Reactivity is not a life choice!
‘It’s OK, he’s friendly!’ Have you ever shouted that to someone approaching with their dog on lead?? Do you know why that dog is on lead?
Dogs are kept on leads for a huge number of reasons, they may be recovering from an injury, an operation, have arthritis and are in pain, they may have no recall so can’t be trusted!
They may have been attacked by another dog and they are now ‘reactive’ to approaching dogs. It is important as a dog owner to respect other owners’ decision to keep them on lead and ensure your dog doesn’t approach or make the on lead dog feel uncomfortable.
When you read reactive, I want you to see frightened. Most dogs are not aggressive, when our dogs are frightened, like us their sympathetic nervous system kicks in, that means their fight, flight or freeze response takes over, just like us.
In a normal calm relaxed state, the parasympathetic nervous system is in play, and everything is even and calm in the body, often known as rest and digest. Once that sympathetic nervous system is activated our dogs that are on lead lose the option of flight, some freeze but most will go with the fight reflex. Their logic is be big and scary and you will frighten the scary thing away from you! It works, how many times have you seen a dog bouncing on the end of the lead lunging forward and thought, I will give them a wide birth!
For our dogs that are reactive (frightened) generally of other dogs their body becomes a cocktail of chemicals as cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin are released into the blood stream as their sympathetic nervous system is enacted. Imagine every time you went out on your walk you had to deal with the scariest thing in the world, over and over again.
OK, I want you to think of something you are really, really scared of, spider, mice, rats, whatever it is! For me I have a rather ridiculous phobia of moths – don’t ask! Now I want you to imagine what ever that scary thing is has been released by someone so it can run to you and them telling you it is fine, they are friendly?
Feels really uncomfortable doesn’t it? If a moth is in the same room as me, my sympathetic nervous system kicks in big time. My heart rate increases, I shake with the chemicals racing in my blood stream and it takes me a good while to try and calm down. Think back to the last time you had a really big fright, when your hands were shaking, your breath was fast and short, your heart rate was racing.
Clearly this is not a great experience for those frightened dogs, and it is really hard for the owners of these dogs who often feel isolated and judged by other dog owners. They regularly suffer verbal abuse from other dog owners who cannot recall their dog away, this is largely due to embarrassment as their dog will not listen to them and continues to harass the on lead dog.
Recall is an extremely important aspect of a dogs training, and if your dog has not got a reliable recall, then you have to put them on a long line so you can ensure they do not approach on lead dogs. This is not only a good idea, but it is the law. We have to be in control of our dogs at all times in public spaces, and that includes not allowing our dogs to harass other dogs or other people that are walking in the area. If you are reported and found to be out of control of your dog, you can end up in serious trouble.
If you see a dog with the yellow bib/bandana, or a yellow sign on their lead, give them space, remember reactivity is not a choice our dogs make but is born out of fear, they are not aggressive, they are defending themselves as they are trapped on lead. Given a choice most dogs would run away from conflict, they don’t want to get into a fight and get injured any more than we do.
If you are lucky enough to have a dog that is friendly, robust and happy go lucky, then spare a thought for those owners who bought a dog with that very picture in mind. It doesn’t really matter why they are ‘reactive’ they are and those owners that stick by their dog and work through their emotional issues are to be applauded, doing the best they can to give the dog they love the best life possible.
Reactivity is a behaviour; it is not the whole dog. Those dogs that you see as ‘out of control’ reacting on their lead are loving, cuddly, adorable pets when they feel safe and secure in their own space. They have the right to feel safe on their walks, same as everyone else.
The next time you see a dog on lead, call your dog back, get them on lead, offer that owner as they approach reassuring their dog a nod of recognition for their hard work helping that dog live their best life. They love their dog just as much as you love yours, and they want to give them the best life possible, why not help them?
If you have a reactive dog and need help and support reach out to your local dog trainer who will understand be able to give you support and a structure to help your dog improve and feel safe.
Find out more about yellow being the universal sign that a dog needs space, at https://www.yellowdoguk.co.uk/
If you have any questions for Yvonne about training your dog, email [email protected] and we will get you some answers.