Our dogs are constantly communicating information on how they feel just as we communicate information with our body language, tone of voice, and actions.
Dogs feel stress just like we do, and sometimes that stress can accumulate and express itself as reactivity.
Reactivity is observed when a dog responds to an external stimulus. The stimulus could cause the dog to display visible signs of discomfort like barking, lunging, or growling though its important to note that reactivity is not always aggressive and can be a fear response.
Every dog has as threshold. This is the amount of stress they can process before they communicate their stress through a behavior.
Tensing up, baring teeth, growling, snapping, barking, or biting are all behaviors that any dog can exhibit as a result of external triggers.
Healthy dogs will give visible signs of stress and discomfort as their triggers accumulate.
The most common signs of discomfort are yawning when they are not tired, lip licking, and a whale eye or half-moon eye where you can see the whites of the dog’s eye. These three signs are early signs of discomfort that your dog is communicating to you. A dog who is scared and cowering or making themselves small who is then cornered and pushed to their limit may react aggressively out of fear.
Looking away, moving away, shaking off, tail tucked, or even a tail wagging slowly are additional signs that your dog is experiencing discomfort.
When your dog exhibits any signs of fear or discomfort the best thing to do is to stop whatever is making them uncomfortable and give your dog space. Be aware of what your dog is communicating especially when you have family or friends over who may not be as dog savvy.
It is up to you to protect your dog to ensure that they feel safe and comfortable and that they are not put in a position to feel like they have to react.
The key is to never put your dog in a situation where their early signals don’t work, and to remove them from the stressful situation, or redirect them in a healthy way.
If your dog is displaying signs of reactivity whether it is barking or growling at strangers on a walk, or cowering when strangers come to visit the house, contact a positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist to help learn what you can do to make your dog more comfortable and confident and avoid potential mishaps.