It’s dusk. The foggy, chilly kind of early fall dusk that chills your bones as the newly bare trees sway and crackle around you. You smell dry leaves, faint traces of wood smoke and the neighbor’s old beater’s exhaust. A dog barks in the distance. You’re walking down a narrow city street with cars parked on both sides, expecting it to pop out from behind a car at any minute. You’re on edge. Vigilant. Braced. Eyes darting side to side, waiting for it to happen.
And it does. Faster, so much faster than you could’ve expected. You’re face to face with your worst nightmare. You open your mouth to scream, and suddenly you can’t. You have no breath. Your throat tightens and tightens until you lie down, lifeless, no struggle left.
Is this a chapter from the next spooky novel, or your dog’s every day experience walking down the street? If your dog is fearful, it could be the latter. Fear is the root cause of many of our clients’ dogs’ reactive behavior. For most reactive dogs, an everyday stimulus like other dogs, the mailman, cars, and even children, can create the same fear that you or I feel when watching the latest spooky clown thriller. For illustration today, we will focus on dogs who react by barking at other dogs, but the idea is the same, no matter what event causes your dog to bark out of fear. Your dog barking at strange dogs is no different than you screaming when you see a clown crawling out of the gutter or feel a spider crawling on your back. It’s an attempt to move the scary thing away, a form of communication. How you react, however, and, even better, and how you prepare your furry friend for exposure to these scary items can entirely change how your dog reacts to scary stimuli both in the moment and over time.
Did you know that behavior isn’t all a result of how you raise your dog? Your dog came to you with a number of genetic of “factory presets”: her genetic makeup, whether she experienced stress before birth or early in life during critical developmental windows, how attentive a mother she had, and early husbandry (e.g. how long she was with her mom and siblings, how rich the social environment was, whether she was exposed to people and other dogs in a positive or scary way). All these things color how your dog’s brain developed and how she processes information. After leaving her litter, your dog has learned a number of behaviors or responses to stimuli in her environment. Many people come to us because of lunging and barking – a very effective tool a dog has to handle fear and anxiety. Barking serves as a signal to others to MOVE AWAY. This MOVE AWAY strategy serves to keep distance from scary dogs, which is an effective way of avoiding a fight!
Your dog may have learned to be hypervigilant in places where she usually sees other dogs so she can be ready to scream “stay away!” To prepare for fight or flight, in simple terms, your dog may leave the house ready to protect herself from perceived threats on your walk. With stress, epinephrine levels rise, increasing heart rate, blood sugar, blood pressure, pupil size, and the airway so your dog is physically ready to fight or flee. Cortisol levels also rise. During these times of fight or flight, your dog, like you, finds it very difficult to respond to your cues or learn new cues; while she is fearful, it is very hard to have a good learning moment.
Many of us have been taught in these moments when our dogs are aroused and fearful, we should correct the barking or growling by using a “No!”, “Ah ah” or physical correction (using a choke chain, shock collar, spray collar, or holding our dog down or out of the way as a way of getting our dog to stop barking). While this may sometimes work in the short term, the underlying fear has not been addressed and, in fact the fear may intensify (and so too can the need for increasingly aversive treatments to combat the increased fear). Over time, with repeated exposures to other dogs, your dog’s fear builds, and they are left without an acceptable coping strategy other than to continue to escalate the lunging and barking. This can result in a bite that might appear to be out of the blue because the warning system – that reactive bark, growl, or lunge – has been systematically repressed by our punishment.
It’s starting to make sense now. So what can we do? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a magic wand? We don’t, but at A Pleasant Dog, we are honored to help people with fearful, aggressive, and reactive dogs on a daily basis with a science based approach – a tried and true toolkit that includes operant and classical conditioning; management of the environment to help prevent mistakes and fight or flight; and, when necessary, assistance from your friendly, neighborhood veterinary behaviorist, like Dr. Jill Sackman, DACVB of Animal Behavior Consultants of Michigan.
In addition, next month we are proud to be hosting Kathy Sdao, M.A., one of the world’s premier experts in applied animal behavior. She and Dr. Jill Sackman will be presenting It Takes A Village – Helping Fearful and Aggressive Dogs Friday through Saturday, November 15 and 16 at A Pleasant Dog. Tickets to this event have sold out, but we’ll be sharing tips and strategies for our reactive clients over the course of the month to help you!
In the meantime, to get started, we need to start training where your dog is comfortable. A first goal is creating a way to teach your dog a new emotional response to seeing dogs that isn’t fear, but we need to start with the thinking part of your dog’s brain at home. We’ll continue the nuts and bolts of how we approach this training for reactivity in Part two of this three part series on the Spooktacular Journey of The Scared Doggo here on our blog. Stay tuned.
If you're overwhelmed and have tried everything, know that you are not alone. Forgive yourself for trying anything one can to help a beloved dog and instead try our gentle, science-based approach. Our dogs teach us skill, empathy, gratitude, and excellence — and at A Pleasant Dog, we're proud to share these lessons with you.