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What is Reactivity?

The Oxford dictionary defines the word 'reactive' as showing a response or reaction to a stimulus.

Animals, including us humans react daily, and it is very important that we do. If we or animals don't react to threat or danger then we would be either significantly harmed or die!

Reacting is an essential survival tool, and is triggered by the Sympathetic nervous system. This is the system responsible for 'fight or flight' mode. You know, when you accidentally pick up the hot pan on the stove, and IMMEDIATELY without any thought remove your hand. Thats it.

What we perceive as a behaviour problem in our dogs is not reactive behaviour as it stands on its own, but an elevated version, an over-reaction, or out of context reaction.

Who decides then what is an 'over' or unjustified reactive response for our dogs? We do. We decide what warrants labeling our dog "Reactive".

But do we always get it right?

Let's look at an example. You're in the kitchen getting dinner ready. Your dog is lying in the kitchen with you. You go to get a pan out of the cupboard and accidnetally saucepans fall out, crashing onto the floor. Your dog jumps up, barking at you and the pans. You may say something like 'oh, don't be silly, it's just the pans' or you may feel terrible and spend five minutes comforting your dog before you go back to the dinner. In this scenario the response your dog gave was warranted. He was threatened and startled. You may think it silly, but your dog does not.

Another example may be whilst walking your dog around the village past other enclosed gardens and gateways. Whilst passing a particular hedge row, you and your dog are suddenly started by a dog 'reacting' defensively behind the fence line. Your dog reacts in much the same way, lunging at the fence, and barking with intention.

Again, this reaction is warranted for the circumstances, but does not necessarily mean you have a 'reactive' dog.

Now let's look at a dog that lunges and barks whilst on a lead when he can spot a dog ten meters away. The other dog Is on lead, under control, walking along minding its own business. It is paying no attention to your dog and not even looking in your dog's direction. His body language signals are calming and non -threatening, yet your dog is going nuts.

For whatever reason your dog sees this other dog as a threat, or maybe he is suffering because he is over-aroused and excited by the sight of the dog and cannot contain his excitement or his need to go say hello. Either way, he is "Over" reacting. The reaction he is giving is not warranted. The other dog is a distance away and poses no threat to him.

Your dog has lost the ability to observe and rationalize. Your dog is in a 'ready' state for action regardless of the situation. It is an automatic response that happens every time he sees a dog, regardless of what the other dog is doing or the distance, your dog will react.

Past trauma, frustration, anxiety (generalized or otherwise), fear, pain, age, genetics, emotional imbalance and much more can or could be the reason why your dog 'over' reacts out of context or when it is not warranted.

It is also important to note that even when working with a professional to help your dog's behaviour that you don't expect your dog's "reactivity" to be removed completely. Why, because of the need to react, survival. There will still be incidences where your dog reacts (like the dog barking behind the fence), and that is ok. It is normal, necessary and what the dog needs to do in that context.

What isn't good is the constant reactive behaviour that is out of context, this is where it can be harmful for their emotional, physical and psychological well-being, not to mention yours too.

So, I hope that helps you to understand what reactive behaviour is. You may be re-evaluating your dog's behaviour right now. Think about the times they have reacted, was it warranted? or was it out of context? This will help you determine if you have a problem or not.

Having said this do not get hooked up on the label, as we have learned here reactive behaviour is a response, and it is important that we find the drive behind that response. Your dog may not be "reactive" he may be anxious or in pain?

Thanks for reading.



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