Dog-Dog Issues Series Part One: What Is Dog-Dog Reactivity?

This week I’m doing a series of blogs on dog-dog issues; particularly aggression and reactivity.  These issues are near and dear to me because each of my own dogs has had a different kind of issue in this area.  Let’s start with some definitions.

Dog-dog reactivity is generally defined as “over-reactivity” of one dog to the presence of another dog.  This can include barking, lunging, whining, snapping, snarling, growling, charging, and many other behaviors.  It usually happens when there is a barrier, like a leash or a fence, involved,  but can happen without barriers also. 

Dog-dog aggression can be paired with reactivity, but isn’t always.  It is a dog acting in a violent nature toward another dog.  Now, the word “violent” has some nasty connotations, so just understand that aggression (biting, snapping, snarling, growling, among other things) is a normal, natural part of dog behavior.  It’s the context in which it occurs that makes it abnormal.  Generally, dogs are considered “aggressive” when they have a tendency to act this way without provocation.  That’s tricky too, since provocation as defined by a person is different than that defined by a dog. 

As you can see there are quite a few variables when you’re trying to label a dog as aggressive or reactive.  Reactivity and aggression often reside in the same dog, but sometimes they exist independent of each other as well.  For this blog I’m going to focus on one type of reactivity (which may or may not include aggression), and that’s what we call “leash reactivity.”  Dogs that bark/lunge/snarl/snap at other dogs when they are on leash are what we call “leash reactive,” and now that you know what that means let’s consider why that happens. 

Certain breeds seem to be prone to leash-reactivity and dog-dog issues in general.  Herding breeds (especially border collies and cattle dogs) and terriers (especially go-to-ground types like Cairns and Jacks) tend to be at the top of the list here.  American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers frequently have dog-dog issues, too, but they are different than the stuff the herders and ratters have.  But they’re not alone; plenty of labradors, goldens, and other more “docile” breeds have come to me for this issue as well.  In my humble-I-have-not-read-or-done-any-formal-research-on-this opinion, breed is important but not as important as breedING or the other factors in this list.

A socialization deficit is usually what is blamed for this behavior, and I agree to an extent.   The trouble is that many, many dogs with leash reactivity are the picture of social perfection when they are off-leash and that didn’t happen by accident.  My own dog that is leash-reactive had the most extensive socialization of any of my dogs to date.  The truth is that a blatant lack of socialization usually turns out dogs with a problem that we will discuss later in the series, idiopathic dog-dog aggression.  Improper or discontinued socialization often contributes to reactivity, which we will discuss later in the week as well. 

So what is it? If the dog is an inadequately-socialized border collie he probably has a whole mess of issues, leash-reactivity included.  But what if he is a golden retriever that went to puppy kindergarten, goes to the dog park regularly, and has lots of dog friends?  Why is he still reactive? I had no idea, and thought it was just something we had better figure out how to solve and not worry so much about how to prevent, until I heard from some people who have trained dogs in places other than the U.S.A. and guess what? this problem isn’t as prominent anywhere else. What? Seriously? Seriously.  This is the most common issue I deal with in my work (which I love, because it has a very high success rate).  It’s not as big of a deal in Europe and the U.K.  So that got me thinking about why that is.

Of course, all I can do is speculate, but I think it has to do with leash laws and dog parks.  Other countries do not have the strict leash ordinances we have, and many of them don’t have dog parks for the same reason.  Since dogs are allowed to be off-leash in most areas, there is no need to put up a fence and have an off-leash area for dogs.  So most of the socialization our dogs get in this country is either on-leash (restricted–think about going to a party with your hands tied behind your back–sound fun? didn’t think so) or in a too-small space with too many dogs.  A later blog this week will talk about what good socialization looks like, but for now think about the fact that leash-reactivity is usually stemming from a place of either fear or frustration in the dog, and these develop for a reason.  Fear is from not knowing what is threatening and what is not, and frustration is from not knowing how to act or how to get what is desired out of the situation.  Both of these are probably coming from our dogs because of improper socialization, not a lacktherof.