Is My Dog Being Aggressive or Reactive?
I can no longer count the number of times someone has told me their dog is aggressive in some form or another when they are either reactive or in some cases just playful. Labeling a dog as aggressive can reap major consequences and helping a reactive dog is not the same as an aggressive one. In order to properly understand the difference we must discuss their definitions and then what signs to look for to distinguish between the two.
What is reactivity?
Unfortunately, reactivity is often times confused with aggression, and while they are not the same it is important to note that reactivity when left unchecked can lead to aggression. In general a dog that is reactive will have some sort of trigger that brings out their behavior. Examples of these triggers can be other dogs, children, men, people that are wearing sunglasses or hats, or even barrier restrictions such as a leash or fence. The cause behind this is usually genetics or lack of proper socialization at a young age, but the behavior is almost always driven by fear
Signs of reactivity can include the dog no longer paying attention to its owner (even with treats or other distractions), whining, cowering, hiding, explosive barking, lunging, or even charging.
My recommendation for a reactive dog would be to give it positive experiences with whatever bothers it, and to hire a professional trainer to guide and assist you.
What is aggression?
Aggression is far more serious than reactivity. Aggression can lead to someone or something being hurt or worse and should be dealt with in a safe manner immediately. Sadly when dogs have reached a level of aggression it can also lead to them being put down. Lawsuits and heartbreak all stem from an aggressive dog.
Signs of aggression include “whale eye” which is when the dog is showing a large area of the whites of its eyes, staring directly into another animal or persons eyes with a rigid and stiff body, snapping, snarling, teeth showing with a growl, and even biting.
My recommendation for an aggressive dog is to use the proper safety handling gear such as a muzzle and get the dog either to a behaviorist who can prescribe them medication, or if this option will not work putting the dog down. A scared and aggressive dog is not enjoying life and its quality of life will only continue to decay over time. It is never an easy decision and should be discussed by everyone involved in the pet’s life.