Reactive! When to Get Moving so Everyone Can Move On
By Lynne Swanson, DVM
Dealing with a dog that snaps at strangers? Watching over one that lunges at other dogs, barks at your co–workers or flies into a panic when handed to others? Dogs become reactive for several reasons; the most common of which are: negative associations (often reinforced by their handler’s actions) and a clash of cultural cues (because dogs are NOT little humans). This article will address both.
The trick to fixing negative associations is to replace them with positive ones, and there are few better ways to do that than to take a dog on a well–paced, side–by–side walk with whoever (or whatever) got him in a tizzy. When walking in this manner, close proximity isn’t as important as common direction, true horizontal orientation and movement are.
Let me use a dog–reactive dog meeting another dog as an example. In this case, walk both dogs down a road in a horizontally–oriented manner, on two- to four-foot leashes (NO extendable leashes!) at their handler’s side, with no individual in front of another, no stopping (no matter how much either dog pulls) and without a word spoken. It gives the dogs a common job (walk quietly at your side), a common direction (forward) and a common (and calm) director—you. It gets everyone moving so reactive dogs can move on physically, psychologically and socially!
Walking dogs this way before allowing for close introductions gives dogs lots of time for polite “long-distance” sniffing as they walk. It provides them with exercise and direction, and it is something we do for as long as it takes both dogs to calmly ignore one another. Then, and only then, do we bring the dogs together for a relaxed nose-to-butt and up–in–each–other’s–business inspection on completely loose leashes. Then we continue our walk together with the dogs next to each other and the handlers on the outside.
Human Social Cues Vs Canine Social Cues
The second reason many dogs become reactive reflects the difference between human social cues and canine social cues. Consider the cues we use when meeting another person:
- We stop and stand still.
- We face each other directly.
- We look each other in the eye.
- We reach a hand into each other’s personal space.
- And we get verbal.
Now, consider two dogs that don’t know each other. If they stop and stand still, position themselves face–to–face, look each other in the eye, reach forward and get verbal, does any of that bode well for a peaceful outcome, especially if excitement exists? I don’t think so!
Orienting dogs face–to–face—that is, honoring human social cues but not canine ones (especially if you have any tension on your leash)—promotes reactivity in certain dogs, while orienting them side–by–side (especially while moving) puts them “on the same team.” And being a member of a team is important to dogs! When dogs walk or stand side–by–side, the psychology is a lot like a school of fish, a football team or a family. There is the spirit of unity, of security, of togetherness, and of “us” and “them” distinction.
Got a dog that gets reactive when he sees tall men with beards, hats and sunglasses? Put some tall men with beards, hats and sunglasses “on your team” by walking side–by–side with them. Got a dog who mistrusts skateboarders? Do the same with a slow–moving skateboarder. It works!
Got a dog that barks when friends or relatives come to the door? When you know your visitors are coming, meet them in your driveway for a relaxed ten–minute, horizontally–oriented, side–by–side walk with you and your dog (no one in front of another). Then let your visitors enter your home before you and your dog. This change in orientation places them in a position of importance. It tells your dog, without a word spoken, that you are willing to follow them amicably, so he should too.
Small Reactive Dogs
Got a little dog that gets reactive when he’s held in your arms? Here are some dos and don’ts for him:
DO: Move him to your side when people approach (think of holding a football near your hip).
DON’T: Clutch him to your chest.
DO: Change your orientation to face the same direction as whatever concerns him.
DON’T: Stand face–to–face with a dog’s triggers; moving side–by–side is more canine in nature.
DO: Get moving alongside whatever person/animal/object got him reactive (with suitable space between you, as needed). Walk in a horizontally–oriented manner for twenty feet, two hundred feet or two thousand feet…however long the dog needs to calm to a companionable state of mind.
DON’T: Stand still, wondering why the dog is so reactive. It has a lot to do with you standing still!
DO: Communicate non-verbally using canine–intuitive positions, postures, movement and relaxed energy. Reorienting yourself to the side of whoever or whatever got the dog wound up is one way to do this. It sends the following messages without a word spoken: (1) You are making decisions right now, so he doesn’t have to, and (2) Whoever (or whatever) worried him could, instead, be an awesome walking partner!
DON’T: Become conversational.
DO: Put a picture of calm direction in your mind, focus forward and smile!
DON’T: Keep looking at the dog. If you are watching him (as opposed to where you are walking) then who is really calling the shots?
DON’T: Allow yourself to get flustered or frustrated. If you react to a dog with excitement, what chance does he have of becoming calm and relaxed?
If the dog is a little guy who gets rattled when he is passed to others, always pass him back–first. Why is this important?
First, it allows him to politely lead with his butt and not his face, following good canine social protocol.
Second, it allows you to be a secure point of visual reference for him.
Third, it doesn’t push him rudely into someone’s personal space.
Some of us need a little more personal space by nature, and all of us prefer a lot more when we are unsure of the people around us. But people forget its importance when they stick their noses three inches from a dog’s face.
A dog who has his comfort zone invaded doesn’t have many choices: He may or may not be able to move away, he can lash out, or he can submit to things that basically make him uncomfortable. It is easier to back away when you are a big dog than if you are a five–pound fur ball clutched to somebody’s chest. This is why we get so many little dogs in who lip–curl, growl, air–bite or nip. Other dogs would see these choices as simple, straight-forward communication. People, however, label them “aggressive.”
Human sensitivity training, and not dog training, is the key to stopping this kind of situation–generated behavior. Fortunately, some simple yellow items can help!
Your clients can find lots of yellow dog vests, collars, leashes and bandanas online that help to communicate a dog’s need for personal space. I’m not a fan of the ones that say “Nervous,” since most of these dogs only become reactive when people reach over them. I like the ones that say “Give me extra space,” because they encourage the correct behavior from approaching people, without making a dog out to be wrong.
Reactivity in dogs can be easy to address and prevent when you understand the importance of positive associations, canine social cues and movement.
Lynne Swanson, DVM is the author of “Learning DOG” and “SMILE! and other practical life lessons your dogs can teach you (while you are training them).” Together with her Doberman partner, Hiker, she enjoys traveling the U.S. and Canada to speak at conferences and volunteer with the not-for-profit SMILE! Project. This project provides training for shelter, rescue, boarding, training and veterinary personnel (in groups of 30 or more, often networking together), and it raises funds to support dog rescue and the SMILE! pet–parenting library initiative. For more information, visit www.givesmiles.us or call Jan at 252 422 0943.