What is a “Reactive Response”?
A reactive dog or a dog who display a reactive response, is a dog who is highly stimulated and reacts strongly and/or shows obvious high levels of stress and anxiety when faced with mild to moderate exposure to specific stimuli, and/or toward certain environmental situations.
When it comes to dogs, many people pair the label "reactive" with the label "aggressive", however, the two are not synonymous. A reactive dog is a dog who is undergoing high levels of stress and anxiety when they are displaying their reactive behaviour. For example a dog who is suffering with "separation anxiety" is a reactive dog. Aggression can be a symptom of canine reactivity, however it is not the symptom of canine reactivity.
What you may see in a reactive response, (but not limited to).
- sweaty paws
- darting eyes
- lack of focus
- dilated pupils
- snapping or biting
- trying to escape
- inability to eat even the best treats
- self mutilation
- destruction of property (or toys)
All the above mentioned things you may see from a reactive dog are actually symptoms. Symptoms of anxiety. Therefore a reactive dog is not an aggressive dog, a reactive dog, is a highly anxious dog..
A reactive dog can act out aggressively, but they could just as easily act out with whining, scratching and trying to escape.
How a dog acts when they are anxious has a lot to do with their individual personality and what has worked in the past to help them cope or get out of a difficult (anxiety inducing), situation.
Having said that, almost every dog, if pushed to the point of total panic and inability to escape, will act out defensively, and that means growling, snapping and biting.
It starts with what we don't see
A reactive response is what we see externally, however, long before we see the outward signs of anxiety, a dog is having an internal response to anxiety. When a dog becomes stimulated, their body will begin to secret cortisol into their bloodstream, via their adrenal glands.
A brief surge of cortisol (better known as an adrenaline rush), can be a good thing, because it can decrease sensitivity to pain and increase memory function, energy levels, and even short term immunity. There-fore if a dog needs to flee or fight for their life, or there is a need to catch prey - increased cortisol is very helpful.
However, if the cortisol surges are frequent and at high levels, the effect on the dog's body and the mental state can be devastating. High cortisol levels can take hours or days to dissipate from a dog's system, which means, if a dog is exposed to high anxiety situations on their daily walks, or whenever their people go to work, then the body is never allowed to return to a normal cortisol level.
Many major illnesses and diseases can be linked to chronic and high levels of stress, so it is imperative that dogs who display a reactive response, be helped with their reactivity, by decreasing exposure and helping them experience down time, calmness and relaxation.
A reactive response to fun?!
Yes a dog can become reactive over an exhilarating sport or game of chase. Think about all the times you have seen a dog displaying (some of),the above symptoms and think about the situation that the dog was in. Not just your own dog, but any dog. I can almost guarantee you have seen dogs doing sports and games where they were showing some of the above symptoms.
Dogs will often show these signs when they are in very stimulating situations where it appears they are having fun. For example ball retrieval.
Once a dog becomes over stimulated, they don't have a very strong ability to turn it off, or end it, unless they become exhausted. And this is why it is very important for us to a make sure we end the exposure, even if the exposure is something they enjoy, when we see outwardly that our dog is showing some of the signs of a "reactive response".
When a dog becomes over stimulated and shows a reactive response, the internal body cannot decipher whether the initial cause of the adrenal/cortisol surges are from fun or fear.
Chronic stress is not something that should be taken lightly. It is a very serious issue and can become a life threatening situation if the dog develops severe health issues as a result.
Do not allow your dog to be continually over-stimulated and anxious. End the exposure. And if the problem has become chronic, then seek professional help through a Veterinary Animal Behaviourist, or a dog training instructor who specializes in canine behaviour counseling.
A reactive response is your dog's way of telling you they are not coping with the current situation. And even if the situation is one that you consider enjoyable for you and your dog, listen to their reactive response and help them to get out of the situation.
~ Dogs Never Lie ~
© Copyright 2015 Jackie McGowan St. Croix.