What Is Canine Reactive Behaviour?
When our dogs overreact our first and most important tool is knowledge!
Reactive behaviour is a sign that the internal state of the dog has changed and that the dog is dog suffering with an emotion such as stress, fear, frustration or anxiety. It is strictly speaking, an overreaction and can include lunging, barking, threatening or trying to get away. The exact behaviour type and reason for it will depend on the dog, their personality and capacity to cope.
Whilst overt overreaction is obvious, the other response is less obvious and can be completely missed by the untrained eye, yet it is still a reaction – a response to a changed internal state. A dog that doesn’t display their feelings by trying to scare the other dog away, or even offering an aggressive display, will be less noticeable and can even look happy or considered ‘well-behaved’. The dog that suffers emotional ‘shut-down’ during a reaction is why we most often hear from dog guardians that their dog is reactive by being difficult to handle and in an overtly wound up and aggressive state.
Another misconception about a specific dog reaction is the dog that shows barrier frustration. Most often displayed from the dog that’s on a lead, barking through a fence or behind a gate, barrier frustration is the result of a physical barrier that prevents interaction. Whilst barrier frustration can certainly become aggression if not dealt with carefully, it can be addressed early on by changing the environment and consequences of a behaviour to dissipate and then prevent the over-arousal associated with the object of the dog’s attention.
Over and hyper-arousal is a dog behaviour that we most often see from a dog that is stressed and overwhelmed. This behaviour is caused by the dog’s inability to be calm and relaxed. It’s fundamentally a sign of excess mental and physical energy, over-stimulation and an influx of stress hormones that doesn’t dissipate as it should. Often a dog that is hyper-aroused will jump up, they may nip hands and they cannot read the social requests of other dogs so are socially incompetent in their well-meaning but misled desperation to interact with their own species. The hyper-aroused dog is difficult to handle on a lead and in the care of an inexperienced handler can be accused of bad or naughty behaviour. The idea that this behaviour is voluntary can lead to human frustration or even punishment, from the guardian or uneducated trainer, which will make the dog even more stressed.
Sometimes we see the hyper-aroused dog forced into perceived calmness via threats or punishment; by someone that may be considered a strong trainer showing their dominance. This unacceptable behaviour hasn’t dealt with the dog’s feelings, it has made the dog too intimidated to show them, but the internal turmoil will show in another way at some point.
The only true way to help a stressed dog is to help them to decompress by ensuring their needs are met, teaching them to be calm, empowering them via positive behaviour modification and building their natural personal resilience in the long term.