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An Overview of Reactivity

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Almost everyone has seen a reactive dog at some point, whether you own on or have met one walking down the street. If you see a dog frantically barking, lunging, growling, and with hackles sky-high then what you are probably seeing if the dog is on leash or behind a barrier is reactivity. Reactivity is one of those words you'll hear a lot in the training world but most pet owners are quick to say: "My dog is aggressive" or "Oh, dogs bark, that's just what they do" or "My dog is just protective of me". I teach a reactive rover class twice a week, which is always full, so this is a more prevalent problem and than many realize.

At its heart, reactivity is a dog's lack of proper coping mechanisms ultimately resulting in an explosion of barking and pulling. The most common trigger for reactive dogs is seeing other dogs, but people, fast moving objects (think cars, bikes, skateboards, etc), and sometimes new and novel can all be triggers. Dogs can be reactive for different reasons more often it's because a dog is nervous or insecure. Less frequently a very friendly dog can become reactive because of frustration at not getting to meet other dogs. There a lot of factors that contribute to a dog's reactivity: a tight leash restricting natural body language and preventing escape is one of the biggest. If a trigger is within a dog's bubble and the dog become reactive, then that dog is over their threshold to function reasonably.

There are three phases to reactivity: Look, Lock, and Launch.

Look Phase: this is the phase that is hardest for dog owners to recognize, but it is the phase you ultimately want to keep your reactive dogs in. The key to this phase is that your dog is removed enough from their trigger that they are thinking rationally. The dog might exhibit some stress signals: lip licking, ground sniffing, turning away, scratching, yawning, and more. However, despite these calming signals, the dog can still be easily redirected from the trigger. For some dogs their reaction to some triggers this phase is completely bypassed to the next phase.

Lock Phase: when I describe this phase for clients I inevitably get continuous nodding as I describe its signs. A dog transitions from Look to Launch when their trigger ventures to close for your dog's comfort, their trigger does something unexpected (begins to bark or move suddenly), or something unexpected happens in the environment (a plastic bag spooks your dog, a garbage truck rumbles past, etc). The signs of the Lock phase are characterized by the dog freezing with their gaze fixed on their trigger, their pupils will either constrict or dilate, their ears might perk forward alertly, their hackles might go up, if you pull on the leash your dog will resist moving, some dog might even lie down as their trigger approaches.

Launch Phase: every owner with a reactive dog recognizes this phase. The dog is no longer comfortable or in a rational frame of mind, they are simply reacting. The signs of this phase are barking, growling, lunging, hackles, snapping, and some dogs might suddenly lunge at trigger breaking their frozen down. The big take away is that if your dog is in this phase that the only thing you can do is to get distance from the trigger.

What does all of this have to do with azawakh? I would argue that azawakh, like most guarding breeds, are prone to being reactive (there are also many other breeds that I have found that are prone to being reactive: frenchies, corgis, many toy breeds and mixes, kooikers, border collies, and heelers among them in my personal experience). As I discuss in my breeding philosophy, many guarding breeds are encouraged or bred to be slightly insecure. An insecure dog will tend to make a big fuss when people come to the door or walk too close or at time when a person (or dog) is simply standing in the dog's viewpoint.

Instead of helping their dogs be confident and discerning about the environment, many encourage the barking and lunging, thinking it will encourage the protectiveness in their dog. While it might build a guard dog's guarding drive, without focus and understanding about what to guard against you're really just encourage lack of coping skills in your dog; just like encouraging a border collie to herd cars, bikes, and any moving object will build herding drive, it will also hamper their ability to herd appropriate targets and give them no idea how to exist in an environment where they're no allowed to herd everything in sight.

From a young age Amidi exhibited signs of reactivity. She would see a dog or certain people in the distance and her hackles would stand up, if allowed to continue staring at her triggers, she would start barking and pulling. The reaction was relatively mild because she never got to practice the behavior. Instead, I played a game called Look at That! with her. Whenever something that might be triggering (this pretty much meant every dog and person in the beginning) walked into view I would tell her "Yes!" and because she knew that sound meant she would get a treat, she looked back at me. I did this with every potential trigger until whenever one walked into view she started pointing them out to me in hopes of a treat. In this way I showed her that other dogs and people who are simply existing in the world are things to be noted or pointed out, but don't need to be barked at. I love this game because its goal is behavior modification rather than simply correction, redirection, or management.

But hold on a minute, you say, one of azawakh's basic temperaments is that they are livestock guardians. Won't this ruin their instincts? My answer to that is: it shouldn't. If you work on getting your azawakh comfortable with people and dogs and then when a burglar breaks into your house and your dog does alert you then likely the dog never had strong guarding instincts in the first place. Dogs' instincts are innate- you can't change their instincts: you can training coping mechanisms, redirect them from their instincts, but when push comes to shove, you can't get rid of them.

An example: One morning at my work an exuberant bull terrier who I had been working with all week bounced away from his owner as he was getting dropped off. He excitedly bolted up to me right as I was taking Anubi out of the car. Suddenly, my quiet, calm, unreactive boy barked and growled and the bull terrier cowered on the ground. Anubi, who I had thought had little guarding instinct, had evaluated the situation, recognized a strange dog running up to me as a threat and acted accordingly. Since that day when he was barely more than a puppy I've witnessed him guard me against people stumbling strangely toward and people in all black coming up behind me in the dark. He's only ever guarded in situations that he'd never seen before and always in a way that I found was appropriate. This is why training coping strategies and exposing your dog to a wide array of people, dogs, and circumstances. If a dog has never seen a circumstance before, they're far more likely to respond inappropriately.

I will explore Look at That! in another post, because it's absolutely the first game I teach new azawakh puppies.

Amidi used to be a bit reactive but I have worked with her since puppyhood to achieve this level of calm in close proximity to other people and dogs.

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