5 Common Reactivity Myths
Reactivity myths seems to be fueled by the needs of owners trying to explain or find answers for what is going wrong with their dog. It’s totally normal to want to find answers, and these myths are all answers that many people think fit. When you don’t know a lot about reactivity or dog behavior it’s easy to believe things that are inaccurate, especially when they seem like they could be plausible.
Naturally since reactivity is becoming more common nowadays, we’re also seeing reactivity myths popping up more often. So it’s time to don the Mythbuster hat and bust the hell out of some reactivity myths.
Myth #1 - Prior Abuse
This is SOOOOOOO common, especially with dogs who have an unknown past such as rescues. A lot of owners want to explain away a dog’s cowering, nervous responses, barking, and all the rest with this kind of explanation. While I know I the subset of owners that I see is slanted to dogs and owners who are dealing with issues, in my experience it seems to be about 50% of rescue dog owners that I talk to mention that they think their dog had a history of abuse.
I want to clarify that these owners are not thinking that these dogs had some sort of one time traumatic experience, but systematic and repeated abuse.
If this reactivity myth was true, we would live in a society of rampant and violent dog abuse going on all the time. While it absolutely is true that animal abusers exist, they couldn’t possibly exist in the numbers needed to explain every reactive dog. 50% of all dogs rehomed/rescued is an absolutely staggering amount.
Myth #2 - More Interactions Needed!
Out of all the reactivity myths this is the one of the outright dangerous ones. Your reactive dog does not need more interactions with the things that they struggle with. This is opening the door for the reactivity to escalate into bites, and puts the dog into overwhelming and unfair positions. Additionally this is often done is uncontrolled ways, like taking a dog who has issues with other dogs to a dog park. That is a fight waiting to happen.
Look at it from a more human perspective. The answer to treating a person’s fear of spiders is not to change their every day life into one that is now full of spiders. This doesn’t help alleviate the person’s fear or treat them. Now instead they’re having to be more on guard and have even less peace than before.
This is what happens to reactive dogs who are expected to interact with their triggers, or who are overly exposed to them in the hopes of the dog learning to deal with it. So many of my client dogs have backgrounds of being dog park and doggy daycare dogs, much to the dismay of their well-meaning owners. It’s one of common causes of reactivity and should be avoided!
Myth #3 - Lack of Discipline
There is a lot of questions and focus that many dog owners have about the origins of their dog’s reactivity, and for some there is the question of what if I did something wrong? Was I too nice? Did I baby my dog? Should I have been more firm? Was I not a good disciplinarian?
The answer is no.
Reactivity is an emotional response in the dog. Changing these overreactions is not done by trying to discipline or punish the dog for having them. Those things will not make the dog feel better about their triggers, will not teach them coping skills, nor will they learn that their trigger isn’t dangerous. Instead the opposite happens.
The dog learns that whenever the trigger is there, bad things happen. The anxiety/fear/frustration or whatever emotion that particular dog is going through now also has an additional negative cloud hanging over it because of the punishment as well. It’s a mess and not going to improve things.
Reactivity has many causes and factors that influence it, which are unique to the dog and their life. I assure you it is not because you were too soft, withheld punishment, or your expressions of joy and love to your dog.
Myth #4 - Protective Instinct
No, your dog is not trying to protect you when they are having a reactive episode.
Dogs do their best to do whatever is in their best interest at any given moment. If a dog thinks that reacting about a trigger will make things better, they will. They are out for themselves first and foremost.
Truly it is a weird pedestal that dogs find themselves put on by humans. There are weird misconceptions about loyalty, how tolerant a “good” dog is, and we can’t forget the sixth sense for bad guys. These types of thoughts about what dogs are and the place they have in our society cheapens the reality and the misconceptions lead to real consequences (like astoundingly high dog bites to children).
This isn’t to say that there are no instances of dogs being protective but that is highly dependent on breed and the given situation, and doesn’t present itself like reactivity at all.
Myth #5 - Rewards Will Make Things Worse
Reactivity is driven by emotion. There is no way to reward an emotion. We can influence a feeling to be more positive or more negative, but giving a dog a treat will not make them feel more fear/anxiety/frustration etc. Reactivity also isn’t something that the dog is choosing to do, the emotion and overreaction is happening to them.
Look at it like this. If a sad person learns that they have won the lottery during an episode of depression, does this mean that in the future they will have more depression? This is not how emotions work, not in humans, and not in dogs.
Rewards are how we help influence how the dog views their triggers. We can make a scary thing less scary, less important, and eventually not scary anymore by using rewards. We can do all sorts of things with rewards to shift the way the dog perceives the trigger, and truly it’s the most effective way to create the changes we want in a dog with any behavior.
Bonus myth - The Dog Is Trying to be the Alpha
Dominance theory has been debunked by the guy who actually came up with it. There is no such thing as a dog being reactive out of a desire to climb a nonexistent social hierarchy within a pack that doesn’t exist. It is a complete farce plain and simple. No part of dominance theory is true for dogs or wolves! This is very outdated and for the benefit of all dogs and owners is an ideology that should be abandoned.
Dogs do not want to be in conflict with us. Even if their behavior is opposing what we would like them to do at the time, they are not behaving that way to be bratty, be the alpha/leader, or otherwise disrespect their owner. That’s not how dog behavior works and not what drives any action that a dog does.
To put it simply, your dog is not trying to do anything that would put them in competition with you.
As mentioned in some of these reactivity myths, reactivity is primarily caused by the dog’s emotions. Typically this also gets tied into a behavioral response, which is the barking, lunging, growling, etc. These two parts form to create the hot mess that a reactive dog acts like around their triggers.
The root causes of these feelings come from so many different places, and it’s a unique melting pot for every dog, although the factors may be similar. What it boils down to in the end is that the reactive dog is struggling with their triggers. They can’t handle them, and the overreaction is the dog’s attempt to try to make the situation better.
What our reactive dogs need most is help and support. The best place to learn about how to do that is with a knowledgeable trainer. Not only can we help you understand what is actually going on with your dog, but you’ll also be coached in the most effective ways to help your individual dog. Trainers help empower owners and their dogs become more confident together no matter what the world throws at them!
If you want to begin working with Eugene’s reactivity specialist, get in touch! I’m only a call or message away and am here for all owners who are struggling with their dog’s behavior.