Things I wish I’d known when I realised my dog was reactive…
7 years ago today, Bear came into our lives. He was our foster dog at the age of 8 months finding himself at the rescue kennels due to various reasons through no fault of his own. He got on well with our female dog and it seemed like a good idea to keep him because he settled in well. This decision changed everything. It changed our lives, along with me and the career path that I took. As I write this, he is quietly sleeping after his walk with not a care in the world. 7-years-ago me didn’t think that was possible. Through the years we have had our ups and downs (a lot of downs) and a lot of times I questioned if I can go on or would it be better to return him to the rescue.
Bear is environmentally sensitive and reacts to unknown things, especially dogs. He also loves wildlife… Not in a way where a dog gives it a little chase and comes back when he is tired or loses the sight or scent of his prey. He would quite happily completely exhaust himself while hunting. His eyes glaze over and he is unresponsive to anything else in the environment with an only goal - chase until he catches. You have to admire his determination. Dopamine addiction is a thing that I didn’t know about 7 years ago. I didn’t know a lot of things and I still don’t know just as much. The desire to understand my dog and have some harmony in my life has pushed me through and I wouldn’t be who I am today without him. There are quite a few things that I wish someone would’ve told me then and I want to share them with you. It might speed up your learning process and help you with your dog along the way.
Dopamine I wish I’d understood better that the dopamine release in an animal’s brain is highly addictive and that this hormone (along with other hormones such as serotonin and adrenalin) plays a huge role in the animal feeling pleasure in anticipation of a reward. This increases the motivation in performing activities which, in turn, releases high doses of dopamine into brain of the animal.
In Bear’s case, a one-time learning experience of chasing birds in the stubble field was enough for him to want to do nothing else in life but chase wild animals.
Function of the behaviour Us, as humans, think that certain completely normal dog behaviours are socially unacceptable. I wish I had understood how important the function of those behaviours are. The dog is performing the behaviours they think are appropriate at that time and are doing their best to cope. Reacting to certain situations is vital for our survival (Think of a sudden large obstacle on the road appearing as you are driving). Most dogs react because they either want to increase or decrease the distance away from the ”trigger”.
Genetics I wish I had known how genetic predisposition influences the dog’s behaviour. Through thousands of years we have selectively bred dogs to perform certain tasks: herding breeds to herd our livestock, gundogs to hunt, point, flush and retrieve game, guard breeds to guard our resources and so on. It is fascinating to watch puppies at a very young age perform the behaviours which every cell in their body is telling them to perform. We can’t change their genetics, but we can change their behaviour. However, some behaviours can take a long time to change…
In order to reduce frustration, it is important to give the dog a let out which mimics the behaviours which they are hardwired to perform in a safe environment. We now hunt together, or in other words, Bear is provided with “legal” ways to express himself. On our walks he hunts the treats that I make fly to make it a little more exciting. We also found an amazing world of scent detection and mantrailing where he gets to find the “missing” person. But his favourite hunting game is scatter feeding in the garden.
Management I wish I had known this from day one back then…. Safety first! There are some behaviours that you won’t be able to change and will have to manage instead. Management is not a complete substitute to training - we should still teach our dog to walk on the loose lead, come back when called and many other skills. But it keeps the dog safe and prevents our dog from practising some of the unwanted behaviours. Management tools that might be helpful: a collar, a harness, a lead (fixed length), a long line (fixed length), muzzle (we have to muzzle train the dog before putting it on), a headcollar for large and powerful dogs (we have to teach the dog to accept it), baby gates.
Learning theory. I wish I had known more about learning theory then and how environment affects the leaning process… The dog’s behaviour will depend on the environment they are in. Everchanging environment means the behaviour will change accordingly. I took Bear to dog training classes because I thought that this was the way to teach him to be sociable with other dogs. What I didn’t know was that the overwhelming environments can do more harm than good. If you were afraid of spiders, no matter how many times you were put in the room with them, it won’t make you love them and you will feel relieved every time you would leave the scary room.
Every time the dog repeats the behaviour, they are practicing that behaviour, whether that’s the behaviour we like or not. So, if we take the dog to a place which they find overwhelming and they spend that time lunging and barking, that the exact behaviours the dog is perfecting. Learning is a process, not a destination. There’s always room for improvement. We all learn something every day even if we don’t quite realise it. Punishment does work! It can, however, be damaging to the relationship with our dog. If our dog is scared or overwhelmed by the things in the environment, us getting angry does not help the
dog. Teaching the dog obedience exercises will not solve all of our problems but it will help to improve our communication and the dog is more likely to listen and respond in more challenging situations. Dogs don’t understand how not to do things and they don’t understand how to do nothing. We must teach them what you would like them to do instead - if I don’t want my dog to jump up on visitors, I will teach the dog to greet them while sitting or standing. We can’t change the dog’s previous learning experiences but we can influence their future learning experiences. Not all dogs enjoy the company of other dogs. Some dogs might enjoy (or learn to accept) the company of one or a few dogs but have no desire to be a sociable with strangers.
The other end of the lead… I wish I had known that living with a reactive dog can be so exhausting. There is so much social pressure from people you know and from those that you don’t know. So many emotions come into play: anger, embarrassment, exhaustion, being entirely overwhelmed, being helpless, alone. I did learn that selfcare is important and that it is ok to take time off and do normal human things without the dog.
Our dog needs a support system, guidance, empathy and so do we. If only I had known that not every trainer is right for us, that there’s more than one way to train a dog and it is worth exploring before committing to working with someone. If I was looking for a trainer now, I would look for someone who understands mine and my dog’s needs and is willing to be part of our support system. The most important thing I want you to know is that you are not alone and there is help available. There are great support groups on social media. You can find links to some of them here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1633448230248202 https://www.facebook.com/CAREforreactivedogs
Sandra Dlugabarskiene MISAP, IMDT