April 4, 2023

The Difference Between Reactivity & Aggression in Dogs

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Understanding Body Language, Triggers, and What Emotions Drive Behavior

Two behavioral issues dog owners have difficulty telling apart are reactivity and aggression. On the surface, the symptoms of both may look similar, but when you begin to understand the root cause of your pet's behavior, it is easier to tell the difference. 

We’ll walk you through each behavior, what causes it, and how you can get your dog’s behavior on the right track.

What’s The Difference Between Reactivity And Aggression?

The main difference between reactivity and aggression is that reactivity stems from a heightened state of emotion due to an environmental trigger or specific situation. Aggression is spawned from fear or the desire to seek out conflict to cause harm.

Both reactivity and aggression can present similarly in dogs, so you must look closely to get to the root of your pet’s behavioral issues.

Reactive Dogs

When dogs exhibit reactive behavior, they are in a state of overstimulation and unable to respond to a situation or trigger appropriately. This overwhelming emotion can stem from anxiety, fear, frustration, or a lack of/over-socialization with people, places, animals, or unfamiliar objects. Genetics can also factor in whether or not a specific breed of dog is prone to reactivity. 

Reactive dogs will pull on their leashes, jump up on people, or bark excessively during walks. They may be excited to meet a new person or dog, but they haven’t learned the proper way to interact with strangers aside from explosive behavior. They could also fear other dogs and have become reactive as a defensive mechanism to scare them away.

Many dogs during the pandemic were unable to get any form of socialization or exposure to things we see daily. They are prone to higher levels of anxiety & fear and, by proxy, reactivity because of it. 

Some common behaviors associated with aggression but are not are: 

Mouthing/nipping: Puppies engage with the world with their mouths. When puppies play with other dogs or when people encourage rough play, they can get “mouthy.” When they become overstimulated, they tend to nip harder than they should, and it can disrupt their play session. These nips are not coming from your dog being aggressive but rather from having too good a time, being overly tired (Hint: Puppies need to sleep 16-18 hours a day, depending on the breed!), and settling down in a crate. 

Leash Reactivity: Leash reactive dogs will growl, bark, or lunge toward things that trigger excitement, fear, or nervousness. These triggers can be anyone or anything they consider of high value in giving them attention, things that are unfamiliar or they were underexposed to, or even cause a feeling of fear & anxiety–rational or not. While this may seem like your dog is acting aggressively towards these triggers by lunging at them, they are trying to create some space to feel safer or reduce space to get to a perceived reward faster. As a rule of thumb, give them space if you encounter a strange dog on a leash. Don’t go over to greet them, regardless of how friendly your dog may be. Everyone is working on something, and reactive dogs deserve to be in public with their owners like anyone else. 

Aggressive Dogs

While not every reactive dog has aggressive tendencies, reactivity can become aggression if warning signs are ignored. What separates aggression from reactivity is that when a dog acts aggressively, it will continue to go on the offensive even after the trigger is outside range. 

Aggression in dogs can have many causes, such as genetics. But a common one is fear and discomfort in a situation they feel out of control. When dogs are afraid, it triggers their flight or fight response. If they don’t feel they can flee the situation that's causing them to be afraid, they will fight. Once put in a compromised position, they may not give appropriate warnings that they’re ready to bite to defend themselves. 

Bites from a fear-aggressive dog typically will be quick snaps when a person or animal has let its guard down.

Aggressive behaviors can be caused by genetics, territorial behavior, possessive behavior, lack of socialization, fear, resource-based aggression, frustration-related aggression, and aggression caused by stress or pain. 

You need to try to identify the trigger to your dog’s aggression if you want to change the behavioral pattern. 

If your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors when they previously did not, you should take them to your veterinarian immediately as sudden onset aggression can be tied to serious medical issues.

Signs Of Aggression

Dogs express aggression by showing the whites of their eyes, baring their teeth, growling, staring directly at you while maintaining a stiff posture. An experienced dog caretaker can sense the tension in a dog who might be preparing to bite, but an inexperienced person may not realize the signs and put themselves at risk. While some of these behaviors are similar to those you’ll see in reactive dogs, aggression requires intent to harm, while reactivity is a heightened state of emotion based on a trigger.  

Dealing With Reactivity & Aggression Effectively

Don’t let anyone greet you uninvited.

It’s a good rule of thumb to always ask before petting someone else’s dog, and you should instruct others to do the same before touching your pet.

Don’t let anyone greet your dog uninvited. Both friends and strangers should wait until permitted to interact with your dog. This is especially crucial when you’re outside of the home on a walk. Don’t be afraid to tell strangers not to approach you or tell them, “My dog is in training, and we need to keep them focused today.” You can also employ this practice with other dog owners. It doesn’t matter how friendly their dog may seem, you must look out for your pet and their emotional wellbeing. 

Use a muzzle for safety when walking your dog outside the home. A trainer can help you determine what type of muzzle will be most comfortable for your dog and how to properly muzzle train them, so it doesn’t add to the stress.

Keep Them On Leash

For reactive and especially aggressive dogs, keep your dog on a leash whenever you’re out of the house with them and potentially even while in the home alongside you. Reactive & aggressive dogs require management to prevent them from rehearsing poor behaviors. Whatever you allow in the home will translate to what is allowed outside of the home, so don’t leave them in your yard unattended. 

Finding Your Threshold Distance & Interrupt the Loading Phase

Finding your dog’s threshold distance with a particular trigger will allow you to judge their degree of sensitivity to it and thus level of reactivity. Depending on their sensitivity, you may only be able to expose them to the sounds of dogs barking at first! But if they only react to seeing dogs, when they see them allow them to notice them for a moment but then be able to quickly get their attention back on to you with a charged marker, like a clicker. 

With this exercise, you are interrupting the trigger response and allowing them to associate the trigger with a positive experience that you can control. Don’t wait for them to react! As you find success in redirecting your dog’s attention, you can practice moving a little closer to the trigger. If your dog begins to react and isn’t responding to the marker, you’re too close. Increase your distance and try again! With guidance, reactive dogs can assess & process triggers at a comfortable distance without direct interaction so that you can change the root emotion over time! 

When Should I Get A Professional Involved?

The ultimate goal in avoiding all of the above behaviors is to teach your dog how to be 'neutral' around everything. Being proactive in training can help create preventative measures or even assist in establishing a game plan for making progress if issues have already set in. With guidance, reactive dogs can assess & process triggers at a comfortable distance without direct interaction so that you can change the root emotion over time!

Both of these issues should be taken seriously, so reach out to a professional to learn how to advocate for your dog & work on bettering their situation. It'll improve your dog's quality of life alongside you, and you'll be able to enjoy more out of life with them! 

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