I receive a number of inquiries from people struggling with dog reactive behaviour towards another dog. The situation may be in a multi-dog household, or a dog reacting when on leash or social situations where fights erupt for no obvious reason.
If you have one or more dogs who seem to continuously erupt at other dogs, it seems natural to reprimand the dogs who are doing the ‘erupting’. You may find yourself yelling, yanking their leash or whatever it takes to get them to stop. Without knowing it, you may be inadvertently contributing to the problem and creating a sense of vulnerability in your dog’s mind.
When faced with a stressful situation, your dog should defer to you for intervention to help him or her feel safe. It is easy to miss these ‘requests’ from your dog because their behaviour is often only a quick glance your way. If you are on your cell phone, or otherwise disengaged, your dog will immediately conclude that you ‘aren’t available’. The result is that your dog may react towards the oncoming threat (dog or approaching person) in a socially inappropriate way – i.e. lunges, growls and may engage to cause a fight or bite.
Your role as leader is to be present ‘with’ and ‘for’ your dog. Leave your phone in your pocket; focus on your time with your dog. Always be aware of anything that make him or her feel uncomfortable. Being ‘aware’ of what is happening and how it makes your dog feel will empower you to be an effective leader. When you know the ‘triggers’ you will know when and how to intervene. Your dog will learn that you are ‘there’ for him and are able to restore calm to any situation.
Certain breeds are more vulnerable to feelings of insecurity or threat. For example, guarding breeds are uncomfortable when someone (dog or person) approaches their space. They may lunge and growl to ‘drive’ the threat away and restore safety to their personal space. Herding dogs are uncomfortable with sudden and/or quick, erratic movements. These situations may be created by happy, energetic children or multiple, excited dogs running around in play. The threatened dog may respond to restore order or to ‘disagree’ with the situation in ways that are socially unacceptable to humans.
Good dogs give warnings, if one dog is approaching the other, and the other dog growls, it is sending a message that says “I am not in the mood for you. Please leave me alone.” If people continually invade your dog’s personal space without permission and your dog jumps or lunges, he is telling the intruder to BACK OFF!
Your role as your dog’s leader is to diffuse the situation BEFORE your dog’s response escalates to an unacceptable level. If you delay your action or correct your dog’s response, you may actually contribute to his or her undesirable behaviour. This is how undesirable behaviours escalate. Dogs respond to something that makes them uncomfortable – initially they may growl, or lunge. The owner reacts to correct their dog’s behaviour and the dog realizes that no one has his or her safety in mind. Each time the same threat presents itself the dog’s response increases in intensity.
STOP! … If you continually reprimand the wrong dog, the undesirable behaviour will continue to escalate!!!
When you see your dog showing seemingly aggressive response behaviours, your role as Leader is to advocate for your dog! Watch for situations that upset your dog and be prepared to re-direct or diffuse the threat. You may need to interrupt the actions of the invasive dog/person to re-direct it away from your dog. When you perform an act of diffusing a threat you are focusing your attention away from your dog towards the threat. Your dog will see this and will learn to slow their reaction time when they know that you are there to diffuse the explosion and keep them safe.
Charlotte, the Red Heeler shown in the photo, was one of the cutest puppies ever. By age two she was one of the most reactive dogs that I had ever seen. She landed at our facility because her owners did not understand her behaviour. It took me a few years to figure her out. She still has her moments, but I now understand the source of her frustration. Once I learned how Charlotte was feeling, I became her biggest advocate. She is now one of my most effective partners for teaching manners and social boundaries to our Boarding School and student dogs.
When you effectively advocate for your dog, they respect you as a leader who will protect their back at all times. Your reactivity problems on leash and in social situation will diminish significantly, and your dog will adore you!