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Canine Reactive Behaviour - Old Habits Die Hard

Sally Gutteridge
Let’s take a look at how behaviour develops and becomes a default response to scary or worrying situations. Or – why does your dog do that, and why on earth do you?

Imagine you are walking your barky friend and see a big black off lead dog in the distance (quick disclaimer - the poor big black dogs are usually the softest and sweetest but also the scariest to those delicate dogs who are easily scared).

You and your barky friend see the new dog at the same time and whoosh – all of your life experience together so far starts to dictate your response. You might go a bit weak at the knees - that will be the adrenaline. Your dog might go stiff, rigid and stare at the potential intruder - that will be the adrenaline too.

The first time this happened to the two of you, a choice was made by both of you. Your mutual choices were dictated by the environment and the simultaneous heightened emotional response happening in your bodies. Your dog at this point may have had very limited choice, particularly if he was on the lead and couldn’t do that normal dog communication of curving and keeping his distance when meeting a new dog. He might have felt that the only choice he had, was to become scary himself and frighten the other dog away. So that’s what he did.

In response to our dog’s choice in this situation we can become reactive too. Reactive doesn’t just mean overt and loud though – it simply means how we react. So we might have pulled our dog away from the situation, we could even have told them to behave themselves and even felt embarrassed (a usual response to lunging and barking before we learn how the dog is feeling).

When a situation occurs just once, it fires those neurons in the brain – they fire in a sequence. The next time you and your dog are in a similar situation that same sequence is waiting and ready to fire again. When it’s fired a few times the internal sequence of that single choice becomes so strong that it’s now a habit. That habit drives default single response behaviour from all of us, dogs and humans alike.

A habit is strong! It’s physical. 
Without recognising a response as a habit we can easily take ourselves and our dogs into the same situation over and over again, hoping for a different result. Isn’t that the true definition of insanity? Yet when we recognise the sequence it all becomes so much simpler to understand.

A choice - no matter how it’s made - is remembered and in the same situation most likely to be returned to. A few revisits of that choice and we have a habit. Habits can be practiced for years and naturally replace the tendency to make a different choice in the same situation.

Therefore to change a dog’s behaviour for the better (and to change our own too) is to recognise the choices made as habits. When we recognise a habit for what it is, a single well-practiced choice in a specific type of situation, we can begin to make positive change. First we stop putting the dog in the same scenario in the same way and expecting a different response. Next we create a new situation to cope with the scenario that created the habit, then we teach and reward a brand new choice. Finally practicing that choice until it becomes a sparkly new habit.

This logic can be applied to most repeated behaviours and is the basis of behaviour modification. The most important consideration is emotional state. Habits are learned in peace-times, scared dogs can’t learn as they are too pre-occupied with surviving. Which is why punishment supresses behaviour and should be heartily avoided and communication through coaching and positive reinforcement creates a Dopamine hit, perfect for learning. 

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