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What are Reactive Behaviors?

Reactivity in dogs can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous problem that takes time and patience to reverse. Although any dog can develop reactivity due to developmental, environmental and medical reasons, some dogs, such as terrier and shepherding breeds, are more likely to develop reactive behaviors. Many reactive dogs may be managed through training and behavioral conditioning, however, some dogs may need additional help such as anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications to control their actions and reach their full potential.

Dogs that overreact in response to certain stimuli are known as reactive. Most reactive dogs can become somewhat calmer and happier animals with training, although in some cases, medications may also be recommended.

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Symptoms of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

There are several behaviors that might clue you in that your dog is feeling anxious or may be in a reactive state. Some of these behaviors may include:

  • Barking
  • Body tense and low or forward
  • Hiding
  • Growling
  • Intense stare
  • Licking of lips or muzzle
  • Looking away
  • Lunging
  • Nipping
  • Sudden scratching
  • Tail between legs
  • Teeth bared
  • Urination when approached
  • Whites of eyes are red or pink
  • Whites of eyes showing
  • Yawning

Types

Dogs can become reactive to any object or circumstance, but there are a few that strike more frequently than others. Types of reactivity that are relatively common include:

Dog Reactive

Dogs can be reactive specifically to their own kind. In some cases, these dogs are reactive to all other canines, in others, they may be reactive to a specific category of dog, such as dogs with long hair as opposed to short, or even small dogs as opposed to large. 

Leash Reactive

Leash reactivity is the most commonplace of the types of reactivity, and can be quite troubling for both you and your dog. As the typical responses to fear are either fight or flight, and the dog is unable to flee due to the leash, it may instigate the dog to fight instead. 

Reactive to Men or Children

Although reactivity to men or children may be triggered by poor treatment or abuse, it is much more likely to be due to a lack of exposure during the animal’s socialization period.

Causes of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

Triggers that may trigger reactive behaviors in dogs are typically a combination of nature and nurture. Possible components to fostering reactive behaviors may include: 

  • Developmental factors - When abuse and traumatic events occur during a puppy’s developmental phase or if proper socialization did not occur early in life, this can cause a dog to become more fearful
  • Environmental factors - When raised in either an overly sheltered environment or if exposed to an environment of violence may trigger fear and reactivity in canines; in some situations, these factors may lead to the development of anxiety disorders or PTSD, which can increase the chances of a reactive episode
  • Genetic predisposition - Certain dogs or breeds of dog have a slight predisposition to developing a reactive personality; terrier breeds tend to be reactive towards other dogs, and shepherding breeds are naturally more reactive to motion, particularly forward motion 
  • Physical disorders - Some physical disorders, particularly those that cause chronic pain, can elicit reactive behaviors, and disorders that affect the thyroid may cause your dog to be more anxious, increasing the chance of reactivity

Diagnosis of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

When visiting your veterinarian regarding behavioral issues such as reactivity, information will be collected for a complete behavioral history. The type of data that is needed for a complete behavioral history typically includes information about the patient’s sex and age as well as anything else that may be known about the breed of the canine and their medical history. Facts about the circumstances prior to reactive episodes will be very helpful in diagnosing any underlying conditions, as will information regarding your dog’s behavior after the incident is over. 

Details regarding the patient’s daily diet will be required, as well as any information regarding any new medications that have been introduced recently and the veterinarian will also need to know which corrective methods have already been tried and what the result of those methods was. As some cases of reactivity may have a physical or medical component as well, a thorough physical examination will also be completed, including standard diagnostic tests such as a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis.

Treatment of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

The treatment for reactivity issues will be dependent on both the severity as well as the underlying trigger for the behavior. Certain chronic reactivity issues can become potentially dangerous and should be addressed by a veterinary professional. The management for dogs with reactivity disorders should be a cooperative effort between a professional trainer or behaviorist and the animal’s owner. It is crucial not to scold or punish a dog for its reactive behaviors. Scolding your dog for behaviors that are motivated by fear generally tends to enforce their feelings and increase the chances that fearful behavior will develop into more aggressive reactions. A commonly utilized training method to treat fear and reactivity is known as desensitization, a method in which treats and praise are used in conjunction with the presence of the object of fear to cause the feared object to become a more positive and familiar presence and thereby reducing any reactivity related to it. 

Obedience training may also be employed to mitigate fear and anxiety, which will reduce the likelihood of a reactive response, and be used as a distraction from negative stimuli in a technique known as a counter-conditioning. In severe cases, behavioral therapy and training are not enough to calm the patient, and anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications may be recommended to calm your companion.

Recovery of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

Drugs that are administered to treat behavioral issues frequently take several weeks before they become fully effective, and it is essential that your veterinarian is aware of all of the other medications being administered to the patient. The way that canines metabolize medications can be very different from the way that a human metabolizes the medication and dosages can vary based on your dog’s specific response to the medication. Many antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications have contraindications with certain pain medications, antihistamines, and even herbal treatments. These drugs alone are rarely effective in eliminating challenging problem behaviors, and continuing with behavioral training will help your pet to become a happier and healthier individual.