Observant people familiar with dog body language know that a dog is more relaxed and less stressed if the dog is able to choose an “indirect” path — a curve if you will — when approaching people, other dogs, or objects/locations that are unfamiliar or have a history of causing the dog anxiety. Watching well-socialized dogs meet each other while off-leash illustrates this beautifully.
Have a look at the videos from this study where dogs’ heart rates were measured during direct approaches (head-on) and indirect approaches (curves). You will witness the correlation between the heart rate and the dog’s body language and tightness of the leash. In my Wellness & Enrichment dog class, I instruct students to monitor the amount of leash pressure the dog is causing on the walk and use that as a guide to assess the dog’s level of arousal in order to keep the dogs under threshold.
When walking a dog on a leash, remember to avoid head-on direct approaches when passing people, other dogs, skateboards, the yard with the dog barking at the fence, etc. Your dog might be trying to pull away to make that curve, but an uninformed dog handler may give a “correction” or lure/coax the dog to continue the direct approach, causing increased stress levels. This is how dogs become sensitized to these situations, and how many dogs begin to show over-reactive behaviours when encountering these things on a leash.
This is for general information only. Please consult a variety of reputable resources, including a reputable dog behaviour professional.
Walking past a yard containing a dog aggressively charging the fence is stressful for everyone. Every repetition of the event will increase the likelihood that the aggressive behaviours from the dog in the yard will occur again in the future, and likely more intensely. It’s a situation where the dog does not get used to it but instead becomes sensitized to it.
There are numerous devices and methods that are designed to suppress aggressive behaviours at the fence by delivering a consequence that causes the dog physical discomfort or anxiety. Dog training that tries to suppress the behaviour are more likely to increase the stress of the dog and make the aggressive behaviours worse, cause new unwanted behaviours, and lead to a dog that aggresses without the warning signals that have been punished.
But what’s the owner of such a dog to do?
Firstly, be sure that your fence is secure to keep everyone safe. You may want to consider installing a second fence along the edges (or just the problem edge) to create a section of empty space several feet wide. This added distance could be helpful for the dog’s stress levels, as well as the ones for those on the other side of property line fence.
Secondly, set up other management and safety strategies to help to promote safety and help to reduce the intensity and frequency of the behaviours. This may mean keeping your dog inside during times of the day when the fence line is “busy” so to speak. It may mean taking your dog outside while on a harness and leash until the dog’s training has improved. Changing the type of fence may be helpful, as well (some dogs do better with fences that prevent the dog from seeing what is going past on the other side).
Thirdly, get help from a reputable professional sooner rather than later because it’s much easier to change the behaviour when it’s mild than when it’s severe. Be sure the person you hire understands how to address the underlying emotions that are causing the aggressive behaviours. TIP: “Dominance” is no longer scientifically acceptable and the theory of dominance to explain dog behaviour was disproved several decades ago.
Here is a video of one way to use positive reinforcement training to reduce fence aggression. Of course, finding a way to reduce the dog’s arousal levels will help make the training much more effective.
The information provided here only touches the surface of the subject. If your dog has severe reactivity problems, please consult the services of a professional who uses positive-reinforcement methods rather than compulsion training (verbal “psst’s” or physical corrections and/or aversive equipment such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, slip collars). Compulsion-based methods attempt to suppress the emotions that drive the over-reactive behaviours, and they often result in an escalation of unwanted behaviours and new unwanted behaviours.
What is over-reactivity?
Over-reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top emotional response to common stimuli in the dog’s environment at a normal intensity (“normal” referring to the distance, exposure time, and behaviour of the stimuli). These stimuli are commonly referred to as “triggers” because they trigger a response in the dog. Some dogs are over-reactive to a small number of triggers (other dogs, kids on skateboards, the mail carrier) but some dogs seem to overreact to nearly everything (sounds, movement, new objects, things that are out of place). In most cases the behaviours are due to frustration or fear, even if the dog is lunging and barking aggressively. In the case of fear-based over-reactivity, these aggressive displays are often used as a way for the dog to provoke a response in the “new thing” to determine if it’s a threat or not or to make the “scary thing” go away.
What can cause over-reactivity?
Genetics play a significant role in determining a dog’s temperament, and it’s important to note that a dog can only progress as far as his inherited “nature” will allow. What happens to a dog after he’s born will also have a huge influence on his temperament, especially socialization, training, and diet. (Illness can also be a factor, so be sure to consult your vet if you suspect this may be the case.)
Poor socialization (deficits and “bad” experiences) during the first few months of a puppy’s life can lead to over-reactivity. Puppyhood is when the dog learns what to expect in his environment, and if a puppy isn’t exposed in a positive way to the sights, sounds, and smells he is expected to encounter in his daily life, chances are he will have problems with over-reactivity. The puppy then enters adolescence, a stage of development where his instinct is to be very cautious about new things. (During this time it’s common for dogs to experience “fear periods” where they seem particularly sensitive, often showing increased sensitivity to sounds and movement.) Extremely negative experiences, especially if they happen during a fear period, can also create a fear of something that lasts the dog’s lifetime. Even if a dog is well socialized during puppyhood, there is the risk of de-socialization if the dog is no longer exposed to new things, becoming overreactive to the environment outside of their yards.
One factor often overlooked is diet. Low quality or highly processed ingredients, heavy starch-based diets (i.e. kibble), additives, and gaps in nutrients can lead to behavioural problems in some dogs. A healthy nervous system needs proper nutrition, and a weakened digestive system cannot properly digest food to get the nutrients the dog needs. A damaged digestive system leads to food sensitivities, allergies, hormonal imbalances, etc., which can stress the entire body including the nervous system. As well, there is some evidence suggesting that the gut biome influences behaviour, and onea gut biome that is out of balance can adversely affect the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Current science is showing clear links between the nervous system and the digestive system (“the second brain” as some scientists are putting it).
Things you can do:
Reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and appropriate exercise and play, increase sleep and quiet time, improve diet, and work with a positive reinforcement trainer to help improve your dog’s ability to cope with things in the environment. Do what you can to avoid isolating your dog because this can lead to an increase in reactivity. But this doesn’t mean forcing your dog into situations he’s not ready for because this can reinforce and increase reactive behaviours. Work slowly and systematically.
When discussing the behaviour modification for over-reactive dogs, it’s important to understand how essential it is to keep a dog under his threshold. When a dog is over his threshold, it’s extremely difficult for him to learn new behaviours because his brain is in “reactive mode” rather than “thinking mode”, and each time he over-reacts to a trigger that behaviour is reinforced. To ensure you are able to keep your dog below his threshold, you need to be able to read his subtle signs of stress so you can intervene before he goes over his threshold. By the time he’s straining at the leash or vocalizing, it’s too late; he’s over his threshold.
It’s best to consult a professional trainer experienced in working with over-reactivity, especially severe cases, as this can be an involved and complex process. Avoid any trainers who suggest forcing a dog to remain over his threshold to “let him work it out on his own”; these flooding techniques can overwhelm a dog – especially one with a sensitive nervous system already — and cause undesirable side effects. Sometimes a dog will quiet down after a forced exposure and the humans think the dog is cured of his reactivity. This is not necessarily the case. The dog may have exhausted his nervous system and temporarily “shut down”; he has not changed his mind about the trigger, but he may have changed his mind about you and how much he can trust you. This dog may be more likely to bite without warning in the future, and this approach is likely to result in a more extreme reaction to the trigger in the future and/or a new, undesirable behaviour (i.e. regression in housetraining, aggression around food or toys, etc.).
Activities/Classes for over-reactive dogs:
Any class for over-reactive dogs should provide safe, controlled opportunities for reactive dogs to choose appropriate behaviours in the presence of the trigger. It’s essential that the space be large enough for the dogs to have the distance they need to avoid sensitizing the dog further. Some dogs need to be 100 feet away from another dog. If you are beginning to learn to read your dog and are working on giving your dog enough distance from “the trigger”, here is a good rule to follow: When you think your dog has enough distance — double it. There is a lot going inside your dog well before most humans ever notice the subtle signs of stress. By the time most humans see them (even trainers, and especially the trainers that are misinterpreting the signals), the dog is already anxious.
Dogs with over-reactive behaviours should be gently and systematically desensitized to their triggers while they remain below threshold, and if counter conditioning is a component of the training, the dog trainer needs an accurate understanding and skill level to implement it properly and train dog owners to do it, as well. And they need to understand when counter conditioning attempts may be interfering with the dog’s progress.
Anyone interested in taking a class for over-reactive dogs can contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA
When Frasier and I moved off of our farm, his world got smaller. Gone were the days of running free through the cranberry bogs for our morning walks. In the city, he was confined to leash walks and he became increasingly frustrated and reactive to other dogs. If he saw a squirrel, he pulled so hard that I could barely stay on my feet. Walking him became a chore instead of the best part of my day. Then, we found Jennifer Berg. The training that she introduced us to has worked wonders. I can honestly say I enjoy walking my dog again!
~ Frasier’s “mom”
I’m thrilled with how quickly Lucy’s reactivity to other dogs has diminished! And I remain impressed with Jennifer’s quick eye to point out the tiniest of stress reactions from Lucy. Many thanks for helping me become a more sensitive dog owner!
~ Nadine Baker
Some environments are very stimulating to a dog.
- places new to your dog
- places where your dog experienced something very intense (intense for your dog)
- windy days: wind stirs up scents and can lead to a bit of sensory overload
- rain or humidity: moisture increases bacteria growth and leads to an increase in the amount and intensity of the scents. This can lead to a bit of sensory overload.
- places with lots of things happening
- places where there are “triggers” (things that trigger a reaction in your dog
We cannot change the environment to make it less exciting for a dog, but we can control our dog’s access to it.
- let your dog have more time sniffing and exploring an area before proceeding to a new section.
- retreat to an area where your dog was previously calm to let your dog’s nervous system recover a bit before heading out to a new section. Sometimes it’s good to have a “home base” area where your dog is calm, and then head out in one direction and then back to home base to relax, then heat out in a different direction and back to home base. Another way would be to start at A, walk to B, back to A. Recover. Walk to B, then to C, then to B. Recover. (B has now become home base). Then walk to C, then to D, then to C. Recover. (C has now become home base).
- the more time your dog spends in high arousal, the weaker his/her nervous system. Recovery periods can help, but you may need more frequent breaks and longer breaks. This analogy might help: think of your dog’s nervous system as a pot of boiling water on a stove. If we keep the pot just below a boil, it can begin to boil quite quickly. If you turn the temperature down for short periods, you can prevent the water from boiling quickly, but eventually it will boil. Sometimes you can take the pot off the stove for a bit to let the water cool and then put it back on the stove again. Sorry if you don’t cook and this analogy is meaningless. LOL
- Start very easy for your dog. Give your dog lots of distance from the triggers — it’s much better to start too far away and then get a bit closer than it is to start too close. Once the dog goes over threshold, the stress hormones are flowing (no way to stop them) and the nervous system will be significantly weakened for some time (maybe hours or even days if it was really intense). Boiling pot analogy. If you start with room temperature water, it takes less time for the pot of water to boil than it takes for that pot to return back to room temperature.
- Just because your dog hasn’t “boiled over” yet, doesn’t mean your dog can handle more. Be sure to err on the side of caution. After “close calls” and “intense challenges” that your dog successfully passed, your dog will need recovery time.
- Figure out if there is a less intense time to go to a location. Perhaps there is a time of day when there are fewer of your dog’s triggers around. Maybe your dog will be better able to self-regulate and make good choices if your dog has had a good nap, or a training session, or a play in the yard, or a full tummy, the day after daycare, or anything BUT the day after daycare — whatever it is that works for your dog. You are the expert of your dog. Be a detective and see what you can do to change the situation to help your dog control his/her own behaviours.
Remember, we can’t change our dog’s emotional state. We can control some of the things that influence our dog’s emotional state and we can help encourage some emotional states and discourage others. The rest is up to the dog. It must be at the dog’s pace.
Please read the short piece on how emotions drive behaviours.