Why is my dog reactive? The factors that affect behaviour in dogs

Many owners of reactive dogs think their behaviour is their fault; something they’ve done or not done that has caused their dog to become reactive. But the truth that most trainers, behaviourists and experts don’t want to tell you is that behaviour is often down to lots of other stuff going on, often nothing to do with training.

The problem is, if you have a very well-behaved and balanced dog, it’s easy to think that the reason for their behaviour is your training. Consequently, when your dog isn’t perfectly behaved, you can often think that the fault lies with you.

I hear lots of reasons people have been told for their dog’s poor behaviour, such as being over-socialised (explain to me what happens in houses where multiple dogs live together?), under-socialised (absolutely a possibility), bad experiences in early puppy life (definitely a factor), lack of training, other dogs in the household, COVID puppy situations and so on.

Some of these might be the reason, but it’s probably not the only reason. If you have a reactive dog, you probably have a dog who had the genetics, epigenetics or temperament that made them susceptible to any negative experiences making a bigger impact.

Just like with people, a negative experience with a needle during a blood test could make one person develop a phobia of needles for life, and another person might brush it off and not be bothered at all by the experience.

The same is true of dogs.

Take a look at some of the factors affecting behaviour in dogs:

1. Genetics: The Role of Breeding

  • Breed Traits: Different dog breeds were created for specific jobs. For example, Collies were bred to herd sheep, so they have strong herding instincts. They might try to herd children or other pets! Bull Terriers were bred to be brave and strong for hunting, so they have a strong bite and don’t back down easily.
  • Inherited Traits: Some dogs are naturally more fearful or calm because of their genes. Scientists found that certain genes can make a dog more likely to be scared (like the DRD2 gene).
  • Fox Farm Experiment: In Russia, scientists did an experiment with foxes. They bred foxes to be friendly or aggressive. Over time, the friendly foxes became like pets, showing how breeding can change behavior. This experiment helped scientists understand that selecting for certain traits can make animals more or less friendly.

2. Epigenetics: Parents’ Experiences Matter

  • Parental Influence: If a dog’s parents went through stress, it can affect how the puppy behaves. Even if a puppy has never had a bad experience, it might still be scared of certain things because of its parents. This happens because experiences can change how genes work, and these changes can be passed to the puppies.

3. Maternal Stress: The Mom’s Influence

  • During Pregnancy: If a mother dog is stressed while she’s pregnant, her puppies might be more anxious when they grow up. Stress hormones from the mother can affect the developing puppies.
  • After Birth: If the mother dog doesn’t take good care of her puppies, they might not develop properly, leading to problems like anxiety. Puppies need proper care and attention to grow up healthy and happy.

4. Early Socialization: Puppy Experiences

  • Critical Periods: Puppies have special times when they learn a lot from their surroundings, usually between 3-12 weeks old. Positive experiences, like meeting new people and seeing new places, help them grow up to be confident dogs. Negative experiences, like being scared by loud noises, can make them fearful.
  • Puppy Culture Program: Some breeders use programs to make sure puppies have lots of positive experiences with new things before they go to new homes. This helps the puppies be ready for anything when they grow up.

5. Adult Experiences: Learning from Life

  • Learning: Dogs learn by making connections between events. For example, if a dog gets a treat every time it sits, it will learn to sit more often. But if something bad happens, like being attacked by another dog, they might always be scared of other dogs.
  • One-Time Learning: Sometimes, one really scary experience can make a dog afraid of something forever. For example, if a dog gets scared by fireworks, it might always be afraid of loud noises.

6. Individual Temperament: Unique Personalities

  • Personality: Each dog has its own personality. Some are naturally more active, social, or nervous, even if they come from the same litter. Just like people, dogs have their own unique traits.
  • Training Reactions: How a dog responds to training depends on its personality. Some might learn quickly and love new tricks, while others take more time and need more patience.

7. Learning History: Past Experiences

  • Past Experiences: What a dog has learned before affects how they act now. If a dog gets treats for sitting quietly, it will likely keep doing that. If a dog learns that barking gets attention, it might keep barking.

8. Environment: Where They Live

  • Living Conditions: A dog’s environment, including the people and other animals around them, affects their behavior. A busy home might stress a dog out, while a quiet one might not give them enough to do.
  • Owner’s Role: How owners treat their dogs can make a big difference. Positive reinforcement (like giving treats for good behavior) works best. If an owner is inconsistent or uses punishment, it can confuse the dog and cause problems.

9. Medical Issues: Health Problems

  • Health: Illnesses, injuries, and allergies can change how a dog behaves. For example, a dog with low thyroid levels might become more aggressive. Dogs can also get anxious or act out if they’re in pain.
  • Pain: Being in pain can make a dog act out. Treating the pain is important, but it might not fix the behavior right away if the dog has gotten used to reacting to pain in a certain way, and the reactive behaviour becomes a learnt response. Pain is a complicated topic!

10. Other Animals: Impact of Housemates

  • Household Pets: Other animals can either stress out or comfort a dog. A new pet might cause competition for food and attention or be a new friend. How they interact with other pets in the house can greatly affect their behavior.

Understanding these factors helps us create a happy and healthy environment for our dogs, ensuring they have the best behavior possible. Knowing why your dog behaves a certain way can help you make better decisions to keep them happy and well-adjusted.

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