Thursday, April 4, 2013

For A Reactive Dog, Calm is Important All the Time

Rocket missed her calling as a racing greyhound

My boss, an avid dog lover, and I were discussing Rocket's reactivity today and she brought up some really amazing points on calmness. She got the conversation going about times when maybe dogs are not so calm, maybe even reactive, and we as owners might "let it go" - to their detriment.

If reactivity is an episode where the dog goes over threshold, and we assume this episode can/does alter their brain chemistry, which in turn will increase the likelihood of future, and possibly more violent, reactions, then it is our goal to never allow our dog to go over threshold. Each time he or she does, we take a step back. This is why it is so important to remove a dog from the stimulus as soon as we recognize there is a problem, to stop the dog from "rehearsing" the behavior, and therefore making the problem worse and more long term. It is always important to stay away from the problem situations until you can get professional help.

Up until recently, I really only thought about this in terms of the environments where Rocket had reactions that I deemed problematic. I have been lately thinking about all the other times she might raise her arousal levels too high. What about when looking out the window? What about seeing the squirrels in the backyard? These are all instances when Rocket has a reaction, maybe a different kind - not nearly as bad as with dogs on leash - but still, arousal is happening. She is getting keyed up, and we are throwing adrenaline into her system. I then assume that with these added doses of excitement  we must be hurting our chances of success for when we get into the "big deal" situations...such as on-leash.

This line of thinking has been in my head the past few weeks, and I have been working to make Rocket's in-house time as calming as possible. Then, today, my boss mentioned something that really flipped my thinking on its side.

What about when she goes running off-leash? It got me thinking to how a typical off-leash romps go for her. (These are in a safe, enclosed, empty dog park).

Rocket will run, and run, and run, and run. She will gladly chase a ball, but she's in it for the running, and will often not bother to bring the ball back, and just go for another few loops. She is starting to make me think she's an "adrenaline junkie" - because Rocket will just run, for however long you let her, and now I have to ask myself, per the inspiration of my boss' comment, at what point is she running for joy, and and what point - if this is happening - might she be tipping over into "joy meets fear = system crash" levels of adrenaline. This theory could be supported by the fact that after a good bit of running, Rocket will start doing things like running the fence or barking. These could be identified as anxiety activities. Originally, I would assume that all exercise, all running is good for her - but now I have to wonder, is it really? Or, should I be on the lookout for activities that might be adding to her reactivity?

The bottom line is this: many of the things I used to think were "she's just being a dog" activities I am examining with a closer eye.

How many people see a dog that gaurds the door constantly and deem that dog "a good guard dog"? How much do you want to bet that dog barks its head off at everything that walks by? Or the dog that barks at this dog "just a good guard dog" or is it an anxious dog, a dog that never can relax?

What about the dog that melts into a wiggly, licking, whimpering pile when meeting someone new? Someone might say "Oh what a friendly dog, he loves people!" We have all heard this - but we must actually listen to the dog. Is this dog really friendly and loving of all people, or is he actually quite worried or uncomfortable and acting ultra-submissive?

Lastly, this is the reactive dog owner's arch enemy, the "friendly dog". The dog that lunges, barks, twirls, whines, screams, and nearly kills itself trying to get to your dog when passing by on a walk. One might say "Oh he's friendly! He loves dogs!" Well, maybe both of those things are true, but maybe this dog is not experiencing life in a comfortable or healthy way. Maybe this dog initially was both friendly and dog-loving ten minutes ago, but maybe now he is presented with a stimulus that he cannot, or does not know how to, handle, and is so overloaded with adrenaline that he can't really even function anymore. Maybe this dog is reactive.

Our dogs cannot speak to us, so we must listen to what they can give us, and we must start to look at our reactive dog as a reactive dog all the time, and promote calm and confidence all the time. Some of the "dog just being a dog" activities might not actually be normal, or healthy. We have to re-examine what our criteria for our dog's wellbeing are. In the past, maybe this behavior seemed "okay", but the more we learn, the more we must challenge traditional approaches to dog behavior. Our goal is a healthy, happy, calm dog...what does that really look like all day, every day?

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