By Annabel Burn
Perhaps your dog bulldozes rudely into other dogs at the park, who aren’t keen to play? Maybe he reacts or over-reacts to fireworks, chases joggers, or barks excessively at a certain stimuli… cats, horses, livestock, cyclist, skateboarders? He may lunge at other dogs, people or children? Maybe he just pulls away or growls on the lead when something approaches that he does not like? Or does he get fearful and want to flee mid-walk, or even get into fights when loose? These are all signs of a ‘reactive’ dog, numbers of which are reportedly verging on epidemic proportions in the UK. Hospital admissions for injuries caused by dogs are up 76% in 10 years but most dogs have given many signs of stress that have been missed long before they resort to biting.
‘Trigger stacking’ is often a phenomenon that causes dog owners to make remarks such as “Out of the blue,’ my dog bit him, Its completely unlike my dog!” The fact is, all dogs (even the calmest, cuddliest ones) have a breaking point. Known as the “bite threshold“, it is the point where, when push comes to shove, the dog reaches the point where he will bite. This is caused by the presentation of several triggers, presented one after the other, known as ‘trigger stacking’. Trigger stacking has a cumulative effect which can lower the dog’s bite threshold.
When your dog is showing early signs of tension and reactivity, its important not to punish him, as this will only increase your dog’s arousal and stress levels. Instead we need to look at how to calm and avoid triggers.
Have you ever wondered why street dogs in less affluent parts of the world appear so much more relaxed? They share the same DNA and nothing much has changed genetically, after 12,000 years of domestication, so if your dog is reactive – why is that and what can we do to help him? How much is nature and how much is environmental or cultural and even nurture, on the part of us humans?
Evidence both empirical and via research and studies, shows that this reactionary behaviour doesn’t happen among free roaming Indian street dogs. (Majumder, S. S., Chatterjee, A., & Bhadra, A. (2014). CURRENT SCIENCE, 106(6), 874.)
These dogs are proven to have minimal levels of the hormones specified earlier and seemingly larger length of time between stresses or triggers for their systems to recover.
A significant element of the problem is a build up of cortisol and adrenaline pumping around the system; with every new stressful experience, these hormones are released, making our dogs ‘fight or flight’ ready, if you will. A dog in this state of arousal has increased heart rate and blood pressure, his muscle activity and tension is at maximum, he has an increased speed of reflex; and as his body isn’t getting the break from stress required to restore those levels to normal, he is ever alert. Potentially too alert to be content and in turn perhaps passing that tension to you – where walks can become less enjoyable for you both and potentially dangerous for all parties.
Studies of India’s street dogs have shown that they don’t chase livestock, or lunge and are natural scavengers, although they don’t kill for food, except in unusual circumstances. They wander among the cows, goats and chickens, even when virtually starving. Fights are extremely rare. On the very odd occasion there may be a snap over food, or maybe even over a potential mate. Compare that to the bubbling tension among the hyper active dogs we share our homes and parks with.
Having a reactive dog can be an isolating and frustrating experience. It can be embarrassing at best and at worst dangerous for all concerned.
As more and more dogs are in the news for attacks on people, particularly children, and when horrifyingly, even attacks on working guide dogs are seeing a rise, (Figures show that between 2010 and 2015 there were more than 629 attacks on guide dogs by other dogs, which is an increase to 11 per month last year from three per month in 2010) we desperately need help managing our beloved family members. Vets are seeing more dogs being prescribed behavioural medications ( http://www.msdvetmanual.com/dog-owners/behavior-of-dogs/behavior-modification-in-dogs#v3200474 ) than ever before and increasing numbers of dogs are given up to re-homing centres or even euthanized due to unwanted or dangerous behaviour. We owe it to them to not give up on them and to be proactive in helping them move past being reactive. It should never be a death sentence nor a life consigned to medication.
Most dutiful dog owners call in a trainer when trouble arises, but the answer actually lies in creating a calm lifestyle and environment for your dog. Classic dog training, for basic obedience, really isn’t the quick fix solution here – this kind of training is excellent in numerous ways, but not for helping a reactive dog specifically. If you are experiencing wider problems then seek a qualified behaviourist as a first port of call.
If you have a reactive dog, he needs some ‘time out’ from activities and triggers that set him off – a complete break for a week or two, to restore his stress hormones to normal levels.
Begin by identifying triggers and arousal inducing activities that can over stimulate a dog, raising stress hormone levels e.g. chase or ball games. These need to be exchanged for activities more natural to a dog, designed to calm down, encourage investigation, e.g. hide treats in your garden, let him sniff and explore when out. Introduce new calmer experiences such as scent work, food trails, treasure hunts, tracking and investigation.
Proving that the ‘time out’ works, Cooper (2015) produced a preliminary study for her ISCP behaviour diploma. Dogs were given no physical exercise in the form of walks for several days and instead undertook calm activities and scent work, both at home and in some new but quiet places.
She saw an 80% reduction in barking at the trigger for reactivity 88% and an reduction in lunging at the trigger for reactivity. That’s a pretty major change! The reason for these astounding statistics is that Synapses (junctions in the brain that pass information from one cell to another creating pathways) can grow stronger or weaker depending on how much or how little they are used. The more you repeat a behaviour, the stronger it gets and vice versa. Every time your dog doesn’t (or doesn’t get to) react to a stimuli, the weaker that pattern or pathway becomes, so giving him a break from stress sets him up for success.
By avoiding triggers as much as possible, particularly in early stages, before you can begin desensitisation training, you are helping him feel calmer.
We do however, have our work cut out, because threatening, or potentially threatening stimuli are detected by the senses and are ‘fast tracked’ via the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for detection and storage of fear based memories. This circuit allows for ‘rapid access’ to fear memories in the future. While this is evolutionarily useful (in remembering quickly to avoid danger) it isn’t helpful when trying to desensitize a reactive dog.
Non fear memories are stored as ‘engrams’( *a presumed encoding in neural tissue that provides a physical basis for the persistence of memory) across the whole of the forebrain and are recalled via the hippocampus. This is a longer path, so is a slower way to access memories than those stored in the amygdala.
Memories, once formed, can never be unlearnt – at best they weaken. So how can we overcome the fear memory when it is always there, and ready to be accessed faster than any positive memories we teach in behaviour modification training?
Well, like us, the more dogs practice certain activities and behaviours the better they get at them, so we need to work on training calmness, which means creating a lifestyle that supports calmness. But it is important to note that calmness and exhaustion are not the same thing – a tired body is not necessarily an indicator of a calm mind.
More advanced doggy day-care centres in Sweden allow dogs to potter around all day with lots to explore and a range of choices of cubby holes and raised beds. (Dogs naturally prefer raised beds as they provide evolutionary vantage points). They can choose to interact with other dogs, or not, or with the day-care workers who read books quietly – quite unlike some of the rowdy ball throwing high octane day-care centres here, that send dogs into cortisol and adrenal overdrive. Instead of ball throwing for an over stimulated dog, or one prone to over stimulation, we should encourage more natural and calm activity.
It’s interesting to note that a free ranging street dog in india spends 8% of a day in a state of arousal, and 92% of day calm. (Majumder, S. S., Chatterjee, A., & Bhadra, A. 2014) Over a 24 hour period, their behaviour was documented as follows:
– 22 hours of calm activity; this included sleeping or resting for 14 hours
– Maintenance (scavenge, chew, toilet) 2 hours, Walk 4 hours, Group interact 2 hours.
– Just 2 hours a day were spent in an aroused state, mostly in play, some in defence.
Compare that to a day spent being an urban dog, who can spend up to 46% of the day alone – not a relaxed state for a dog as dogs are group animals, so a state of, at best, mild stress.
– 13% with quiet company, eg owner home but watching tv
– 8% active
– 33% sleeping
It’s a pitiful comparison.
If you are out during the day, a good dog walker or doggy day care who will give your dog an interesting and calm outing where he can sniff and explore is a great option. Sending him to swirl in a doggy day-care field either in a state of anxiety or chasing balls, isn’t.
Research and then check out your options carefully.
A reactive dog needs to be helped by us humans, by not stimulating natural patterns of arousal. When we allow a dog to engage in predatory chase, after a ball, unlike a wild dog with real prey, he doesn’t end the hunt after a short burst to lie down to chew and ingest his kill. He often keeps going after the ball or Frisbee, repeating the predatory chase, high arousal section of the activity equating in the release of more cortisol.
We can learn a lot from street dogs in India who live alongside humans, but roam freely having changed their lifestyle relatively little since domestication of the dog began. They stay with parents a minimum of 6 months – whereas western pet puppies are often sent to new homes at 8 weeks, missing out on crucial socialisation from mother and siblings and play. In my opinion, the fact that our puppy inoculations prevent access to other dogs at a crucial stage of development requires addressing too – they need to meet inoculated dogs to learn.
Some types of play are very positive. Play provides essential learning for puppies.
While creating an aroused state, but an activity for enjoyment, plays acts as recreation or development of life skills without any adulthood consequences. Pups learn body language (including bite inhibition), predatory chase, object / prey handling and reproductive skills (mounting). Play is also good for fitness, group cohesion and stress reduction (balance various neurotransmitters). However there is a danger of creating or strengthening unwanted brain pathways eg predatory chase, barking, frustration and fear behaviours, so its important to keep watch.
Another behaviour we interfere with and inadvertently cause our dogs stress, is self defence behaviour. Responding to threat, a dog left to its own devices will either repel threat through action, by moving away etc, or succumb to threat.
But we tend to (wrongly) force them into confrontation head on, face to face with strange dogs and people, day in day out. A dog should never be forced into a situation he’s not comfortable with. That includes being petted by strangers, he needs the flight option. Reactive dogs must never be restricted, but must be allowed to leave reactivity inducing circumstances, thus helping increase his perception of flight as an option.
An important point in managing stress is that certain core behaviours are essential to keep the body in normal working order; e.g. drinking enough, eating enough, elimination of waste, sleeping enough, enough oxygen, feeling safe, as well as the comfort of being at the right body temperature. Not facilitating these behaviours causes tension.
Cats have it easier in this regard and are more autonomous, day to day. They have litter trays and cat flaps and other domesticated animals can eliminate when they feel the need, yet for some reason the dog has become part of a culture where he has to wait or ask. Can you rest and relax when you need a pee? Holding urine causes tension, so make sure he has regular outdoor access.
Sleep quality too, is far more important than you might think. How sleep is achieved and how much sleep is required is very different, dependent on the species. We humans generally need a continuous 8 hours. Dogs need 14 hours of sleep and it is vital that it is enough good quality sleep to maintain calmness.
The side effects of sleep deprivation can include perceptual distortion, increased spookiness and more reactivity to sound and touch. It also can impact memory formation, resulting in being slower to learn. It has been shown in studies that mammals lacking in quality sleep react far more negatively to stimuli. I’m sure anyone who has had a disturbed night’s sleep followed by an early start, will testify.
If you own a reactive dog, and have done everything you can to be a diligent owner, don’t feel bad, because scientific studies (*The Dog’s Mind, Bruce Fogel) have shown that mothers with high levels of cortisol during pregnancy, affect the development of the foetal brain, enhancing the reactivity of the young animal’s brain after birth to any release of stress chemicals – sensitisation (reactive offspring). So the reactive dog is not always just a product of its environment, he could have been born that way.
We can, however, and should, still help him by avoid stressful circumstances, avoid fear inducing situations, remove punishment training, remove sources of frustration and avoid arousing exercise.
Here are some tips:
*Use a Y shaped harness, ideally with a single line attached to the back (remember facial communications are prevented by muzzles, head collars etc)
*Use a long line rather than short leash or retractable lead – less tension and allows him ‘flight’ option
*Train loose lead walking and allow the dog to make choices
*Provide escape routes e.g. For a noise phobic dog, remember that most dogs like height when threatened, much more than they hide in dens – so provide elevated beds, platforms etc; as well as something to get under.
*Always curve towards ‘suspicious’ or new stimuli (www.dogpulse.org)
*Be calm yourself. When an animal observes another animal (including human or monkey) undertaking an activity, neurons linked to that specific activity are activated in the brain of the observer. Dogs living alongside aroused dogs and aroused people are more likely to feel aroused and undertake aroused behaviours Hadjikhani, N and Gelder B (2003) observing fear related body postures causes activation of fear pathways in the brain of the observer. Several scientific experiments have suggested that this is also true of emotions such as calmness and pleasure as well as body postures of arousal such as aggression.
Consider the way people meet your dogs. Vas et al (2005) found dogs felt calm or aroused depending on the way they were approached by people. A slow walk, no eye contact, while speaking quietly equals a calm, friendly dog, as supposed to a fast walk, halt, fast, halt with constant eye contact in silence which equals an aroused dog, either avoiding the person, or even becoming aggressive
How to avoid triggers
*Freedom dog walking fields are safe places where your dog can walk in peace (https://www.facebook.com/dogwalkingfields)
*Contact local land owners or even neighbours to find quiet places for your dog to explore
*Look up the yellow dog project – http://www.theyellowdogproject.com/Home.html
which has done so much to help our troubled canines who need space
Overshadowing is also important to understand when reintroducing dogs to stimuli that cause reactivity.
If overshadowing is present ( the presentation of more than one stimulus at the same time where one stimulus over rides the others Eg. Dog attacks black dogs – owner uses tennis ball to distract dog while a black dog walks past), new memories will not be formed as the old memories eg how much fun the ball is, slows down or stops conversion of the other information in to long term memory. Using overshadowing as a quick fix when an unwanted stimulus is presented can be a quick way to temporatily handle a tricky situation but many people try to train a reactive dog in a situation without realising that overshadowing is present and are then back to square one when the distraction is removed.
As a final note, remember that retraining your dog is bottom of the priority pile, getting a calm and happy dog comes first and then work up to training.
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