More and more, I see articles and advertisements regarding “reactive dogs”. These are dogs that tend to bark and lunge at strangers or strange dogs. Most people aren’t going to consider these responses to be desirable in a pet dog.
Some things in dog training can be fixed, some can only be managed.
Let’s compare examples of two different dog breeds, the Doberman and the Labrador Retriever. And let’s assume we are referring to dogs which are ideally bred, healthy, well socialized, well trained, and properly supervised and managed. What behavioral traits would we expect from each dog?
If you recall from previous articles, behaviors are those “baked in”, genetically programmed responses to stimuli. We expect different behavioral traits from a Doberman versus a Labrador Retriever. I would expect to observe a Doberman to be watchful (vigilant and suspicious) of odd behavior, strangers, and strange dogs. The AKC describes the Doberman temperament traits as follows: “Energetic, watchful, determined, alert, fearless, loyal and obedient.” I would expect to observe the opposite in the Labrador Retriever. The AKC describes the Labrador Retriever temperament traits as follows: “The ideal disposition is one of a kindly, outgoing, tractable nature: eager to please and non-aggressive towards man or animal. The Labrador has much that appeals to people; his gentle ways, his intelligence and adaptability make him an ideal dog.”
There are many breeds that can be sorted out along these lines. Many are watchful and other breeds are kindly and outgoing. Also, within all breeds, there will be variations. There will be some Dobermans that are kindly and outgoing and some Labrador Retrievers which are watchful. We get these opposite results when dogs aren’t bred purposefully to a consistent standard. These opposite results are also often linked to long term development of health and temperament problems in those breeds (but not necessarily on an individual basis).
Both breeds, if untrained, might bark and lunge at strangers and strange dogs. But the motivation will be different with the Doberman versus the Lab. This illustrates why I don’t like the term “reactive’ since it is not descriptive enough to make these distinctions. It is more useful to use a term like “watchful” or “kindly and outgoing”. “Watchful” is also different from being “Fearful”. Watchful is a trait, fearful is a mood state.
Sometimes we can create a picture in a dog that makes it act as a non-typical example of their breed. Many can be made to be watchful and suspicious of strangers and strange dogs, and many dogs can be worked to appear more friendly than their watchful natures.
For example, I have a student with an Australian Cattle Dog and another student with Chow Chow. Both breeds tend to be watchful. The watchfulness in the ACD’s is often more overtly observable, and the Chows don’t project it as visibly, but they are also watchful. The watchfulness is more obvious when a stranger attempts to pet them, with the ACD backing off and looking nervous with guests in the home, and the Chow more obvious if a stranger does things that might invade her immediate personal space. With both students, I had them overly socialize their puppies. Thus, the ACD is very friendly with strangers… up to a point. And you’d think the Chow is more like a Labrador Retriever when you meet her. But their natures are still under the surface, and no amount of socialization or training can completely overcome what they are. Look up their breed standards. If either of these dogs were to experience enough adverse interactions with strangers, the early socialization would be overridden, and these dogs would flip and become more like their littermates that didn’t have that kind of early preparation work. Their suspicious nature is still under the surface, but it is only noticeable if you are really looking for it.
There is this strange popular expectation that all dogs can be trained to be like Labrador Retrievers (“it’s all in how they are raised”). There is also a strange popular expectation that all dogs can be trained to be like a Doberman, with trainers promising they can turn any dog into a protection dog. You see it in news articles, and even in advertisements from various dog trainers. These expectations are ignorant of the effects of breeding and training. Advertising claims that any dog can be changed with enough work are either made of ignorance, at best, or dishonesty, at worst. There are limits to what breeding or training can do to change a dog.
When getting a dog, or working with a dog, it is first best to determine what kind of dog you are working with. Studying the breed history and standard are a good place to start. What went into making this breed, what was it intended for, and what was it used for? That’s valuable data. Next, is a decision as to how best to work within those parameters with your individual dog. Where does your dog fit in the spectrum within the breed or breeds that make up your dog? What likely limitations do you anticipate? Lastly, some thoughtful background history work needs to be done should you want to modify how your dog acts. I like to find out as much as I can before I do anything with a dog. The more you know how this or that kind of experience most likely affects a dog, the better understanding you’ll have when coming up with a training plan. Good and bad experiences all leave their own marks on a dog. Some can be overcome, and some have more permanent effects. You need to know what is most likely possible and what is most likely impossible.
No two dogs are the same, and no two dog breeds are the same. Don’t expect to change the traits in a dog, however. Good advance investigation of a dog’s breed and history helps the development of the best training program for each dog.