On April 27th, 2022, Petminded invited certified professional dog trainer Maddie Messina, MA CPDT-KA, to talk about post-pandemic reactivity. It was timely and valuable, knowing that many dog guardians struggle with fearful or reactive behavior displays during the pandemic (2020-2022).
Personally, my journey into learning about this concept started when I chanced upon the word “reactivity” on Instagram. I was browsing through dog-related content when I saw a photo of a large adolescent female wearing a muzzle. The caption detailed the guardian’s journey through managing and dealing with this dog’s triggers.
As they described what reactivity looks like, things began to “click” in my mind. What this dog was experiencing and how they responded were exactly how my dogs would experience and react to the elements in their environment. That post moved me to dive deeper into reactivity. And, after learning more, I no longer felt helpless about how I could best help my dogs get through their emotional moments
So, when I heard about Maddie's Office Hours topic, I jumped at the opportunity to get a professional’s perspective on reactivity. The talk did not disappoint! Here are my 6 takeaways from the discussion:
Socialization is safe exposure to sights, sounds, smells, and interactions with people and other animals. Unfortunately, lockdowns and safety protocols limited the opportunities for our dogs to safely socialize, train, and learn about the outside world.
Although there’s no exact consensus on why reactivity occurs, there’s emerging evidence that lack of socialization, activity, or training paired with living in a busy, urban environment factor into dog's insecurity and social fearfulness. Knowing this, we can help our dogs cope with the various stimuli in their environment by filling these gaps.
According to Mardi Richmond, CPDT-KA, “a behavior threshold is…when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another.” In behavior modification, there are three levels of thresholds:
There are several factors that can impact your dog’s threshold levels such as distance from triggers, having your dog’s needs met, stress levels, or how many triggers have stacked up in that moment.
Maddie shared some great illustrations of what crossing from one threshold to another looks like. She then described how reactivity treatments and modification plans increase the dog’s ability to observe and process their environment without going over threshold. Ultimately, your dog will tell you what they need to stay under or at threshold. This requires reading their body language to know when to move them away from triggers.
Triggers in the environment can easily stack up and against your dog. This can occur on walks (seeing other dogs, squirrels, skateboarders, joggers) or in the home (for example: noisy garbage truck, a dog walking by, leaf blower). Being left alone, visits to the vet, or car rides may also cause your dog stress.
Maybe one of these occurrences wouldn't be a big deal, but several in a short time period can build on each other, leading to what is called trigger stacking. Before you know it, your dog is pacing, barking, panting, and struggling to calm down.
Management is setting up the environment to prevent your dog from engaging in the behaviors you want to avoid. When working with reactivity, management is your best friend because you’re proactively making changes to the environment, so your dog remains successful.
Management can be teaching your dog an emergency U-turn should another dog rush towards you. It can also be a treat scatter to keep your dog’s nose to the ground and their brains busy while the trigger passes by. These are techniques that are taught and practiced in safe enviornments like your home until they are second nature. Then they can be utilized during potentially triggering ones out in the world.
I first learned about Leslie McDevitt’s pattern games when I joined Calm Canine Academy’s puppy classes a year ago. These games were both easy for my puppies to learn successfully and were a great start to building their reinforcement history.
What I learned later was how pattern games, such as the 1-2-3, were useful with helping dogs struggling with reactivity. They add predictability to the situation where at the count of 3, my dogs will always receive a reward. When done well and practiced consistently, your dog would instantly focus on your count instead of fixating on their triggers.
Working with reactivity is hard. The sight of a trigger at a distance can send your heart racing. Listening to your dog barking and lunging leaves you feeling defeated and helpless.
The journey is arduous, but I feel assured knowing I’m not alone and there are humane solutions to help our dogs feel safe in this big and scary world. I’m thankful I got to learn from Maddie’s expertise and other guardians’ stories and experiences with reactivity.
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Stephanie Gonzaga is a Petminded community member, a positive reinforcement advocate, and the founder of Diwa Dogs (@diwadogstraining). She’s studying to be a R+ dog trainer, so she can help Filipino dog guardians build trust and live harmoniously with their companions.