Will the reactivity ever stop?
Sucky answer right? Right! I hear you, living with a reactive dog can take the steam out of the most optimistic of people. But in the vast majority of cases there are resolutions. Resolutions which can be made simple by taking things slow, steady and keeping faith in the long game.
A reactive dog is, in most cases, a dog who has maladapted a fear trigger into something more general. For example:
My dog was attacked as a pup by a [Insert breed] and now she snarls and snaps at every dog
Here is a specific fear trigger (whatever breed, colour, sex, age dog triggered the peak event) but what has resulted is that that very specific trigger has been made a general trigger. Now, literally any dog elicits a fear response.
So with our dogs in a defensive mood there are really only three reactions that can come from that mood:
Flight (Run away)
This is the most preferred option in any case for a pet dog! In the Flight response, your dog will seek to escape the trigger. Simple.
Fight (Punch your way out of the corner)
When you cannot outrun the trigger, or the trigger appears surmountable, then your dog may decide to stand their ground and fight back. This leads to aggression.
Freeze (Wait for the beating to stop)
If the trigger is too fast, too big, too strong, too aggressive the only answer may be to wait for the assault to stop itself.
In the initial phase of the trigger presenting, we may also find our dogs freezing, a brief moment of "what now?!".
Your lead changes things!
Why is it that some of these reactive dogs are fine off lead, but are demons on lead?
Your dogs are very likely still in a defensive mood off lead, however, they have agency. They have the power to choose. The can engage in social exchange, ready for flight. They can avoid the trigger until they are ready, engaging in mild flight. Flight can easily lead to a happy and pro social exchange.
But, on lead, your dog cannot engage in Flight, there is no option of Flight.
Neither is Freeze a possible response. Since we are much slower to read the environment as our dogs perceive it - if at all, we keep moving. Well beyound what our dog is capable of tolerating.
So if our dogs are in a defensive mood and Flight and Freeze cannot be accessed we only have Fight left. Inadvertently we have taught our dogs to be aggressive!
Where I live on Tuggerah Lake on the gorgeous NSW Central Coast...I get to see one Staffy owner after another wrap that big lead tight around his hand until his dog is almost lifted up off the ground. He is pulling and shouting at his dog.
His dogs response?
Well, let me say that I have yet to see a calm resolution come from that strategy. That strategy is teaching the dog to Fight the trigger and the conflict of the tension reinforces that response.
Let us say that your dog is reactive on lead...how do you fix it?
Food over Fight
Food is a great tool for the active part of conditioning an appropriate response. A dog will not eat once they have reached a specific stress threshold. Its long overdue to make a hasty retreat and get out of there! Consumption of food is ultimately calming. Lowering heart rate and changing the physiological state from active to rest in order to digest.
A simple presentation of the trigger, followed by the Yes marker and food which takes your dog further away from the trigger is often all that is required.
Big preamble...quick resolution...almost!
The active part of the conditioning does look like that. But there is plenty of work to be done in the back end before we get to the exciting front end. Many trainers will slap on some training equipment and quickly get bogged in the quicksand that is extinction, fear, aggression, resurgence and excitement. Fewer trainers will take the time to build up what the student dog needs between the ears first. Well charged markers to begin with! The juice must be worth the squeeze! A resilient mental state! A dog cannot be flaky and have a chance at overcoming a strategically presented fear trigger. Without a reason to push on, without stable mental well being, without courage, there will be no change.
Most of the work involved in relieving aggression occurs without the trigger present. Though there are enough cowboys who will simply present a trigger to elicit the response and then smash the response...masking one fear with a greater fear and compounding the problem (Freeze).
Once we have a firm foundation upon which to build, then we can start to present the fear trigger, then we can start to move into the public realm, then we can start to relieve aggression and move back into Flight and from there into social exchange.