Reactivity is easiest defined as an overreaction to a stimulus. The most common form of reactivity that is seen is leash reactivity. Leash reactivity is when a dog is exhibiting a set of inappropriate behaviors while on leash. Dogs can be leash reactive towards a variety of stimuli, but the most likely scenario is when they see another dog or person.
The most frequent over reactive behaviors are barking and lunging. When you see a dog you are not familiar with and he is barking and lunging, it is natural to think he is being aggressive, but that is not typically the case. There are many different causes of reactivity. Yes, aggression is one of them, but the majority of cases stem from fear, excitement and even dominance.
When a dog is fearful, he will put on a large display of behaviors in an attempt to deter the dog or person from coming close to him. When a dog is overly excited when he sees another dog or person while on leash, he can become frustrated that he cannot freely go over to meet them. So, as you can see, when another dog on leash is barking and lunging at you or your dog, he is not necessarily aggressive. If you are in that situation, it is best to play it safe by changing or moving across the street. A trained dog professional can determine the source of the reactivity based on close scrutiny of the dog’s body language.
The A-B-Cs of Aggression
Aggression is best defined as intent to do harm. When a dog is truly aggressive, he will do harm if given the opportunity. Aggression, like reactivity, has different causes. The most common form of dog aggression is fear based, but aggression can be derived from dominance, territorial and possession to name a few.
Aggression and reactivity, to the average person, can look very similar. Therefore, it is hard to determine whether the dog is a danger or not. It is best to let a professional dog trainer make the determination and create a rehabilitation plan. If you think your dog is aggressive, you should not only contact a professional, but you should also take detailed notes of the scenario in which your dog became aggressive. That information will be extremely beneficial to the professional helping you.
It is also a good idea to consult with your veterinarian as well. Some medications can cause aggression and some medications may be needed to help the dog work through the aggression.
Please note that safety always comes first. If you have an aggressive dog and a small child in the home, then it may be a better idea to rehome the dog. If you are able to attempt to work through the aggression, you will need to come up with a management plan with your trainer. Please note that any breed is capable of becoming aggressive. In fact, many people who have personally worked with many different breeds that exhibited aggression, have found that pit bulls are the minority. Less than one percent of breeds that exhibit aggression are pit bulls.
How Possession Turns Into Resource Guarding
When a dog is being possessive over an object, space or person, it is called resource guarding. Resource guarding is defined as when a dog controls access to food, objects, people and/or locations that are important to him. Dogs from a variety of backgrounds can become resource guarders.
One word of caution: Do not yell or use physical punishment when your dog is exhibiting resource guarding. The reasons are:
1. You never want to correct your dog for giving you warnings.
2. Yelling and doing physical corrections are viewed as aggressive and challenging to your dog. These actions can cause his guarding behavior to increase.
Please consult a trained professional to assist you in working through this issue. In some situations, resource guarding can be mild, but other times, it can be severe. Resource guarding frequently becomes worse when it is not addressed. If your dog is showing mild signs, this is the best time to work through the issue before it becomes a safety concern.
Be Watchful for Warning Signs
Dogs have a variety of warning signs they show before they bite. Some of the warnings are obvious like growling, snapping, barking and baring teeth. Others are less obvious like hard eyes, whale eye, frozen/stiff body and closed mouth.
When you see any of these warning signs, it is critical that you DO NOT correct your dog. If you discipline your dog when he displays warning signs then you are teaching your dog that it is not good to warn you. We want our dogs to warn us before they bite. Ask a professional to help you work on the situation that is causing your dog to offer warnings instead of correcting them for warning. I cannot stress that point enough!
For example, let’s say Jane was pushing around Sally on the playground. Sally said to Jane: “Stop it. I don’t like that (warning).” Jane doesn’t listen to Sally’s warning so Sally pushes Jane to the ground (inappropriate action). Would you punish Sally for telling Jane to stop it? That is the same as correcting your dog for giving warning signs. Instead, you want to teach Sally a more appropriate option when Jane isn’t listening to her. This is what a professional trainer can help you with your dog.
Explaining Bite Inhibition
Bite inhibition is a big topic, but I am going to focus on bite inhibition as it pertains to warning signs and aggression. Adult dogs have control of how much pressure that put onto another being. If your dog snaps at you and you quickly pull your hand away, you may think that the dog was going to bite you and that you pulled your hand away in time. The reality is that our response time is much slower than our dogs, so most likely the dog did not have any intention of making contact with your skin.
When evaluating the level of aggression in dogs, the types of injuries, i.e. whether they are minor or more severe, that the other person or dog incurred, can say a lot. If an adult dog bit a person, but didn’t draw blood, then that shows that the dog did not have intention to do harm and was warning that person. If a dog left puncture wounds on another dog, then that shows that there was intention to do harm.
Keep in mind that if a dog or person ignores the warning signs from a dog, then the warning signs will increase in intensity. If a dog’s warning signs are ignored then his fight or flight instinct kicks in. Once fight or flight kicks in, the dog can cause more intense injuries because he feels his safety is in jeopardy. A dog who bites when in fight or flight is not necessarily aggressive, as he is just attempting to protect himself from a perceived threat.
By Sarah Zumhofe