Understanding Reactivity

Dog owners all over the world are experiencing what has be coined as "dog reactivity".

This term has been used to describe dogs who behave in an extreme, 'abnormal' or inappropriate manner; typically in public places (uncontrolled environments). 

Before attempting to minimize, manage or resolve the 'reactivity', it is imperative to identify how sensitization and potentiation effect behaviour. 

Potentiation is an increase in sensitivity to something due to previous exposure to something else. This is often the case for dogs who have become 'reactive' on-leash. The reaction from the first stimulus, lets say a honk of a car horn carries over to create a heightened reaction to the second stimulus, a dog walking passed. The handler often misses the initial behavioural indications from the first stimuli (the car horn) and simply assumes the dog is 'reactive' to the second stimuli (other dogs).

A human example of potentiation is a person walks around a corner and (as a joke) a friend jumps out and yells “BOO!” the person is frighten, freezes and steps back. Only one minute later a utensil falls off the counter on to the floor creating a loud noise, the person lets out a huge scream and jump back. The reaction to the utensil falling was far more exaggerated than it normally would have been, due to experience with the previous stimulus (friend jumping out from behind a corner).

Potentiation can sometimes be observed with the use of punitive-based handling tools. The dog sees another dog (stimuli one). He barks and charges to the end of his leash. The collar he is wearing compresses and pinches his neck (stimuli two) eliciting the dog to growl and bare his teeth (a heightened reaction).  

To avoid potentiation, owners must practice their observation skills and become aware of lower level 'reactivity'. By responding appropriately to these initial reactions, heightened reactions can be avoided. 

Sensitization is a natural increase in respondent behaviour over the course of several presentations of the same stimulus (particularly an aversive one).  Repeated contact with a consistent stimulus (typically an aversive stimulus) will elevate the subjects’ natural response (behaviour). In plain language, dog's will become more fearful, aggressive, reactive or even suppressed if they are repeatedly exposed to something unpleasant. 

Potentiation and sensitization differ in that during sensitization the stimulus (barking dog, screaming child, yelling man) remains the same and heightens his already established 'reactivity' to it, and in potentiation the dogs’ reaction to the first stimuli increases his reaction to one which follows.

To avoid sensitization, owners must be vigilant to not allow their dogs to have repeated exposure to known unpleasant stimuli. Instead, provide the dog with opportunities to be exposed to stimuli at a tolerable level and help to create a pleasant associations. These techniques are called systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.

 

TAKE AWAY NOTES:

  • Observe your dog's behaviour and respond before it escalates.
  • Don't set your up for failure by exposing them to stimuli you know will cause them to react.
  • Create opportunities for your dog to be exposed to stimuli at levels they can tolerate and make the experience pleasant. 

Watch for our next blog post- Using  Counter Conditioning to Reduce Reactivity.