A reactive dog is the term used to describe one who is fearful and uses aggression to communicate this. Behaviour is not fixed, it changes from moment to moment, so we don't use the term aggressive dog because that assigns a hard-to-remove unhelpful label when explaining why the dog is behaving that way.
If a dog is not fearful but confident and behaving aggressively, we still refer to the behaviour as the issue and not the dog. Those dogs might have learnt aggression feels good, but where did it begin? Are they protective (underline element of fear perhaps?) or impulsive to predatory instincts (a natural behaviour that can be controlled through training).
During puppyhood there are critical stages of development when their brain begins to see potential dangers in its surroundings; everything seems a bit scary all of a sudden. Should a person scare them during this time they may form the belief that in general all people are dangerous and should be avoided (by any means necessary). Same goes for those who encounter a few little scary things, stacking them up to feel overwhelming, they don't always bounce back well but instead form the belief that the world as a whole is a dangerous place.
Fearful beliefs can form at any point within a dogs life. Just like people, dogs can respond to things in extreme, irational and seemingly unreasonable ways, either through retreat, freeze or defence. In behaviour science, we term this a stress response also known as the 4 F's; Fight, Flight, Freeze and Flirt (about with conflict i.e humping etc). So when a fear feels very real the brain sends out an alarm warning which sends the body into self-protect mode. When a dog learns they cannot avoid the 'monster' (on lead/ indoors), they opt for a louder way to achieve safety - aggression!
Not all reactive dogs have suffered a notable negative experience, sometimes they become overwhelmed over time - the straw that broke the camels back. Developing reactivity can come from being exposed to too much information too soon, so they begin to avoid/ deflect the presenting perpetrator (through aggression) or if they feel their is no relief they can supress their emotions to cope. This is Learned Helplessness is The 'shut down' dogs can easily go unnoticed because its not always easy to recognise, they can be meak, overly-pleasing, and generally 'well behaved' and quiet. Those dogs can bite 'out of the blue' for owners to realise their dog is unhappy.
When a pup or adult dog is made to manage more than they feel able to in one sitting (overwhelmed), they feel stressed, helpless and unable to freely express how they feel. This is known as 'Flooding' and is a highly dangerous attempt to socialise a dog. Being dropped into a deep pool without armbands may teach you to swim through fear for your life and if you survive it's likely you'll develop a fear of being submersed, regardless of the adults present. Flooding can sometimes work with people but very rarely for dogs, they just bottle up their emotions and express their fear later through another behaviour or by suddenly biting someone/ dog.
Dog's have their limits, the capacity at which they can handle information (excitment/ stress). This is called their threshold and beyond that point they simply cannot behave camly or think strait. A good way to remember this is how a bath can only take so much water before it floods the bathroom, it reached capacity. For a dog to successfully manage a situation they need preparing and they need to have a certain amount of consent to what happens to them, they need to feel in control to feel safe, they need to learn coping skills, just as anyone would when facing an unfamiliar/ unpredicatble/ fear-evoking situation.
Reactive dogs are wildly misunderstood. My current dog, Chester, is human-reactive although you wouldn't see that in him because of the sort of management and ongoing training we have in place. I've eyes in the back of my head and ensure he has sufficient space so he never feels trapped and under pressure to defend himself/ me. I've also taught him a lot of healthy coping mechanisms and skills for him to use in place of using aggression. He used to be scared of birds, bushes, kites, dogs, cars, unknown noises and the coffee grinder; using aggression to keep himself from harm. By using reward-based techniques to create neutral/ positive associations he is no longer reactive to these previously terrifying triggers. He is visibly braver, more tolerant, more trusting and he bounces back quicker should something scare him. This transformation didn't seem possible for quite some time but here we are, enjoying life.
It's not easy living with a reactive dog. We're often judged as bad owners because of our 'bad dogs'.
Reactive dogs are most definitely not bad dogs... they are struggling dogs and we all deserve the right kind of support. It really does take a team to rehab a reactive dog. If you're ready for the next step, get in touch.