I met Derek for the first time at my consultation appointment with his pet parents. Derek is large, strong, young, and at times, rambunctious as well as sweet, loving, gentle, and curiously eager to have my attention. This was my professional assessment/evaluation during our one-hour introductory meeting and as far as my interaction with and assessment of Derek over the past two months; that has not changed.
Two isolated and not entirely different situations focused on introducing Derek to a new guest in their home, resulting in an act of aggression. In this story, the end will come before the middle. Derek was what his pet parents describe as calm and then suddenly for no apparent reason, displayed aggression. Derek growled and then bit. Is Derek aggressive or reactive? Derek is not aggressive. He is reactive.
When is a dog considered aggressive? A dog is labeled aggressive when it has bitten or has the propensity to attack a person or another animal without provocation.
Aggressive? Or Reactive? A dog that overreacts to a trigger is considered to be a reactive dog, not an aggressive dog. However, without behavioral conditioning, as part of training, a reactive dog may become aggressive. A trigger can be any sudden movement, a new guest in your home, a dog across the street, or a child flailing their arms. Those are only a few examples.
An aggressive dog needs no provocation or trigger.
Provocation is considered to be someone doing something deliberately to invoke a reaction from another. A trigger can be a human or other animal or an inanimate object like a baseball cap or sound like a doorbell. An example of a non-provoking includes a person sitting and then standing up or a person reaching to pet a dog. This can be a trigger for a reactive dog. If your dog growls, it is a precursor to a quick nip of an extended hand offered as a friendly gesture. As in the story of Derek, this was one of the scenarios. Derek growled and displayed a body language that screamed “stay away”. Growling is a warning. Without growling you have a fire without smoke. If a dog does not seek affection or displays unfriendly, fearful, stoic, or posturing, heed the warning and stay away. Being a dog lover doesn’t always guarantee a return of affection. The truth is, not all dogs want or like interacting with strangers.
It is the pet parent’s responsibility to know their dog. Learning your dog’s body language affords priceless non-verbal, visual communication. If your dog is reactive when approached by new people, be your dog’s advocate and speak up for him. Always better safe than sorry, simply tell the approaching person not to approach. Keep a safe distance between your dog and the triggers that may cause unwanted reactions. This is not in lieu of behavioral conditioning/training.
This dog is confident, safe, happy, nonaggressive and nonreactive, and well trained.
Bipolar. Dogs are not bipolar. Being “bipolar” is a human mental health condition characterized by periods of extreme mania as well as periods of extreme depression with no symptoms of either in-between. Bipolar disorders are internal changes and not triggered by the environment, another person, or animal.
Rage Syndrome. A rare and dangerous syndrome of violent, uncontrollable aggression, known also as “idiopathic” meaning unknown. It is not the result of trigger or provocation. Rage syndrome is believed to be neurological, genetic, and inherited. Some breeds are more prone to Rage Syndrome than other breeds.
Dominant. A dominant dog tries to be in control of another dog or a person. He wants to be the leader. Dominance is not aggression in and of itself. If the actions of a dominant dog are not modified, it can lead to an aggressive/reactive act.
Puppy Aggression. Puppies are rarely aggressive. They are just being puppies and may demonstrate dominance as they would during playtime with other puppies. All puppies are mouthy and nip, but these are behaviors that are correctable through handling, socialization, and techniques that prevent guarding resources.
Leash aggression. Fight or flight is the best way to describe a leashed dog’s behavior when they lunge, bark, or growl at another dog or a person. That overreaction of unwanted behavior is a warning to stay away and is usually fear-related. Some fearful dogs will bolt and run or hide and cower behind their pet parent. Because the leash prohibits flight, and a fearful dog prefers flight to fight, his only choice may be to send a warning to stay away.
What to do to help a reactive dog? Two training techniques help a reactive dog to be less reactive. The first technique is Exposure Therapy. This technique is a method of desensitizing. By exposing your dog to the trigger that unnerves him or makes him uncomfortable enough to overreact, he will be able to comfortably handle more normal situations. Exposure Therapy can easily be done by the pet parent when the trigger is not a person or a dog. By that I mean, if your dog is panic-stricken with the first clap of thunder, you can download a recording of a thunderstorm and play it as low as possible while distracting him with something he likes. As he improves his reaction or has no reaction to the recorded thunder, you can increase the volume slowly.
When the trigger is a human or animal, it’s best to seek the help of a trainer who can accompany you to a more populated area like a shopping center where your dog is exposed to large numbers of people or dogs. I always start by teaching the dog in my charge to pass another dog or a person calmly without even turning their head to look at the trigger.
The second technique is Counter Conditioning. In this training method, a favorable distraction is used to neutralize the overreaction. In more extreme cases, both methods can be used in conjunction.