Roots of “Reactivity”

By December 29, 2016News
A dog can train itself to act “reactive” in only a few intense learning experiences. I’ve watched hundreds of dogs learn these behaviors, but was shocked to see it happen with my own dog.
My friendly Border Collie had never barked at any human, and loved them all. But I was determined she be a Schutzhund dog, because I had fallen in love with that fun sport. As instructed, I tied her up on a 6 foot leash at the training field. Then I left to watch from a distance.
The helper appeared in the distance, acting nervous, and a bit threatening. Jinx noticed him and seemed to be ignoring him, but she also showed some displacement behavior of sniffing the grass.
He approached, but if she raised her head and looked at him, he ran away very fearfully. Other beginning dogs were also barking at him, or standing there confused.
Jinx decided she did not like this situation. She wandered slowly away, still apparently ignoring him, but walking directly away from him.
But then she reached the end of the leash.
She stood there, undecided, pulling slightly to get away. She looked a bit fearful.
Suddenly she turned and ran to the end of the leash, strained toward the helper, and barked ferociously at him. He ran away. She pulled at the leash harder, tail up, barking at him and lunging. I was absolutely shocked by seeing this.

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That’s all it took. She no longer showed fear of the helper, because she had discovered her awesome super-power to drive him away at any time. In later training sessions, she then learned that her fake-ferocious barking meant the helper would come and play tug-o-war with her.
That behavior was then directed into confident friendly tug-o-war by the helpers. She loved tugging, and learned to bark to get to play tug. To many observers, she looked pretty ferocious! But she was only showing a trained behavior, and of course she had prey instinct, and enjoyed biting the tug.

She never afterwards barked at anyone in normal life. But, I never encouraged this behavior in normal life. If we saw someone acting odd, I would cue a heel and focus on me, or play with her.

What about real life?

But suppose I had never done any IPO. Suppose I had encountered teasing or threatening-acting people, and allowed her to just act naturally? That whole training situation at the IPO club, would have happened the same way, but by accident. She would have repeated the behavior in that context, and become a habitually “reactive” dog. She would have learned to lunge and bark at people who seemed threatening. They naturally would have gone away, or been leaving anyway.
For a dog with a susceptible temperament, it only takes a few experiences, and the very natural behavior seems set in stone. It appears hysterical and uncontrollable.
But remember, at the club, Jinx would have preferred to ignore the helper, and she attempted to avoid any confrontation with the helper. It was only the fact that she was on a leash, that cause her to make the choice to threaten the IPO helper.
The instant the leash tightened, she switched to frenzied-looking aggression and forward lunging. Since the helper then retreated, she had discovered the perfect strategy of behavior. She had solved her problem of being trapped on leash near a threatening man.

Ignoring him did not work.
Sniffing grass did not work.
Slowly wandering away did not work.
Barking and lunging worked.
She chose the strategy that worked to solve her problem. This is exactly what most “reactive” pet dogs do.

Unfortunately this process happens very fast. We owners never notice when our dog is actually first trying non-aggressive strategies, so we do not reward those. But none of us has the reaction time of a dog, and so we are often faced with trying to fix behavior issues after they are already established.

Aggression can conquer fear

When dogs start playing with each other for the first time, there is often some fearfulness, and also some aggressively snarly setting of boundaries of how rough things should get. Why? Because the dogs first need to know that they can make the other dog leave them alone. Then, they have both established a “Safe Word” (a snarky snap) to exit the game if things get painful or scary. That gives them the confidence to play wildly.

In the same way, therapists advise people with earthquake trauma to deal with aftershocks by stamping the ground and yelling “STOP! STOP NOW!” at the earthquake. I’ve done this, and it works very well. It removes fear by channeling it into fierce anger. Of course, the earthquake or aftershock DOES always stop eventually. This reinforces our confidence, and we feel as if we can control the scary thing. (Try it!).

Learning to use aggression to conquer fear is a natural part of dog behavior. It becomes a problem when in an unnatural situation, like being on a leash with a person or other dog approaching.

A “reactive” dog can be misinterpreted as being confidently aggressive, when the behavior was originally fear-based. But the original fear has actually become less visible, overshadowed with aggression, because control over our environment really does result in more confidence.
Many of us feel fearful after a wasp sting. If we discover how to use a flyswatter to kill wasps, we will act aggressive, and then we feel less fearful. We know we can kill a wasp if it gets too close. But if someone showed us that we could instead spray ourselves with an efficient repellent, then maybe we would abandon both our fear and our aggression. We’d relax, and ignore wasps. We might stop using aggression if we learn a nonviolent solution to a problem. 

Dogs can also learn to stop using aggression, if they are taught a different strategy. Our goal is to teach them that relaxing around other dogs and strangers leads to good things.

Be sure to join Martha and others from the Service Dog community on the Martha Hoffman Hearing Dogs Open Forum Facebook group. It’s an open community where dog trainers, both professional and owner/trainers, exchange ideas and tips about training their dogs.

Martha Hoffman is the Training Director for the Hearing Dog Program. She has trained several hundred Hearing Dogs and tested over 20,000 shelter dogs over the course of 25 years. She is the founder and lead trainer at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) and the author of the highly respected text on Hearing Dog training, Lend Me an Ear.