The word Reactivity is often referred to negative reaction from a dog to a stimulus. By definition, reactivity simply means the degree to which something is reactive. Dog barking, lunging, growling, snapping, displaying fear, fighting, flighting are all part of the Reactive category in the dog world. A dog barking at other dogs would be a classic example of a dog displaying reactivity. On the other end of the spectrum, a dog cowering when approached is also considered a dog displaying reactivity. Though a different kind of reactivity, the latter is often not grouped into the same category simply because it brings lesser embarrassment to the owner.
When an owner seeks help for reactivity, a high chance the reactivity revolves around the dog barking and charging at other dogs or snapping and growling at humans or passing vehicles. The most common approach to solving reactivity, or rather the approach that most trainers would do would be to stop the reactivity, either by punishment or by waiting it out. Once the reactivity towards a particular stimulus stops, a reward is being given. This approach is almost the go-to solution to reactivity. There are times that it works, there are also times that it does not work. The key to making this approach work is largely dependent on timing. The bigger question behind this approach is not on whether it works, but what happens after that?
No dog is born to bark at another dog, bite a human or lunge at a bicycle. Reactivity is a learnt behaviour. Regardless of whether the dog learnt the behaviour through the handler, the environment, past experiences, other dogs or the temperament, reactivity is a learnt behaviour. With a learnt behaviour, simply stopping it at the point of happening is not enough. Though that can improve the situation occasionally, the question remains, what now? To have complete control of handling, managing, solving and improving reactivity, it is important to be able to breakdown the cause of the reactivity, the action which is the reactivity, what follows after the action and lastly the management. Without a concrete understanding and a comprehensive approach to all 4 stages, reactivity can only be controlled and managed but never understood, the outcome will be at a 50% mark. If the whole equation adds up to 100, the cause would be 30, the action would be 20 and both points that comes after the action would be 50.
A classic example of handling a dog reactive dog would be correcting or punishing the dog when the dog shows negative reaction such as barking or snarling at another dog. Correcting, punishing or stopping however you may put it, the behaviour can halt the reactivity. Overtime, at best and if consistency is a given, the dog would stop displaying negative reaction to another dog, walks and activities become more pleasant. This is a conditioned behaviour to avoid the punishment from the handler. This is the point that many can achieve with good timing and appropriate pressure. The problem with this approach lies in the missing parts on the front and the back. Without a good understanding of why and how the dog is reactive, you simply cannot approach the behaviour without pressure. Without a good breakdown and long term plan, it is not possible to continue improvement to the maximum of what the dog is capable of. Every dog is capable of different things in different intensity and degree, whether you need to restrain your dog throughout its life or whether your dog can start to live a carefree life can be dependent on the dog and handler, it also depends largely on the training plan, foundation and trainer that trains the dog.
Addressing the action is the simplest part of the equation and it is also the highlight of many trainers’ resume; that they can stop reactivity. Understanding the cause of reactivity lies not only on assessing the behaviour of the dog at its peak, but also reading the dog outside of its reactivity. In order to do that, a trainer or handler must remain clear headed when first in contact with the dog, that includes giving the dog space. Because of how good a reactivity resume can look, too many will jump the gun to work with the dog, to approach the dog, to pet the dog, correct or punish the reactivity without laying a proper foundation. We refer to this as a handler mistake, it has nothing to do with whether the dog is smart or dumb, easy or difficult to train, it has to do with the handler making an approach too quickly, too confidently and too arrogantly. Making a reactive dog look good in a snap of a finger, is the dumbest thing to do. When we first see any dog with reactivity, we refrain from handling and coming in contact with the dog until training begins.
When approaching the issue, it is important to stay behind the scene and think about the outcome that you are trying to achieve. Whether you are looking for a quick solution and a management plan, or whether you are looking for a deeper understanding of the issue and a long term improvement plan. Between these two, the approach is drastically different, so is the amount of effort, time and sweat you are going to spend.
Once again, reactivity is a learnt behaviour. To better reactivity is not simply going head on with the issue without understanding.