Is there a cure for reactivity?
A question I am frequently asked is Is reactivity ever cured? Can reactive dogs ever become “normal”? It is a question from the heart, often from someone who is overwhelmed by their dog’s responses to everyday things - other dogs, people, cars - and who want reassurance that it won’t be forever.
I understand it. That desire to fix it. To make it better. To stop the embarrassing behaviour.
But I think it is the wrong question.
Reacting to the environment is not a disease to be cured but a normal and essential survival mechanism. We all react when we feel under threat. We may not think we do but I guarantee that if you were threatened or attacked you would react in some way - you may fight, flee, freeze or try to bluff your way out of it - but you would react.
And the same is true for our dogs. Reacting to threat is normal and does not need fixing. What is needed is to teach our dogs that those everyday things are not a threat to them.
It may seem like semantics but it is an important distinction. If we focus on “curing” the behaviour, we may be tempted to stifle it, to see simply “not reacting” as evidence that the dog is now fixed. As long as there is no barking or lunging all is OK. And there are techniques out there which work this way, that use surprise or shock to suppress the reactive behaviour, without doing anything to change how the dog feels.
But if we focus on teaching our dogs that things are not frightening or threatening, we will focus on keeping them feeling safe, giving them the distance they need, ensuring they have only positive experiences of the things they are concerned about. We will teach them that there are other ways that they can behave and still stay safe. We will help them to deal with the anxiety and stress that makes it harder for them to cope. And we will let them know that we have their back.
It may take longer but it is the better approach. Better for them. Better for us. Better for our relationship.
And does it work? Yes! Mirri, our little black reactive lurcher (centre above meeting some new friends), went from reacting on sight of a dog two football pitches away to being able to relax in a room of dogs at a workshop, being able to track alongside another dog, being able to meet, and sometimes play, with other dogs on a single introduction. She would still sometimes react to dogs playing (I called her the fun police) but she was easily redirected and recovery was swift. I no longer saw her as a “reactive” dog and living within her comfort levels was easy.
It may not be “there one day and gone the next”. But over time you will see fewer reactions, quicker recovery when reactions happen and your dog being comfortable with less distance. You will see your dog being able to make the choice to do something else rather than react. You will see your dog looking to you more. You may even see your dog choosing to interact rather than react.
And most importantly you will have a stronger, more trusting bond with your dog than any “cure” will ever allow.