Dogs can become reactive when they do not have their needs met, are unable to make good choices and have continuous overused and unrealistic commands barked at them.
Being unhappy, in pain, experiencing confrontation, confusion or excitement will trigger behaviours that are not necessarily advantageous for the owner or the dog.
Predatory behaviours and excessive exercise including repetitive activities like ball chasing, fast play and fast running increase arousal chemicals in the brain and body. These changes in the brain and body, over time will certainly influence a dogs behaviour when situations or events present themselves.
We must also remember that the brain preserves unpleasant memories as a way of protecting against future life-threatening or negative events. Memory is like a computer database; a memory is triggered, a search of the database is done, the memory is retrieved, recalled, and acted upon.
We also need to think about the verbal and non-verbal ways in which a dog communicates. Let us look at the non-verbal form of communication called “Calming Signals”, a phrase coined by Turid Rugaas, the International Dog Trainer and my mentor from Norway. “Calming Signals” involves using every part of the body including ears, eyes, tail, movement, stillness, and expression. These signals may be used one at a time or together to express or communicate how they are feeling at any given time. On a walk or out in a social setting they would normally communicate many “Calming Signals” to calm themselves or another dog, express feelings of being uncomfortable, when social distancing is not adhered to and to simply have an everyday conversation with others around them. “Calming Signals” is their way of communicating.
All dogs understand this language but unfortunately when restricting equipment, short leads, unrealistic control and unsettling past experiences have occurred, manners are put to the side and defending or attacking is a much better option for survival. Over time dogs can give up using “Calming Signals” and ultimately these dogs will no doubt provoke or finish encounters while out walking.
Sadly, too many people are still being taught to ensure dogs are trained to follow the humans lead instead of observing and allowing the dog to express itself naturally and help it make decisions that are positive for its health, well-being and happiness.
Avoiding confrontation means letting go of the “control freak” in you and allowing dogs to make choices. You may be surprised when they choose not to walk near every dog that comes their way and instead curve, letting the other dog know they mean no harm and all they would like to do is continue their sniffing walk. This is a great example of a “Calming Signal.” We don’t stop and chat to every person we meet, so why is it that we assume our dogs do? And let us not forget that some of us are more social than others, this is no different for our dogs.
It is also important to look closely at the equipment we are using. Dogs need to be comfortable and able to move and express themselves while they are out exploring. Today we see all sorts of gadgets on dogs, these include pinch or prong collars, electric collars, check chains, martingales, muzzles, haltis, ill-fitting harnesses and even the flat collar. The structure and function of the dog’s neck is especially important, and we must protect it, not to mention respect it.
And why do we need to change the way we “exercise” our dogs? Empathy for the species I chose to live with led me to observe what dogs love to do. They love to sleep, sniff, explore, be curious, experiment, have friends and take things slowly.
Walking or running our dog around the block or in the same park every day is not enriching for dogs. They need new and interesting activities, activities to indulge all their senses to help calm their body, calm their mind, and fulfil their needs. You will find over time that the very things that once triggered the dog will be less exaggerated and the world around them becomes slower and pleasant. Exercise means enjoyment and there is nothing more enjoyable than watching a dog on a good fitting Harness and a long 4 or 10 metre lead, with its head down walking slowly sniffing the ground, bushes and air or finding treats, toys and items you have hidden in the garden or you may lose a friend for them to find in the park. Diversity makes life interesting.
When we stop trying to make dogs into something they are not and respect them for who they are, only then will we begin to see less reactive dogs and ultimately, less encounters while out in public. Activities and exercise should be pleasant for the whole family, including the dog.