Coping Strategy - Why Reactive Dogs React

Jan 4 / Sally Gutteridge
Are you wondering why your dog always seems to bark at things?  
Perhaps you can’t understand why he defaults to shouting at other dogs? 

Or maybe you are frustrated because that shouting continues even when the other dog is long gone?

If this describes your life, you are seeing your dog’s coping (behaviour) strategy.

For example, one of my dogs fears large black dogs. Unfortunately, any gentle giant black Labrador instils fear into my terrier.

When Chips sees a big black dog in the distance, he opens a little door in his mind and lets out a behavioural response to that fear. In his case, it’s hyper-arousal and the stare of doom. If the distance to the passer-by decreased, it would likely be much more overt behaviour – but we always increase the distance until Chips feels secure enough to go about his walk. 

The behavioural response is then locked back behind the door.

The more space he gets from the scary big dog, the less he needs to throw open the door of coping, he can deliver the stare of doom and then get on with his day.

All emotional responses have mind doors, much like Chips’ does, they are our neural pathways. 

We can call them anything. Coping strategy is fine - or something more dramatic like "fear doors of the mind" is a great empathy trigger for us. 

Doors = Coping Strategies 

If a dog goes too close to three different environmental triggers, he may have three different strategies with their specific behavioural responses behind them.

For example, his small dog friend that he walks with every day may trigger a happy emotional response, while the worrying Bernese Mountain dog with no visible eyes and confusing body language might trigger a tirade of defensive snarls and barks – because the fear door has been opened.

Yet when he’s tired, and on the way home, your dog might pass a steady older dog that he is not worried by and feel no strong emotion, his behavioural response is just to pass calmly and take a treat when the other dog is at his closest.

Your dog’s behaviour strategy in response to a strong emotion will depend on a few different things. It will be dictated randomly at first experience. the dog chooses there and then how to respond to the trigger.

Then as the strategy is practiced, the dog finds it easier to default to that same strategy. An excellent reinforcer for any behaviour is the idea that it has worked to change something in the environment, to favour the dog.

For example, if a young dog is approached by a young child, arms waving. The child is unwelcome because they are acting oddly and frankly terrifying. The dog is suddenly very scared and makes a snap decision on how to react. He can hide or try to counter scare the "threat" away. 

Positive or Negative Bias

All animals alive today have an innate negative bias at some level. As part of evolution, negative bias has kept all successful species’ alive long enough to reproduce and grow in numbers.

If an animal sees danger where there is none, that animal is much more likely to stay alive than the animal that sees no danger when it’s everywhere.

Even when there is very little danger in the animal’s life – or even the humans the part of the brain which evolved to look for that danger is still there. This leads to all sorts of problems in the modern lifestyle and can play a big part in stress and fear of perceived threats.

Negative bias is an expectation of the worst possible outcome from experience.

In the case of dogs that react to triggers in the environment, their negative view has convinced the dog that the trigger is a danger to them, starting the stress reaction. A negative dog will default to stranger danger, as soon as someone new gets too close for comfort. Negative personality types will see danger everywhere, whereas positive outlook dogs won’t.

The nature of positive bias is to expect the best outcome from a situation.

Puppies are generally positive if they have been raised without a need to be fearful.

A nurtured puppy will see a stranger and immediately see them as a friend. As he gets older and without learning otherwise, the puppy may tire of playing with every dog they meet, and simply say hello to the new dog and move on.

Despite their social interaction changing, the canine optimist will still expect the other dog (cat, child etc...) to be friendly and greet without conflict.

The Importance Of Choice

The purpose of providing our dogs with choices is not only to give them as much freedom as possible in their domestic lives, but also to empower them with the belief that they can choose to do something, and succeed at it.

Dogs get few choices as to how they live and respond to things in their environment. For example, my dog, who is walking along a forest track sees another dog that worries him. The other dog is approaching head-on, and the tension in my dog’s body is growing. My dog’s choice in this circumstance is completely dictated by my own, for example:

  • I can put him on the lead and keep walking him towards the other dog, giving him no option to avoid his trigger. This will heighten his stress, and my dog is likely to react, which is disempowering.

  • I can put him on the lead and take him back, so increasing the distance between my dog and his trigger but tethering him. This will cause the stress levels to lower but is taking away his potential to make a choice, so it will disempower my dog.

  • I could take him to the side of the path, distract him, and give him treats until the trigger has passed. This approach will distract him and allow him to make a choice to take the treats - also rewarding that choice in a response that will empower my dog. This is not wise to do if my own dog is close to threshold, or the other dog is off lead and likely to invade my dog’s space should only be carried out if the distance between my dog and his trigger is easy to maintain. If the dog is at risk of approaching us, my dog is likely to react.

  • I could turn and walk the other way, giving my dog a choice to follow, stay still, or approach the dog. This is empowering my own dog and providing the life reward of being able to leave a tense situation. Again, it’s vital to do this within managed situations and with the ability to properly read your dog’s reaction and intention. If the situation dictates for safety, a lead is always an option. It’s important to note here, that my own dog has an excellent recall. A dog that doesn’t recall well should be taught that as a priority.

The final option that I could take here is management. Management is the fundamental basis of all choices that our dogs make. For example, if we want to change behaviour such as lunging and barking at other dogs on a walk, we could choose to walk in a field where space can be managed very differently. We can move around other dogs, avoiding the direct head-on approach, and keeping my own dog’s triggers at a safe distance. 

Your Unique Dog

The individuality of each dog is paramount in your investigation and approach to helping change his behaviour strategies and resilience.

Personality is as unique for your dog as it is for you, me, and every dog that you ever work with or meet. Investigation of that personality is the basis of enlightened change, yet we don’t need to spend too much time looking at the past. We can learn about the dog’s personality by observing him now.

We view the human personality by how we see ourselves, others and the world around us. We can take a similar approach to each dog that we work with, including the ones we live with.

While we can’t change genetic inheritance, we can tweak all other areas of a dog’s personality by working with their individual mixture of emotions, attachments, habits, experiences, expectations and responses. We can change their responses by managing their expectations, and therefore, their emotional experience.

The first thing we do is address the dog’s responses and self-belief in the world. This can be done by recognising a tendency for negative bias and teaching the dog that the outcome of their behaviour or the presence of something in the environment, can lead to success, in as many ways as possible.

This is the point we begin coaching the dog’s positive outlook and growing their resilience by setting up situations where they learn that they can and stop practicing the idea that they can’t. 

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