Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 1
May 13, 2014 21 Comments
I’ve mentioned before that Alma has some on-leash reactivity when we see other on-leash dogs, but I haven’t gone into any great detail about it. Well, now is as good a time as any.
But first things first; if my philosophy degree taught me anything, it’s this: define your terms!
Reactivity as I use it here is an umbrella term for any behaviour that results from stimuli, whether the reaction is a result of anxiety, aggression, fear, exuberance, stress, excitement… you name it. If your dog’s behaviour routinely suddenly changes in a manner that you need to/should address, they’re reactive.
Important: reactivity ≠ aggressive! Reactivity is a popular dog training buzzword these days, thanks in part to our favourite TV dog trainers, lending itself to be misused and misunderstood. Aggression is just one form of reactivity.
Alma’s reactivity is more of the stressed/exuberant form. She sees another dog on-leash and she’s excited to go greet and frustrated that she can’t, with both dogs being confined to leashes. The lack of control of the situation and her inability to do what she wants generates a reaction.
She can get excited to see off-leash dogs, too, but if she’s off-leash, there’s no problem. If she’s on-leash and the other dog is off-leash, still less of a reaction. Leashes – a necessity and important safety tool, certainly, but also a complicating factor in dog behaviour.
Alma’s reactivity is limited to dogs. We’re lucky that way. Cars, bikes, skateboards, birds, squirrels, hares, people, she’s all cool with or ignores.
There are four stages (I’ve decided) in which Alma’s reactivity manifests:
1. Mild Notice: Alma sees the other dog and watches them; her ears will perk up (as much as they do) and she’ll close her mouth, but she’ll continue to check in with you, too. Her body language is still loose and relaxed.
2. Intense Focus: She’s no longer regularly checking in with you; she’s focused on the other dog intently and starts anticipating what might be next; her body language is stiff and she’s panting heavily; she might start creeping out of the standard heel position we walk in.
3. Bouncing: Alma can no longer contain her excitement/anxiety; she’s still panting heavily and starts bouncing up and down beside you, which, when walking a 100lb Newfoundland is both odd and ridiculous. Strangely, she usually still maintains a loose leash and heel position.
4. The Hail Mary: Alma decides enough is enough and she’s going to try to take the situation into her own hands; she lunges in the direction of the target dog. You’ve pushed your luck with boundaries and thresholds if you let it get this far.
In addition to Alma’s reaction scale is a proximity scale. The proximity of the other on-leash dog to Alma impacts the intensity of her reaction.
My assessment of proximity comes from experience and working on this with Alma – the scale is very specific to her and can shift depending on the environment. It’s also shifted as we’ve worked on reducing her reactivity. But this is where I’m at today on my walks with her.
Too Close: The same sidewalk, a single-lane hiking trail, or basically within 5 metres/16 feet of the other dog (the length of two standard 6 foot leashes and their dogs, basically; greeting territory). The point on working with Alma on her reactivity is to diminish what is ‘too close’ so that it’s barely negligible. We’ve shrunk it, for sure, but we’ve still got work to do.
Close: Directly across the street (streets are about 40 feet/12 metres wide on average) or an equivalent distance in a green space or park.
Not Close: The dog is visible, but still off in the distance a bit. I’d say about a block/50m/165 feet away. Anything further away than this really isn’t an issue at all.
My last scale is the level of the distraction. This is based on what the other dog is doing, because in conjunction with proximity, the intensity of Alma’s reactivity is also heavily dependent upon what the other dog is doing.
Low: If the other dog is relaxed and mostly ignoring Alma, her reaction is substantially diminished. This means the other dog has loose body language, a loose leash, and isn’t giving her a lot of eye contact. There aren’t many of these dogs in our neighbourhood. Dogs walking away from us also lowers their level of distraction.
Medium: The dog is staring at Alma/giving a lot of eye contact, has stiff/erect body posture, and is moving in her direction. Consistent eye contact/staring from another dog is a key factor in whether or not Alma will react. Basically, the other dog is giving Alma intense focus, as I’ve described on her scale above.
High: The other dog is reacting: barking, pulling at the end of the leash, for example. Another dog overreacting to stimuli definitely encourages a reciprocal response from Alma. Dogs headed straight for us in close proximity are definitely a high distraction level.
Now, working in the corporate world, I do like my charts and graphs. Because who doesn’t love a good matrix, amiright?
So I’ve decided to take all of the rankings I just did when thinking about Alma’s reactivity and put them into a visual.
Behold! Alma’s Reactivity Matrix:
There you have it. Pretty rad, right?
Sure, this isn’t useful to anyone but me (I think even the Husband’s Alma Matrix would look a bit different), but I actually found working through this very interesting when characterizing Alma’s reactivity, her triggers, and prompting objective consideration about the whole thing. It really puts on paper where we’re at and where we want to be, and forces some specific reflection.
If you’re an analytical thinker with a reactive dog, I recommend giving this exercise a try.
I was going to continue on to discuss my responses to Alma’s reactivity and what I do to mitigate situations, but I think I’ve gone on long enough for today.
Stay tuned for Part 2!