Reactive dog owners often describe how their dog won’t listen, ignores steak wafted in front of their face and seems completely uncontrollable in the moment. Recently, I had an unwelcome insight into what it feels like to be a ‘reactive dog.’
The Reactive Human
Three years of waiting for a concert that was postponed because of the pandemic. Three very excited humans heading into the O2 Arena. Three minutes before it all fell apart!
Have you ever been right at the top of the O2? It’s HIGH. So high that there is a warning about it when you book tickets. A warning which I had ignored because you’ll often find me on a rollercoaster or high ropes adventure course.
By the time I’d climbed to my seat and looked down I was already gripping the armrest so tight I thought I was going to break it.
Daft. Aimee, you’re being daft.
So I close my eyes, can’t be worried if I can’t see the height.
Took some deep calming breaths.
Concentrated on the fact that this was a perfectly safe situation. Told myself health and safety wouldn’t allow thousands of people a week to sit in dangerous seats.
Took some deeper, calmer, slower breaths.
But despite the higher level logical thinking available to me as a human, the amygdala had already taken over.
Tears started seeping from my closed eyes. I was shaking and frozen in fear. My mouth was dry.
I had to get out.
My legs barely worked, jelly wobbled and couldn’t straighten to walk. I grappled my way past people, holding on to anything I could. Taking one step at a time and dragging myself down to safety step by step, still only looking at the floor.
I’ve never in my life been so scared of ‘nothing’.
And in that moment I knew exactly how our reactive dogs feel.
The flight response, in its full survival mode glory, was completely out of my conscious control.
It took over 20 minutes for my heart rate to go back to normal. To stop feeling sick. To be able to do a wee!
Exactly the response of our reactive dogs.
Deciding that I had to make myself go back I worked on desensitisation.
Taking one step back through the arena doors and then stopping. Waiting until it felt safe.
Over the next 45 minutes I got to standing about 10 feet away from the first row of seats.
Too Much Too Soon
In the break my family rejoined me and we decided to work slowly back to our seats.
I managed to get up about 8 steps before I couldn’t walk. I cried. Couldn’t even turn round to walk back down the stairs and walked down backwards.
What a wonderful experience to have as a dog trainer. To really be shown the way our nervous system ‘protects’ us in full technicolour.
Reflecting On Reactivity
The most interesting part of this experience for me was a conversation I had after the event with my step-daughter. She had been sitting next to me and said, “I did ask you if you were ok, you didn’t look ok.”
Although I’d replied, I had absolutely no recollection at all of having a conversation with her.
How do I know if my dog is reactive?
Most people ask for help when a dog’s reactivity becomes uncontrollable. They have started to dread going on walks, and taking routes to avoid the things they know will upset their dog.
Extremely reactive dogs will be showing behaviours that try and give them space away from the scary thing. This might mean running away or barking and lunging to make themselves look as big and scary as possible.
“Your dog will be trying to flee or make the scary thing flee.”
Reactive dogs will show more subtle signs of being uncomfortable too. Some signs we often miss may include;
- Closing their mouth
- Breathing faster
- Paying less attention to cues
- Ignoring treats
- Pulling on the lead
- Stopping sniffing
- Being more tense
- Staring at the scary thing
- Being very still
What causes a dog to be reactive?
Reactive dogs are communicating that they find the situation scary. Reactivity is their nervous system kicking into survival mode when it’s not really needed.
It’s a misconception that reactivity always happens because the dog was hurt by something in the past. My reactive girl was scared of a leaf in a puddle once, I’m fairly certain she wasn’t hurt by one of them!
It is possible the cause of the reactivity is a negative experience. But it is much more likely the dog just missed learning about ‘safe things’ when they were in the critical socialisation period.
Can a reactive dog be cured?
The first step is to accept that your dog is not being naughty and ignoring you. Instead they are worrying and scared, our job is to help them see that the world is safe.
When I work with dogs who are worried about the world I usually start by taking away as many opportunities to be worried as possible. A brief holiday from all the triggers helps the nervous system start to reset. This takes a minimum of 3 days.
From there we can begin to look at re-introducing triggers at a big distance, so the dog can become curious about the thing rather than in a state of terror. We need to be working with a brain that is in learning mode, not fighting for its life.