Unfortunately, people often think that putting a young dog or puppy on lead will make reactivity worse, but it really doesn’t have to. For a thorough look at preventing on-leash reactivity, please see: https://www.tarynblyth.co.za/on-lead-doesn-t-have-to-mean-reacti. In essence, if we want our puppies and dogs to be comfortable passing people, dogs or anything they would be anxious about on lead we need to do the following:
Give them space i.e. move away from the runner or bicycle or whatever it is until you are at a point where you know your pup is under threshold i.e. aware, but not anxious or afraid.
FEED tasty treats the entire time the “scary” thing is present, until it has gone past. This will counter-condition the emotional response i.e. replace the negative emotional response with a positive one: “Ooh! Runner = chicken!”
Using this approach will help to gradually desensitize your puppy or young dog to those things that they find scary and it will prevent them from learning that FIGHT is the best way of dealing with a potential threat. This must be done in EVERY possibly scary scenario.
The other excuse people often use for not managing their dogs better, is: “I didn’t see him/her/it coming”. We really need to be more proactive about managing our dogs – if we cannot see what is coming and we know that there could be someone around the corner, then keep them on the lead until you have a better view of the area. It really is as simple as that. Our dogs should not be wandering off unsupervised when our view of what is coming is obscured.
Perhaps I am really sensitive to these issues because of the breed of dogs that I have. With Rottweilers one really does not have the option of shouting: “Don’t worry, he’s just a puppy!” as your teenage Rottweiler runs and barks at someone. Trust me, that just doesn’t fly. I simply cannot put my dogs in situations where the slightest negativity could be cast on their social behaviour. Possibly this has forced me to be much better at managing my own dogs and made me far more aware of people who don’t manage their dogs appropriately. But it isn’t just about that. It is 20 years’ experience working with all types of dogs and owners that has shown me how a little management can go a LONG way in preventing so many behaviour problems, especially reactivity and aggression. Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure – it is much harder to put that particular genie back in the bottle than to never take it out in the first place.
This is obviously a huge and complex topic and to thoroughly and holistically address how to prevent reactivity and aggression, one would need to look at everything from genetics and early environment to lack of socialisation and training methods. However, for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on one common factor which contributes to the development of this behaviour: lack of management.
Aggression is a normal behavioural response in the right circumstances. All animals have to survive danger and mammals have 5 strategies at their disposal to do so, commonly called the 5F’s: Flight, Fight, Fiddle About, Freeze or Faint. Freeze is often a first response, giving the animal time to gather more information and decide how to respond further, Fiddle About is another term for appeasement (or in human terms: negotiate), Flight is the option of getting away from a threat as fast as possible and Fight is all about making the threat move away from you. Faint is a strategy reserved for only a few species like Possums – and sometimes humans!
Which strategy a dog tends to use more often depends on a lot of things e.g. genetics, past experience and age. When puppies feel threatened or anxious, their default strategy tends to be appeasement. Licking, rolling over, lying down and creeping along the ground are all behaviours that puppies will use to try and make themselves appear non-threatening to something they find a bit intimidating.