Nutmeg's reactivity journey
Updated: May 17
Reactivity - What Does it Look Like
While Nutmeg has had a number of issues the worst by far was her reactivity to dogs.
What do I mean by reactivity: Nutmeg behaved abnormally when she saw another dog, her behaviour was far beyond a normal response to the dog seen (stimulus) and involved a display of aggressive behaviours. Her emotional state was one of fear and stress.
It would be normal for Nutmeg to make a note of approaching dogs, to look at their body language and determine if there is any danger, it could be normal for her to feel a little worried and prefer not to meet the dog, perhaps a quick bark, raised hackles and other signals that she does not want to engage such as a stiffening of the body, a lowering of her head and body stance, all this would be normal. What we got was lunging, ferocious barking, spinning around on the end of the lead and she had no ability to focus on anything else, even the best of meaty or cheesy treats meant nothing. This behaviour continued until the dog was well past her. This would occur if the dog was on the other side of the road and still some 10 meters away. As soon as she spotted the other dog, however far away it was down the road, the warning signs started, she wouldn't take treats, she stared at the approaching dog, started pulling on the lead and was primed to go into full lunge mode.
I would not describe Nutmeg as an aggressive dog, but one who shows aggressive behaviours because she is afraid and she wants the other dog to go away. (noting currently (Apr 22) this behaviour is largely a thing of the past - and towards the end of it it could well have been more a response out of habit rather than stress/fear related)
Reactivity - What is actually happening
Behind Nutmeg's display was a normal behaviour which in the presence of real danger would be invaluable. A 'fight or flight' response.
Farricelli (2021) states that "the fight or flight response is a physiological reaction (not under conscious control) that occurs when an animal or human feels threatened". She further explains that in the presence of perceived danger the body reacts which includes the release of hormones, increased heart rate and breathing, heightened senses and other physiological changes designed to help the subject get out of danger. There are other responses in the face of danger such as freezing. While in this state a dog will not be able to focus on anything else, such as responding to a cue or taking treats.
Nutmeg's response was 'fight', being on lead she would believe 'flight' was not possible, her breed mix may predispose her to 'fight' rather than any other response, her choice may be influenced by experience, a belief that this response works given other dogs have passed by and not hurt her. Thus reactivity is, under certain scenarios, normal (if another dog off lead actually was going to attack her), but Nutmeg's response was often not normal, it was irrational as it occured under scenarios where danger was not obviously present (a dog on the other side of the road 20 metres away).
The key here is to understand Nutmeg had entered a state of high stress, believing there was danger present, and her reaction was an unconscious response. A response from the 'back brain' where action took over thought, rather than 'front' brain involving thought and decision making. She had fear based reactivity and the only reasonable action to take was to move her away from the perceived danger so she could come out of the stressed state.
Farricelli, Adrienne (April 2021) Understanding the Dog Fight or Flight Response [online] PetHelpful. Available from Understanding the Dog Fight or Flight Response - PetHelpful [Accessed June 2021]
Reactivity - Why did Nutmeg experience this irrational fear?
This could be considered irrelevant, the issue was there and needed dealing with, why it started may not matter however it is something I have considered.
My thoughts (and when I look at all this it's a wonder she is as normal as she is now !)
Could be based simply on genes, that she is descended from dogs that had a higher sense of fear to their environment. Some breeds are more sensitive to their environment than others. She may have come from a long line of dogs surviving on the streets, dogs with a heightened sense of danger would survive better.
She is 25% Taigan which is a Russian Hunting Dog (DNA test done), she may have Carpathian Shepherd Dog in her or another Romanian herding dog. These are breeds which need to be highly sensitive to the environment around them and aware of dangers to do their jobs. As she got older (into adolescence) her natural instincts may have developed.
Nutmeg was born in Romania, found on the street in a box with 3 siblings. Her mother may have experienced fear herself and passed on some improved survival mechanisms (an increased ability to respond to danger) through something called epigenetics, which is like 'add-on DNA'.
She may not have been well socialised by her mother in the critical first 8 weeks of her life, we don't know what she and her mother experienced in that time. Those critical early weeks may have been difficult for her and her mother.
Dogs experience a number of fear periods in their life, mainly stated as one between 8-10 weeks of age, which is when a puppy is starting to move away from its mother and needs to be very aware of any dangers. Then a second period which will last a few weeks, somewhere between 6 and 14 months of age (dependent on breed) and would hark back to when wolves were becoming part of the hunting pack and needed to be very aware of their environments and possible dangers. During these periods anything which causes the dog to be afraid will have a significant impact on them. With Nutmeg she was left on the street in a box at approximately 8 weeks of age, no doubt a terrifying experience, she then had Parvovirus and had to go through veterinary procedures to recover, again frightening for a small and weak puppy and running throughout that critical 'fear imprint stage'. Nutmeg's reactivity increased between 11 and 14 months of age and this may well have been happening as she went through the second fear stage. Anything causing a dog to be fearful during this phase needs to be handled well so it does not have a lasting impact, unfortunately I didn't handle it as well as I would now as I didn't understand it.
It is possible when it started it was less fear based reactivity and actually something known as 'frustrated greeter' reactivity, which is when the dog is on lead and frustrated they can not get to the other dog to play, at the time I felt this was the case as she was fine at Doggy Daycare. The Daycare may well have been the issue as it allowed her to run around all day off-lead with other dogs, so she expected to also be able to run around with any dog met outside the Daycare. While it may have started as frustration at some point it changed to fear based, possibly because she started to find the 'frustrated greeter' moments unpleasant.
When the reactivity started, as I had no understanding of how it should be handled, I would not avoid interactions with other dogs, I did not understand the importance of getting her back to 'under threshold' which is far enough from the other dog for her to return to calm. She was being yanked on the lead, shouted at and several times as she lunged I fell over and sometimes on top of her which was always a shock for both of us. These early experiences taught her that the oncoming dog did predict unpleasant consequences and thus she perhaps became even more likely to react to try and avoid the chain of events to follow.
Nutmeg has always been a barker, she is super sensitive to anyone or anything approaching the house, I would call it guarding behaviour and part of her genetic makeup. This behaviour, which when she was younger I did not greatly discourage, has taught her that barking does cause the 'thing' or person to go away as in the vast majority of situations the subject of her concern does continue to pass our house and not get any closer. Thus she has practised, a lot, the behaviour of telling something to go away and being successful.
Farricelli, Adrienne (May 2021) Understanding Fear Periods in Dogs [online] PetHelpful. Available from Understanding Fear Periods in Dogs - PetHelpful [Accessed June 2021]
Reactivity - What we do to cope with and improve the issue
When a dog has a stressful encounter they need time to recover. This may take a couple of days for the stress hormones to reduce. During these days the dog needs to be kept calm, avoid walking anywhere where other dogs will be encountered, if needed don't walk the dog for a few days, or even a couple of weeks. Games and training in the garden can be done instead. It was important for us to get Nutmeg and Luna used to being walked separately as they could trigger each other, they still had time together in the garden, in secure fields and on walks where we didnt expect to meet people and dogs. As the issues has reduced so much now we can again walk them together. Dogs find chewing, sniffing and licking good de-stressing activities and plenty of sleep and quiet time.
Decompression walks are great for any dog that has any stress, which means going somewhere quiet, put the dog on a long line and just let them sniff around. Nutmeg and I have found lots of new areas to walk, within a 10 minute drive, where we rarely encounter anyone and we have some great walks together. It was lovely to spend a few hours just tracking rabbits and squirrels and not worrying about avoiding people, a local Business park with a plentiful supply of paths and rabbits and no people on foot was our go-to walk.
When walking where other dogs may be try and avoid them, walk wide in the park, cross the road, walk behind a parked car so the dog is hidden, duck down someone's drive. Teach the dog 'Lets Go!' which is a quick about turn and walk back in the opposite direction to avoid that head on meeting which won't go well. Nutmeg and I became adept at being ninja's.
You need to keep the dog 'below threshold', if the dog goes over threshold and starts reacting you probably can't do anything but hang on to your dog and try to get away, you can try throwing food on the floor to get the dogs attention but certainly with Nutmeg this did not work.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning are go-to techniques which I have done with Nutmeg: Go to places where you can see other dogs from a long enough distance that the dog is not reacting, play with them (have fun but avoid the dog getting too excited), lots of treats, or get them to sit calmly with you while you stroke them gently and take in the area, but let them look at the other dogs. When they look at another dog and look back at you treat them really well. You can add in 'Look At That' which is a cue to look at the other dog, wait to see if they look then look back at you, if they dont look back cue a 'Look At Me' or if clicker trained give a click, or just use their name to get attention. When the dog looks back (engages you) then treat well. Repeat this until the dog looks back at you without needing the prompt (disengages from dog on own) and treat really well. (Note - I am not convinced LAT is good for all dogs, don't think it helps Nutmeg as she is always so sensitive to what is happening around her, a LAT just got her hyper-vigalent). See infographic: engage disengage.jpg | Infographics (myromaniandogsandme.com) When the dog is looking at the other dog and not reacting don't try and stop them, this could cause panic. Imagine if you are scared of something, you will want to know where it is and not be afraid it is moving closer to you and you cant see how close it is.
Once we have engage / disengage working from a great distance, try moving closer, perhaps walk parallel with another dog or follow someone. This is desensitising your dog to other dogs, it is important to increase the intensity of the stimuli slowly and if any reaction occurs reduce the intensity so the dog is not feeling stressed. The intensity of the trigger can be reduced by moving away or finding a different trigger, perhaps a dog which is smaller, or moving less. Counter
Conditioning occurs as we are working from distance and rewarding our dog for not reacting and just looking, we are starting to build an association between seeing a dog and getting praise and treats, in time perhaps the dog will be excited to see other dogs as they know they will get treats. It is critical we keep the dog under-threshold, they are calm, will listen to us and take treats. With desensitisation and counter conditioning we are hoping to reduce our dogs fear of other dogs (or anything else they fear - same principals for anything they fear) and change their emotional response from one of fear to 'oh good I will get a treat'. This training can take a long time.
Biofeedback and BAT - biofeedback methods are basically about teaching the dog how to relax when feeling a little stressed. We spend time sitting somewhere together with the dog very relaxed, watching people and other dogs from a distance. The key is that they are really relaxed, we may give them a gentle massage or play a simple game like 'choose' where they select which hand a treat is in. The dog is free to look at what is happening in the environment calmly seeing that everything is fine. BAT 2.0 involves allowing the dog to make the right choices itself when faced with a situation. BAT is explained by its creator Grisha Stewart as 'BAT helps animals gain confidence and social skills. BAT is a natural method that creates an emotionally safe interaction with minimal intrusion'. It allows the dog to choose to move closer to a trigger if it wants to, while on a loose lead and in a relaxed state. We want our dog to calmly make choices rather than just react.
Build confidence and engagement – Engagement when with your dog is critical and a more confident dog may cope better with anything they feel nervous of. There are various training exercises and games which can help. Nutmeg gained confidence from training games and enjoys being challenged by games. It is important to be engaged with your dog when walking, don't ignore them for the whole walk then expect engagement when something stressful happens (unless doing a decompression walk then leave them alone). Try engagement games while walking, like '1-2-3' , (a pattern game devised by Leslie Mcdevitt - book 'control unleashed'), based on the concept that the dog will benefit from the predictability of something, thus we provide something to help the dog cope generally and it gives engagement on walks. Good loose lead walking is important, you need your dog to be really 'with you', avoid extendable leads, and treat your dog for being by your side. Do walks where you change direction frequently with cues like 'left', 'right', 'cross' to cross road and 'lets go' to go back the way you came, all of which encourages the dog to be be aware of you. You need the dog to engage with you before engaging with anything else. Practise in quiet areas away from any triggers and at home.
Nutmeg has improved hugely, mainly she is stress free most of the time, we have found lots of places for totally relaxing decompression walks. There is light at the end of the tunnel ! It takes some effort and plenty of time (may not be so much effort for other people if caught earlier). Muzzle training may be required to ensure no accidents (particularly if reactive to people) while reactivity training is in progress.
Under resources is a PDF for people with reactive dogs to download, it covers all the above with some further detail and includes links for further reading.