Original Article by Sally Gutteridge of Canine Principles
What is the difference between a reactive dog and an aggressive one? Should we use the term reactive dog at all, and what does it matter anyway?
Reactive and aggressive are different descriptive terms, though they can go hand in hand. A reactive dog may show an aggressive response and if we are to split hairs, we could also say that a dog isn’t reactive at all, just showing aggression or some other response. Some trainers even get pedantic about the term reactive dog, citing its perceived use to avoid the terms aggression and aggressive.
Let’s take a closer look.
The definition for aggressive is: “Ready or likely to attack or confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression” Now, all are different and there are most certainly aggressive dogs. There are also many types of canine aggression and each one is triggered or instilled by the nurture, nature, physiology and genetic influence of the dog in question. We can’t generalize on the reason for any dog’s aggression without observing the dog, neither can we generalize on the type of aggression that’s being presented.
Reactive however, is defined as: “Readily responsive to a stimulus” and “occurring as a result of stress or emotional upset” When you can read canine body language, know your dog and can work with him or her to make the right choices, your reactive dog need not always show aggression, or he can certainly learn that he has the choice to leave rather than confront a situation.
Many dogs that are readily responsive to a stimulus will choose to be away from the stimulus after a few sessions of skilled choice training. This is because they are not aggressive dogs. They are dogs who, at that moment, are experiencing stress or emotional upset. If we are to accept the dictionary term for reactive as shown above and take the time to understand it completely, then we can see that some dogs are reactive dogs. This is confirmed if we live with one and know their true, sensitive nature. One other important point about reactivity is that, when the dog is given time to get used to a situation or scenario, he will usually settle into it well.
The term reactive dog doesn’t necessarily mean that they are by default ready to display aggression, it’s just what they have learned makes the scary thing go away. If we can remove the scary thing via another course of action, which is admittedly not always possible, we show the dog he doesn’t need to be readily responsive to a stimulus. By managing the environment as much as we can, we show the dog that he can react differently.
“Reactive” is a relatively new term attached to dogs, it may not be pinpoint, razor sharp scientific. It’s descriptive though and most of the educated dog world understands that it doesn’t necessarily mean aggressive, yet we do quickly gain a better understanding of the dog. The term reactive simply means we live with dogs that are readily responsive to stimulus. The nature of that response depends on the dog!