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How A Dog Learns Reactive Behaviour

Mar 6 / Sally Gutteridge
f you have a dog that is afraid of men; and your male neighbour comes over to say hello – the first time, perhaps your dog just hides.

You want to make a good impression, so you put a leash on your dog and bring him over. This presents two problems – your dog is being forced to confront a trigger outside his comfort zone; and the leash makes it impossible to get away. Dogs are fight or flight creatures; the leash removes the flight option – so all he has left is fight. He starts barking. Not knowing any better; you jerk the leash and yell at him no. Your neighbour comes closer. You’ve now associated pain with the fear with the male neighbour. Your dog finally lunges forward and snaps. Your neighbour backs off. Your dog just learned that lunging and snapping makes scary things go away. His reactivity is being reinforced. Next time, he may not waste time trying to back away; he will use what he knows works.

The biggest mistake new owners make when attempting to socialise a young dog is to not make socialisation interactive. They pack the pup up and bring them lots of different places; and that’s the end of it. They ignore the pup’s signs of fear or concern, just letting the pup sit there in frozen silence. Worse, they often think the pup’s fearful response is funny, and then repeat the action that scared the pup for their amusement, or they are embarrassed by the pup’s actions, and they reprimand him.

The idea of socialisation is to make lots of happy memories. Don’t just drag him with you to the supermarket; talk to the staff ahead of time, give them some yummy treats, and when the pup approaches her – on his own terms- instruct them to reward him with the treat and praise him warmly and calmly. If you are getting your pup used to the car – go out ahead of time and hide some favourite toys or treats, open all the doors, and help your pup ‘explore’ this new- found place of fun.

Bringing him over to meet the family? Prep them all ahead of time; load them up with treats and toys, and have them sit on the floor in a circle. Place the pup in the middle and let him wander about; anytime he approaches someone, they can give a treat and pet him calmly. They should not try to bribe the puppy over to them, nor hold onto him any longer than he chooses to stay. He should have the freedom to explore on his terms; building confidence and positive experiences along the way.

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