Top Three Causes of Reactivity or Fear Based Aggression
Causes of Reactivity - Too much of the Wrong things!
In this day and age, reactive dogs and fear based aggression are becoming more and more common.
The causes of reactivity are many but there are three glaring reasons that stick out above all else. They’re ubiquitous as well, with pretty much every dog experiencing one or multiple of these things throughout their lives, and more than once too.
It only takes one event to begin to develop reactivity or other behavior problems. Across the board in the clients that I see and those that contact me, overwhelmingly the dogs with behavioral issues share these common experiences, especially those who seem to suddenly begin to change from good behavior, to bad.
Dog parks - A perfect storm
Dog parks to many owners are the pinnacle of what the dog experience should be. Dogs running free, playing, interacting, and having a good time. For some dogs this is the only real outlet and exercise they get in their day to day life, or the only time they get to do an activity that frees them from the oppression they feel in their home life. This alone leads to very pent up dogs who come to the park like a powder keg ready to explode.
Others are young pups who have never been around dogs who haven’t spent time around the right kinds of older dogs. Who are in that funny adolescent stage where they are almost big enough to be an adult, but still have all the rude behaviors of a puppy, and happily push other dogs around, seeing no issues with their doggy faux pas.
Then there are dogs who have known behavior problems who are brought to the dog park. Maybe they’re fine until a ball gets involved. Or until they think another dog is too close to their owner, or too close to them. Maybe they don’t like certain genders of dogs. The list could go on. And still they are exposed to an environment where it’s absolutely possible for any one of those things to happen.
The next group who comes to the dog park are dogs who have almost zero connection with their owner while there. These dogs essentially do their own thing regardless of what their owner wants or asks. Likewise, their owner might ignore them right back until it’s time to leave. Then it’s often like pulling teeth to get the dog to come and leashed up to go. Owners calling multiple times, needing to go chase their dog, shaking the treat bag, or needing a stranger’s help. Sometimes the dog looks back to the park wistfully or has to be pulled out. The relationship they have with their owner is not one of partnership.
These are the vast majority of the players who come to the dog park. All thrown into a fenced area for a doggy free for all. Fending for themselves because their owners are too far away to offer help or support. Good luck dogs! You’re on your own.
Owners have been mislead that it’s important for your dog to Socialize with other dogs, to be socialized in this fashion. Certainly that means interaction right? What’s the harm in it?
What's really happening at the dog park
Dog parks are a breeding ground for bad behavior. Think about it. The dogs who are there are mostly dogs who aren’t practicing good behavior. Their owners are completely out of the picture, and it’s a mess of high energy, tension, intensity, that is happening over and over again as new dogs come and go.
The atmosphere is not one of calm. It isn’t one of behaving politely, interacting with other dogs and respecting their boundaries. Think of the greetings you’ve seen in the dog park. How many of those times have been several dogs almost mobbing the new one? Rushing straight in and getting in as close as possible? Imagine if a bunch of strangers did that to you. Would you not feel uncomfortable and potentially get defensive?
Doggy Daycare - Paying someone to make your dog reactive
Indoor all day dog park! You feel bad about your dog staying home all day. You don’t want them cooped up at home, daycare sounds good! They screen the dogs, so it must be safe. And let’s be realistic, you may not be looking for the cheapest daycare, but price is on your mind for this recurring expense.
The fact is that it’s just as bad as the dog park, but now there are many less people involved and watching play groups. While the dogs do get monitored, it is often by staff who are not well versed in dog behavior or have no formal education on the subject. Often they’re armed with a squirt bottle, shake can, air horn, or other potentially aversive tool that gets used to break up scuffles, which happen regularly even with dogs who go through a screening process.
Another issue is that these places are generally smaller than the average dog park; there is no where for a dog to run to get away from an attacker, or any way for them to avoid confrontation. Confrontations that will happen throughout the day while your dog is there.
Some doggy daycares have some sort of rest period during the day, which while helpful, still doesn’t change the fact that your dog will be exposed to dogs they don’t get along with repeatedly and in a confined space. Plenty of opportunity for the wrong behaviors to begin being practiced.
There is no real support system for them to fall back on, no one to help them. And one day they realize that they have no choice but to defend themselves or try to influence the situation however they can. They don’t want the same things happening to them out in the world, and so we begin to see reactivity.
Leash greetings - No where to run, no way to stop it
He’s friendly! Can he say hi? Look they want to meet each other! He just wants to play!!! Your dog is so cute!
When you have a new dog or a puppy at times it can seem like you have a target on you and all sorts of people come out of the woodwork to interact with you. Even just on your regular walks, most of us run into people who have interest in our dogs. It’s understandable in our culture in the US that someone might want to touch your dog, after all they’re pretty great, or that someone might want to have their puppy say hi. Seems pretty innocuous and innocent.
From the dog’s perspective it can be anything but. On leash your dog has a very limit amount of distance to get away from a stranger or other dog they don’t want to interact with. People who want to pet your dog sometimes can be pushy or ignorant of what a dog who doesn’t want to be pet looks like. Your dog or puppy may be saying NO as loudly as they can with their body language, but it goes unnoticed until more serious things start happening.
Environments without enough structure, without boundaries and protection in place for dogs whos confidence is still developing is a recipe for disaster. For the dogs doing the bullying it’s even worse, teaching them that there are places where there are no boundaries or rules, that they are allowed to pick on dogs that they target.
All of these situations are teaching your dog or puppy that they can’t trust anyone but themselves and that they must try to solve things on their own. They do not see you as their protector, they become distrustful of new and unpredictable situations, and their confidence is shaken. They have no choice but to try to protect themselves.
No one here wins. You are your dog’s advocate and have so much power in who your dog is going to turn into. Who do you want them to be? Check out these alternatives!