Many dog owners wrongly believe that they have an aggressive dog, when in reality they simply have a reactive dog that can be easily trained to behave better. This misunderstanding of the huge difference between aggression and reactivity in dogs is a common issue we see as trainers. We discuss how to recognize the difference between aggression and reactivity in your dog.
One of the most common calls we get, or actually when people are here dropping off their dogs, and their dogs have never been with other dogs, is they’ll say, “Well I think my dog’s aggressive,” or, “He’s aggressive when we’re out on a walk,” or, “He’s aggressive, he’s aggressive, he’s aggressive.” And, my number one question is, is it when you’re around, or is it when the dog’s on leash. So there’s a huge difference between aggression and reactivity.
If someone tells me that their dog is behaving aggressively, I’m gonna have a series of additional questions. I want them to describe to me exactly what behavior is happening, that they’re labeling aggression. Sometimes we have people that come in and say that their puppy is nipping them, like we talked about earlier, puppy nipping, and they’ll call that aggression. Well, that’s not really true aggression.
Or he growls.
Yeah, or maybe he growled at me when I reached to take a bone away from him, or he was barking and lunging at another dog while we were out for a walk. So, these are all typical scenarios that someone might say, “My dog is behaving aggressively,” and I want to really get a good definition from that person of what that behavior looks like before I go any further.
So after we have a definition of what reactivity is and what aggression is, most of the times it’s not aggression, and reactivity is a lot easier to fix than aggression. And, reactivity is basically just, it’s a history of what the dog’s been reinforced for. So, if I’m walking the dog, and he sees another dog coming, and he growls one time or he starts to bark at the other dog, as a owner, typically humans are quick to react, so there’s your first part of the reactivity. So, they’ll say something to the dog, they may touch the dog, there’s definitely a pull on the leash. So, they’re looking at the dog, talking to the dog, or touching the dog, and all three of those are a reward for the dog. They’re negative, but the dog will take that as, okay, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, and it just sort of escalates from there, so. Three months later, you’re out walking your dog, half a mile down the road you see a big, bad dog coming towards you and you immediately will start to tighten the leash and pull the dog back, and your dog may just be sniffing around and just walking and not even see the other dog but, that tug on the leash or the tightening of the leash is a cue because in the past, that has told the dog something is about to happen. So, immediately he starts looking around, he’s like, “Got it, there he is, there’s the dog.” And so, he starts to posture, he starts pulling on the leash, he may start barking, he may start growling, and you again reward it with either a really hard pull on the leash, or talking to the dog louder, or grabbing the dog, or basically reinforcing the behavior that you don’t want. And so, you’re basically teaching the dog to be reactive. Same thing with people knocking on the front door. Dogs are taught to bark at a front door because the mail man comes or a stranger comes, they knock on the door, the dog freaks out, bark bark bark bark bark, and eventually the person, nobody at home, they walk away. And so the owner, I’m sorry, the dog thinks, “Okay, well I did my job, I just had to keep barking until that person went away.” So, just the fact that somebody knocks on your door, the dog barks and then the dog gets what he wants, which is them leaving, that’s reinforcing. So, the dogs are taught to be reactive that way, so most reactive behaviors are taught to the dog by us. They react one way, but we reinforce it to where it becomes a problem.