Reactivity or not?

3 Oct 2020, 6:57 p.m. by Tracey McLennan

I’ve been thinking about what appropriate communication between dogs is. There is a real disconnect between humans and dogs when it comes to communication. We want our dogs to be always happy and laid back, to greet the world and everything in it with a perpetually wagging tail.

Dogs are a social species who form close bonds with each other – as well as with humans. Dogs have complex and fascinating ways of communicating with each other. We are only ever equipped to see the basics of it. Scent forms a huge proportion of the world for dogs – and that includes communication. We humans just don’t have the sensory apparatus that would let us understand that side of things.

So, we struggle – even the best, most dedicated students of dog body language are only understanding a fraction of it. Even that fraction makes such a difference in our ability to support and help our dogs.

One of our big struggles – in my opinion - is around conflict resolution. Dogs have a range of ways to resolve conflict – and some of these look alarming to humans. Teeth flashing, growls and charging at each other may all happen. To humans these displays always look alarmingly aggressive. Often the dogs who respond that way are labelled as reactive or aggressive.

For sure sometimes they are. Some dogs completely overreact. Others do behave aggressively and do mean to cause harm to other dogs who get too close to them.

Most dogs don’t. Most dogs are communicating appropriately for the situation.

I watched a little interaction between two dogs when I was out walking with Roxy here the other day. Everybody had loads of space. Roxy and I were on one side of a quiet road. On the other side were two women coming toward us with a beautiful big, Labrador who was playing with his ball. Going in the same direction as Roxy and I were a man and an on-lead terrier. The man saw the Labrador coming toward them and diverted off onto the wide grassy verge. The little terrier looked at the Labrador and looked to me like he was happy to move away. He didn’t appear to want to make a new friend.

As they came close to each other, the Labrador dropped his ball and rushed to the terrier to greet him. The greeting was clumsy and not all polite. The Labrador was a socially awkward and looked unsure to me. He sniffed he terrier with all his hackles up, his tail held stiffly upright and his whole body tense. And he loomed over the terrier while he sniffed. The terrier barked at him and jumped forward – just to get the Labrador to back off a bit. That’s exactly what happened. No big deal at all. The Labrador backed off. The terrier calmed down. It was all fine as far as I could see.

The man walking the terrier shouted across to the women with the Labrador – “Sorry about that – my dog is really grumpy.” They said, “It’s okay.”

I was left wondering about it. The terrier didn’t look at all grumpy to me. I was applauding the little guy for his calm handling of a rude greeting from a much larger dog. A greeting that the terrier had been clear he didn’t want to have in the first place.

I’m sure that life would feel even happier for the little terrier if he wasn’t viewed as grumpy and instead was viewed as a sentient being who should have some choice in what social interactions he participates in. If the man walking with him could see how calm and appropriate the little dog’s request for more space was, it would likely change both of their lives.

Roxy and I saw the same Labrador later in our walk. That time he was charging over to a beautiful greyhound who he then proceeded to sniff in a way that the greyhound didn’t look happy about it. There was no barking this time – from the greyhound - and the Labrador didn’t leave until the women with him spotted what he was doing and called him away.

And he left immediately which made me even more convinced that he wasn’t enjoying these awkward looking social interactions any more than the other dogs were. Both times he was told to move away – once by the terrier and once by his people calling him he looked happy to back away to me.

I know that Roxy would not have enjoyed the style of greeting that the Labrador had any more than the terrier and the greyhound did.

Of course that got me to thinking. How many dogs who are labelled as reactive are in fact not reactive at all? How many of them are simply responding completely appropriately to an interaction that they are involved in? And there is no risk, there’s no danger, there is no risk to anybody. They are just saying to the other dog – “Look mate could you stand back a little bit? You are far too close to me. I’m not enjoying this.”

How much would that change life if we could see the times when that’s the case rather than the times when the behaviour is a problem? Because absolutely sometimes barking, growling and lunging does indicate a problem. But a lot of the time it is normal dog social interaction. It’s a big subject so I wanted to make a video and give you the text as well so that if you would rather read than listen to me talking, you absolutely can. But it’s such an important subject so do let me know your thoughts.

Thanks for watching, bye for now.

If you enjoyed this and want to hear more from me, I have a free webinar that you can get access to. It is pre-recorded so you get it straight away.

It's called "A fresh look at reactivity" and I think you'll enjoy it.

Click I'd LOVE that! and give me your email address and I'll send it straight out to you.

I'd LOVE that!

Tracey McLennan

Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.

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