Are we miss labelling reactivity?

I was reminiscing today about taking Buddy to a scent class when he was 5 months old. I had zero worries about him being in close proximity to people. As far as I knew at the time he was a little anxious and unconfident. But not ‘scared’ and certainly not ‘reactive’ or ‘aggressive’

Fast forward to three-year-old Buddy, and although we have overcome MANY struggles, a fear of people is still a big one which surfaced at around 12 months old and was emphasised by some not-great experiences. His reactions are less, and his threshold is better, but he does still occasionally bark at people.

What is reactivity?

If you saw him down the street, and he barked at you, what would you think?

  1. That dog is aggressive
  2. That dog is reactive
  3. That dog is guarding/protecting his owner
  4. That dog is barking at me because I’m wearing a hat
  5. That dog is barking at me because I’m a man
  6. That dog is barking at my dog

The truth is we don’t know for sure why he is barking. But there is a pretty fair assumption that he’s barking because he is scared/worried/anxious.

In that moment he’s not being aggressive. He’s communicating by the only way he knows how that he’s not happy about the situation.

He’s not protecting me (although I do love it when people say that as it’s a flattering thing to assume!) I just don’t think he’s being THAT thoughtful in that moment –  I’d say he’s pretty much looking out for number one. (bless him – I know you love me really Buddy)

He might be barking because you’re wearing a hat and it looks odd and novel.

He might be barking at you because you’re a man and he finds them scary.

He might be barking at your dog.

The thing is the day before, he didn’t bark at a dog, or a man, or a person in a hat, or in fact anyone that was near him. But yesterday he had a calmer day. His bucket was ‘emptier’.

A bit like when you’ve had a pretty chill day at work and you come home and all is well in the world.

But what about those more stressful days, when you come home, tired and ready to tip over, your partner says or does something that irritates you, and you usually wouldn’t react but BOOOOOM you did it. You blew your top.

Does that make you aggressive or reactive in nature?

It’s no different for my dog.

Add to that he’s constantly working his little butt off to trust my take on situations, to focus on me and know that I’ve got his back.

When people think of reactivity they immediately think of aggression. That a dog is out to get you – out of control.

I want to ASSURE you all reactivity is, is fear.

Some days we cope with fear and stress better than others. We learn to get over our fears and sometimes they rear their little heads unexpectedly.

Can we help our dogs overcome their fear with exposure?

What we tend to do with our dogs is apply a little human logic. We think that exposing them over and over again will help those fears. Exposure therapy for humans is amazing. My son is actually going through it right now with a top consultant. But exposure therapy takes place with CBT. A LOT of CBT. There is a lot of talking and explaining and a process to record the anxiety, before and after – it’s like a science experiment and its talked through and documented and the anxiety is managed.

We can’t talk to our dogs like that! So why do we think exposure therapy will just ‘work’? They’ll just ‘get it’.

We’ve got to put the legwork in first. We got to set them up with a little doggy CBT. And then keep that CBT going during and after the exposure.

For us that CBT is Games based training. It’s fun, it based on some scientific principles, and it’s all of the BEST bits of dog training.

Buddy the White Border Collie
Buddy doing ‘Paws on’ at a park

So do we need a reactive label?

So does labelling our dog reactive help? I think it only helps to explain and connect with people about your dogs ‘current’ feelings and we need to see it as a moving and changing thing.

Just like anxiety or stress. It can be overcome.

But only if you choose to believe it can be. And that’s the danger with relying so much on this label.

I have met many people who have believed (or been led to believe) that reactivity is either a fixed position, and you’ll need to manage your dog for life. That label is just ‘part’ of them.

Or that it can only be solved with aversives, often used in the quick-fix adverts you see online. Punishment through fear and pain will work in the short term – but at what cost to your relationship with your dog? A relationship based on fear? With the risk that one day your dog decides he’s had enough and reacts back? Or goes so far into themselves that they close down, lose their very identity, their personality?

I know what I choose – and that’s relationship every single time.

I started my journey to help Buddy with his reactivity through Absolute Dogs. You may or may not have heard of them. But they are launching their 7 day reactivity challenge and it’s just £7. You get an online training course, and a facebook group with expert live teaching. It’s a start. It’s you saying yes let’s give this a go and see what we can learn, see what new things we can try, and let’s be open to the possibility that reactivity is just a label, one that CAN be overcome.

If you fancy it here’s the link. It’s only once a year so if you are reading this blog after Weds 12th October 2022 it’s already run – you’ll need to wait till 2023. Me & Buddy re-do it every year so we might even see you on the inside.

7 Day Reactivity Challenge Just £7

Whatever you decide to do next, never let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do, or label your dog. There is always hope! And me and Buddy are always here to talk too.

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