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Reactivity - The Anxiety Link

Sally Gutteridge
Reactivity is common with dogs who suffer from anxiety. Often this becomes more obvious during adolescence or a secondary socialisation/fear period but then doesn’t fade as the dog becomes an adult. Because the anxious dog is often exposed to the scary world regularly he may learn to shout at it, by barking lunging and generally trying to scare everyone away the dog may feel safer.

There are two types of canine anxiety, externally triggered and internally generated. Generalised Anxiety Disorder and PTSD are generated within and can cause the dog to suffer greatly. These conditions are characterised by over vigilance, lack of focus, inability to relax, weight loss and digestive problems. True anxiety disorders are the basis of high stress and can cause reactive behaviour.

Anxiety is often associated with high levels of reactivity which is unsurprising. The dog that is closer to his coping threshold has to do something to make himself feel safe and deal with his fear. And each choice can easily become the default choice when the dog thinks it has worked. Whilst I use the term choice it’s important to remember that reactivity isn’t really much of a choice at all, in reality it is a result of not being able to choose to leave a situation.

Reactive behaviour can easily become a default response if a dog is suffering. It may manifest as barking, lunging, and over-animation including threats to anyone in the area. A worried dog can become reactive to anything they find stressful.

Some dogs don’t react overtly to a perceived threat but internally. This is often associated with learned helplessness, triggered by a lack of choices. When a dog goes through something really stressful and can’t escape, a switch flicks in their mind leaving them with the belief that they can’t make any choices at all.

Learned helplessness is sometimes also referred to as emotional shutdown. It’s easy to learn and can be established in one stressful experience. For example, it was discovered by a psychologist initially in one set of experiments. Martin Seligman when testing on dogs to better understand human depression used electric shocks to observe dog behaviour. First he shocked their paws whilst giving the dogs no escape route, then he provided and escape route before shocking them again. The dogs didn’t try to escape though, because they had quickly developed learned helplessness.

When a dog learns helplessness, they are likely not to react at all to the perception of a threat. Instead they will turn inward, no matter how scared they are. Waiting for their exposure to the scary thing to end. In many ways this is the worst kind of reactivity for the dog because at least the barking and lunging dog feels like they have some control, which can be channelled into a healthier choice.

The dog with learned helplessness is literally, in her mind, completely helpless to protect herself from danger. She just has to wait for it to strike. If you think your dog may be suffering from high levels of anxiety, or GAD, please consider visiting your veterinarian and a qualified positive canine behaviourist.

Reference: Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Dogs and Cats by Karen Overall - published in 2013. 

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