The "Over-Reactive" Dog
"Hi, I'm Cailín and I'm a *reactive* dog."
As owners, trainers, people, we're quick to label things. We often feel that once something has a name, it's justified, it's ok, it's not *our* fault. We like categorising and putting things into neat little boxes.
When Cailín is frightened, or put in an uncomfortable situation, her first reaction is to bark and back away, but if she can't she'll lunge at the big scary thing in order to put distance between it and her. We've spent a long time working with her to reduce the amount of things, people and dogs that provoke this reaction, but on a bad day, when we've both slipped up, she'll react like this.
"Your dog's aggressive."
Although she may sometimes show tendencies that could be labelled aggressive, like barking and lunging, she's not an "aggressive" dog. She's a black dog, she's a curly dog, she's a medium-sized dog, she's a female dog, she's an intelligent dog. These are all adjectives, just like *aggressive* but they describe her state of being. Aggressive does not.
The first time she meets someone, she's cautious and needs her space. We take a short walk together and within a few minutes, in her own time, she'll decide to greet them, and voila! You've got a best friend for life. She'll smother you with kisses and bring you gifts of toys and whatever else she can get her mouth around.
"My dog's reactive."
I used to say this because it made me feel better. I felt like if she reacted "wrongly", and I said it, it wasn't my fault. The reality is, it's no one's fault.
Dogs are just the same, they are constantly reacting to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches.
The difference is that she reacts differently, or in our mind she over-reacts to certain stimuli. However, life isn't a mathematical equation. We don't have a set of inter-species global rules for how to react when put in a certain situation. There is no right or wrong reaction.
I try to be nice person, and would certainly not call myself aggressive. However, if you spill a warm coffee on my lap, I'm going to get annoyed. In reality, it's not that big a deal, it's coloured water. It hasn't done me any damage, but I'm probably going to jump up and start flailing around looking for a way to clean it, while all the time tutting and fussing. You might think I'm over-reacting. To me, it's a perfectly natural reaction, but to you it may be exaggerated, even aggressive. But, would you call me in general an over-reactive person? Probably not.
Now I just say, "She needs space."
Let's lose the labels, they're not helping anyone. If your dog is showing aggressive tendencies, let's break it down in a way that can help you, your dog, and a trainer. Let's look at what exactly your dog is doing, and why they are doing it. A dog labelled aggressive may be wonderful with people but terrified of other dogs. Another "aggressive" dog may be a frustrated collie who is trying to herd cars and cyclists. When we say they're aggressive, when do we really mean? Are they barking at kids? Have they bitten another dog when they came running up towards them? By looking at the problem in a different light, it can help us to find a solution.