You might have the kind of dog who is the sweetest, gentlest dog when they’re alone with you… and then completely act out on walks when they see other people or dogs. They might jump, bark, pull at the leash, or if there’s a guest at home (or the mailman) they begin barking ferociously. It can be so stressful to see your dog behave that way when you know that’s not their true nature. Unfortunately, no one else seems to see the gentler side you know and love. In fact, you fear that your dog’s aggressive behavior might eventually lead to the worst-case scenario for dog parents: biting.
But is this behavior aggression or reactivity? It’s hard to see the difference, and most people assume dogs are just being irrationally aggressive when a lot of the time it’s actually fear or trigger based.
Learn how to tell the difference, and how you can help your dog:
Reactive means that these dogs are being nervous and over-reactive. They are in a state of over-stimulation to what are typically ordinary situations. This can be due to frustration, past experiences, being frightened of new experiences (vet visits, new sights, new sounds), or from not having had enough socialization. Dogs who pull, jump, and/or bark during walks also may not have had enough training—they might be excited to meet a new pup or person but have not yet learned how to respond appropriately. They could also be afraid of other dogs and react in this manner in order to scare them. Here are a few examples of reactive behaviors:
- Barking or whining
- Staring intensely or being hyper-vigilant
Reactive dogs are usually triggered by particular things, especially if it has to do with their past: certain people (example: towering or large men), people wearing hats or holding umbrellas, children, or other dogs can trigger his or her reactivity. Our dog, Beau, was reactive towards men and fluffy, long-haired dogs. These dogs can also feel trapped when they’re walking on leash, which oftentimes fuels their reactivity. In general, though, reactivity is a form of loss of self-control, a skill that pups need to be trained to exercise.
Unfortunately, the distinction between aggression and reactivity is hard to make until it’s too late. Here are some examples of aggressive behaviors:
- Body stiffening
- Lifting his or her lip
- Muzzle poking or punching (when dogs intentionally bump into someone or another dog with his muzzle, mouth closed)
Those sound a lot like the examples of reactive dogs, don’t they? There’s a reason for that: aggression is a type of reactivity. The important difference between reactivity and aggression is that, while reactivity is due to a heightened state of arousal from a trigger, aggression is commonly due to fear.
When Aggression is Fear-Based
Aggression is most commonly caused by fear. A dog’s natural response to fear or a threatening situation is to flee. That’s why dogs who are scared so often run away from home. But if he’s on a leash, or in a space where there’s no exit, he may feel cornered. Thus the “fight or flight” response: if he can’t run, he must fight.
Another reason why dogs may demonstrate aggressive behavior is resource guarding. Whether it’s toys, food, areas of the house, their owner, children, etc., dogs want to protect and guard things that are of high value to them. Think of their ancestors, who had to fight to protect their own resources for survival.
How to Respond to Aggressive or Reactive Behaviors
It’s important to understand the body language of your dog because in many cases, it could prevent bites from happening. Early signs that your dog may be feeling anxious or stressed can include:
- Flattened ears
- Tucked tail
- Yawning or licking their lips
- Slow tail wagging
You should always instruct people on how to best greet or pet your dog and ensure that no one greets them uninvited. Friends and strangers should wait until your dog is seated to approach, and this is especially important out on walks. Don’t be afraid to say to strangers, “Please don’t approach” or “My dog is in training and I need him to stay focused right now.” Additionally, be sure to tell other dog owners that your dog isn’t comfortable with greeting their dog, regardless of how friendly the other dog may be. When on a walk or in public with a reactive dog, you may want to consider using a harness and/or muzzle for safety and to ensure a more calm, positive outing. A trainer can help you determine the best harness or muzzle for your dog along with providing tips on how to make your dog feel more comfortable with wearing them.
You should also never punish your dog for their reactivity or aggression. After all, what sense does it make to respond to fear by making him more fearful? Positive reinforcement has actually been proven to be the more effective strategy in training pets. For resource guarding, you can train your dog commands like, “leave it,” or practice trading him for another high-value treat or object.
Ultimately, training is the best practice when managing reactive or aggressive dogs. If you can, working with a veterinary behaviorist or professional trainer is ideal. Group training may be a great option too, as it allows for more socialization. It’s better to begin training your dog at the first sign of reactivity or aggression than waiting until there’s a problem and hoping they “un-learn” difficult behavior.
Knowing your dog’s triggers and helping them avoid or adjust to them is the best way to ensure a happy dog. Particularly if your dog is leash-reactive, treats and chews are a great way to distract him or her before your dog goes over their threshold in a stressful situation. Simply Natural Slow-Dried Beef Heart Treats, for example, are quick chews that work great in keeping your dog busy in healthy ways. They’re a protein-packed muscle that can also support healthy cellular function and are a natural source of B-Vitamins, zinc, iron, and taurine. Try our treats in addition to Companion's Best Day 750 to promote relaxation, happiness (and to help reduce fear) in your pup!
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