Being aware of the Ladder of Aggression and dog communication is vital for every dog owner, but it’s even more crucial if you live with a dog who struggles to cope with stress or displays reactive behaviours. Whether your dog struggles with frustration-based reactivity or fear-based behaviours, identifying the signals is the first step of behavioural modification.
It’s impossible to change how your dog feels if you’re not able to identify those early warning signs and step in when your dog needs help. Reactive behaviours will not resolve themselves, and usually a reactive dog will only get worse unless careful management is put in place, ideally alongside a good training plan. It's also important to be aware that many reactive dogs will rarely get to the stage where they become a 'social butterfly' and many require lifelong management.
Where to Begin
Time and space are essential.
When it comes to reactivity, there is no quick-fix so prepare for a lengthy process of training and management. TIME is also crucial when you’re working with your dog. Keep your training sessions short and limit the time based on how your dog is coping … if stress is increasing, get out of the situation. TIME also covers your responses … if you are slow to react or notice what your dog is communicating then your dog is left experiencing stress for a longer duration so don’t take your eye off what is going on. Your TIMING could be the difference between keeping your dog in the green zone and him exploding up to RED.
SPACE is what every fearful dog is ultimately looking for. If your dog is worried by other dogs or people, his signals will be asking for SPACE. At any point on the ladder, the first reaction from you should be to create SPACE, when you have done this, you can then decide whether to work through the situation or get out of there!
Food and Reactivity
Using food treats in behavioural modification is really beneficial. You need something to reinforce your dog and food is usually the best way to go. Some dogs will do well with a toy or with a fuss, but building food motivation has many benefits besides simply creating good associations, so don’t underestimate the importance of this.
Firstly, food (or anything else your dog LOVES) will enable you to pair the stressful trigger with something pleasant and enjoyable. If your dog is worried by dogs or people, you can build a positive association by pairing the presence of the stressful trigger with food treats. For example, dog appears = food = good feelings!
With food, you can do lots of repetitions while keeping stress or excitement levels lower. Whereas a toy might hype your dog up or require a lengthier session of play, a food reward is quick and calm. If your dog becomes frustrated at the sight of another dog, you can pair the sight of the dog with sniffing for food on the floor. This gives your dog an alternative focus and helps him stay calm in the presence of the other dog.
One of the biggest benefits of using food treats is that it can indicate how your dog is coping. If your dog refuses to take a treat, it can be a clear signal that he’s feeling stressed and moving up the ladder.
What to Look For
When it comes to working with a reactive dog, the Four F’s are really important. When a dog is faced with a stressful situation, there are several ways they can choose to deal with it.
Flight responses are usually easy to spot, the dog may try to move away by running, creeping or hiding behind their owner. They may try to escape under an object or cower on the floor. Every dog will have a different flight distance for different triggers.
If he’s scared of people and dogs, he may take flight when he sees a dog 5 metres away but run away when a person is 10 metres away. Knowing your dog’s limits is vital. At what distance does he begin to show green zone signals, at what distance does the flight response take over?
When a flight response is stopped and the threat continues to approach, your dog will rapidly move up the ladder of aggression, and red-zone fight responses won’t be far away.
When a dog ‘freezes’, he doesn’t try to interact or control the environment or outcome, by freezing he can evaluate the situation from a distance before making a decision.
In a freeze response the dog won’t be able to respond easily to cues or signals from you, his body will have shut down everything except the flight or fight response so digestion is no longer important. The longer the dog is stuck in a freeze, the harder it will be to get him out and the more likely he is to progress to another stress reaction. Moving away from the trigger is the best thing to do.
A freeze may be prolonged, for example, sitting and refusing to move, or it might be a momentary freeze before he makes a decision of what to do next. Remember a ‘freeze’ can also occur near the top of the ladder of aggression, if your dog is in close proximity to a trigger, a brief freeze can occur just before a snap or bite.
This can be deceptive; the dog may look happy and playful but they may simply be overcompensating and attempting to diffuse the situation. It’s effectively the dog trying to ‘lighten the mood’. These behaviours can often be seen as inappropriate or silly, for example, jumping around, rolling on the floor or racing around. It can be hard to distinguish whether this is your dog showing a stress response or just having a good time.
Ultimately, you know your dog best. If he’s usually shy around new people and he starts to frantically lick them or bounce all around, he may be struggling to cope and benefit from a break from the situation. If your dog is usually 100% reliable at sitting when you say ‘sit’, but in a new situation he point blank refuses to respond or leaps in your face, he’s more likely to be showing a stress reaction than being stubborn.
A dog who is worried about interacting with a person may fool around in a bouncy, silly way, which may give the appearance of a happy dog enjoying the interaction. Look at the bigger picture though, is he bouncing in and out of the interaction, being stroked one second and then springing away the next? Or is he bouncing around, very excitable but choosing to stay close to the person? A dog who isn’t entirely comfortable will be in conflict which may be displayed as fidgety, frantic behaviours, while a dog who is just very excited is more likely to display a consistent response of wanting to be close to the person and involved in the interaction.
Watch the interaction as a whole. A dog who is in conflict is more likely to spring away in response to a hand reaching out or display frantic behaviours when being looked at or talked too. Racing off for ‘zoomies’ can often happen as a stress response in an interaction, or other displacement behaviours which can be mistaken for the dog simply losing interest, for example, sniffing the floor, going into a different room, playing with a toy alone.
When fidget or fool responses appear, getting some space from the situation is best. Take him away for a minute and calm him down with some scatter feeding or training activities he enjoys, and then re-enter the situation (if appropriate) but be ready to watch for those early warning signs and keep more space, or increase your rewards and support to help keep his stress levels down.
Fight responses are usually the last resort, the dog will have tried everything else possible but is left with no choice but to defend himself. At this point, your dog is too far gone to process anything you may be doing so your best option is to get out the situation as quick as possible. He is well over the threshold of stress and will now need help to calm down and relax again. Don’t return to the stressful situation if possible, and take him to safer space where he can relax.
If your dog has started to bark, lunge, growl or snap, don’t attempt to work through the situation or punish him for his behaviour. He is way over threshold and whether you try to give him a treat or shout ‘NO’, he won’t be capable of processing the information. By telling him off, you will only be adding to his stress levels and creating an even more negative association with the stressful situation.
Don’t hesitate to MOVE AWAY. Once you’re at a safe distance and your dog is beginning to relax, you can follow with some calm activities like scatter feeding or training games. Some dogs will need a considerable amount of time to relax after a fight response so the best option is to get home and allow him to rest.
What if I’m Stuck?
Unfortunately, you may be trying your best to help your dog, but not everyone is respectful of that. There will be some unavoidable situations where your dog is pushed beyond his limits or you find yourself in an impossible place.
Where possible, be selective about where you take your dog. If he’s worried by other dogs, don’t go to the busy dog park where everyone is there for their dogs to have a social party, they’re unlikely to respect that your dog doesn’t want to join in. Find places where people are generally more aware and have better control of their dogs … easier said than done, but certain times of day or locations will be better for this.
If your dog is worried by people, don’t head into the busy town centre or the park where everyone is having a picnic. Start in quieter locations and build up to the busier places.
Avoid getting into trapped situations, for example, narrow paths, sharp corners, or busy entrances and exits to walking areas. If these are unavoidable, don’t try to push on and pass in close proximity, you will be setting your dog up to fail and it’s essential to avoid putting your dog into these situations as much as possible. Turn the other way and walk away until you find a wide enough space to maintain your dog’s safe distance. You can use visual barriers if needed, for example, parked cars, trees, bushes or walls. Keep feeding your dog until the trigger has passed or bring out an ‘emergency’ back up, for example, a favourite toy or extra special treat which will keep your dog focused while you’re passed in closer proximity. Distraction alone is not an effective way to change reactive behaviour but it can be highly effective in emergency situations!
If you are approached by a dog or person, don’t hang around waiting to see what will happen, quickly turn and move away. Keep rewarding as you go or scatter feed once you’re at a safe distance. Teaching a ‘let’s go’ cue can help with these quick turns and encourage your dog to stay focused on you while ignoring the approaching trigger.
Using visual warning can help, although sometimes these draw unwanted attention or make no difference, it’s always worth a try though! There is a wide range of jackets, lead slips, bandanas and all sorts which can signal ‘nervous’ or ‘I need space’ and help make it clearer to other dog owners or members of the public.
Remember, behavioural modification takes months or years (and most of the time, it's lifetime management with little improvements along the way), there is no quick fix and setbacks are a common part of the process. Working with an experienced, force-free trainer can be hugely beneficial. Not only will they be able to help you find the best methods for your dog, they can also give you more confidence by showing you how to deal with tricky situations, how to help your dog, and how to stay calm during the process.
At Adolescent Dogs, we regularly work with reactive dogs and their owners, and we are always here to give advice or work through the challenges together, so get in touch with us!
Written by Naomi White