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Reactive Dog? Aggressive Dog? What’s the difference?

Reactive Dog? Aggressive Dog? What’s the difference?

Aggressive dog snarlingThe terms, “Reactive” and “Aggressive” are sometimes used interchangeably. Neither word defines the dog, but both words describe behaviour which is very often rooted in fear, and rarely, in dysfunctional social skills.

The only way to fix reactive dog behaviour permanently is to change the emotional response of the dog to the scary thing is by carefully applying a program of progressive counterconditioning and desensitization and having the dog practice self control through specialized interactive games. Changing reactivity to non reactive, calm behaviour requires changing the dog’s emotional response to a perceived threat, whether we are dealing with leash reactivity, resource guarding, or any other situation where the dog becomes aggressive.

Why not just correct the dog with a tug on a training collar, or another physical or verbal correction when he acts aggressively? There are several good reasons not to correct your dog for aggression. The first is that most dogs will figure out that when scary things approach, you become aggressive and confusing. This will stress a dog more, and the dog will often learn to associate the scary thing with stress and getting a physical correction. Then when you aren’t around, the aggressive behaviour tends to increase, and new anxiety related behaviour may show up. Science has shown that dogs who are trained through the use of corrections are more likely to show an increase in aggressive behaviour. Since the early 21st century, at least two published studies have found that dog aggression and anxiety behaviours increased when punitive training methods were used.** Meghan Herron and her colleagues from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reported in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science that using punishing techniques when training dogs tends to increase the aggression in the animals, rather than decreasing it.** Not surprisingly, dogs trained using corrections don’t learn as quickly as dogs trained using positive reinforcement with a scientifically designed training protocol. One study even found that most owner directed aggression would cease when the dog owner stopped using physical corrections in training.

The only long term, effective approach to training a reactive dog is always to use a counterconditioning and desensitization protocol.

How long will it take? The time it takes to thoroughly fix any behaviour problem depends on the individual dog, owner compliance to the training program, and how many times the behaviour has repeated itself successfully before the training program began. While improvement is typically seen after the first session, each repetition of the new, calm behaviour will help to make the threat response disappear for good. It can take up to 3 months of practicing controlled repetitions before the new, confident, controlled and relaxed emotions are solid enough to be reliable.

** Dog Training Methods: Their Use, effectiveness and interaction with dog behaviour and and welfare, EF Hibey et al, Journal of Animal Welfare (2004)
**Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Meghan E. Herron *, Frances S. Shofer, Ilana R. Reisner, Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour (2009)

Hormones and dog aggression

Hormones and dog aggression

What makes some dogs calm and chill, while other

Pitbulldogs flip out when they are in the presence  of dogs, people or other perceived threats in their environment?  Scientists all over the world are unravelling more and more mysteries of dog behaviour.  As a dog nerd, I was excited to find out that  recent research  at University of Arizona led by Evan MacLean linked the presence of two different hormones in the blood to behavioural changes.

 

MacLean and his collaborators looked specifically at oxytocin and vasopressin — hormones that are also found in humans — and found that they may play an important role in shaping dogs’ social behavior.

Why is this important to us dog owners? Well, Oxytocin (the love hormone) is found in higher levels in non-reactive dogs, in this case service dogs with no history of aggression.  Aggressive reactivity is found in dogs with elevated Vasopressin levels.

 

 

Blood levels of Oxytocin can be increased through bonding, food rewards and other positive experiences. In order to help aggressive dogs get on the right track with behaviour, veterinary scientists may soon be exploring ways to suppress the vasopressin system, so it doesn’t create as much of that hormone. But for most dogs, vasopressin can reduced, and oxytocin increased, simply by positive interactions with people.

“Previous work shows dog-human friendly interactions can create a release in oxytocin in dogs, and when dogs interact with people, we see that their vasopressin levels go down over time,” MacLean said. “These are bidirectional effects. It’s not just that when we’re petting a dog, the dog is having this hormonal response — we’re having it, too.”

Combative, dominance oriented approaches to treating dog behaviour simply don’t work unless it is repeated constantly over the life of the dog.  What a miserable way to live for both dog and human.

 

Evan Maclean’s studies of Oxytocin levels in dogs with aggressive behaviour will hopefully help to dispel some common mythology surrounding dog behaviour and training.  When we get dogs to calm down by using compassionate and kind training methods that include game based, bonding exercises, we can actually affect the levels of the hormones that cause bonding and aggression.  How cool is that anyway?