Ep. 8: So...What is a Reactive Dog?

Oct 30, 2018

The term "reactive dog" can mean so many things to so many people...which can make talking about this subject quite challenging. In this podcast, we attempt to better define this term, outline the types of dogs who may be included in this category, while also talking plainly about which dogs specifically should not be competing at Scent Work trials at all (i.e. aggressive dogs).

We also touch upon the need for everyone to be an advocate for their own particular dog and how we can all be more understanding and use a bit more empathy toward one another. Definitely a large topic to try to tackle, but hopefully this podcast can at the very least spark some meaningful discussions and thoughts on this thoroughly sensitive subject.


  • Dianna L. Santos



Welcome to the All About Scent Work podcast. In this podcast we'll be talking about all things Scent Work. This includes a behind the scenes look for how trials are conducted, what your instructor may be going through, training tips, and other helpful information that we can provide. In this episode, we're gonna be discussing the topic of reactive dogs in Scent Work. Most importantly trying to nail down what the real definition of what a reactive dog is, and helping you make a better determination of whether or not you should be competing with your dog at a Scent Work trial.

Before we dive into the podcast itself, allow me to do a very quick introduction from myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University. This is an online dog training platform where we provide online courses, webinars, and seminars to help you achieve your Scent Work goals. Whether it simply be just playing the game at home, or also preparing for competition. So without further ado, let's get started within the podcast.

One of the most common things that I've encountered throughout my time with being a professional instructor and trainer is the lack of understanding of what a "reactive dog" actually is. There is a very broad understanding as far as which dogs would actually fall in that category. When we're talking about Scent Work in particular, particularly in the realm of competition, many of us may be referring to completely different dogs as far as how they present behaviorally, but we're lumping them all into the same category of a reactive dog. The purpose behind this podcast episode is to try to help us have a better understanding of what that word actually means.

Whether or not our dogs are indeed reactive, and if they are, would it to suitable for us to be competing with them? And if we were going to be competing with them, where we may want to compete. It's a fairly large topic, but I'm hoping that it'll provide some clarification, because there does seem to be a lot of confusion around this word. It's only been exacerbated over the years. I don't think that it's been clarified much. There's people who use this term interchangeably with other things that I just don't think is very helpful.

Again, for my purposes, my goal anyway, is to help clarify at least what I believe a reactive dog would be behaviorally speaking, to try to put a little bit more meaning behind that term. And then as a community we just need to determine if maybe that term is fairly useless at this point, and if we need to maybe find some other ways of describing what we are trying to say a certain dog may be presenting as behaviorally.

For myself personally, reactive dogs can actually include a subset of several dogs. A reactive dog to me is a dog who has spacial sensitivity to either other dogs or other people, meaning that they would prefer to be farther away from other dogs or other people. Now, that preference can either be fear-based in that they're afraid of other dogs or other people, or that those things may hurt them. Or that they actually are offensive towards them, where they would like to hurt other dogs and other people.

That within itself I think is a very important distinction, because if your dog is more on the "I would like to hurt other dogs and other people" range, in my opinion, then your dog more than likely than not should not be competing because they're more closer to the aggression part of that scale. Where they're going to be thinking that a good offense is the best defense, meaning, I'll use my teeth and I'll think about it later. That's simply just not safe. If your dog's first reflex is to try to bite something, whether be another dog, another person, or whatever other trigger there may be because it has startled them, it's just not a good idea to have them in a trial environment.

Now, there are many people who will say, "Well, my dog and I have been competing in several different sports. And I've been competing in several different sports for a long period of time. I compete in agility, or I do fly ball, or I do competition obedience, or whatever the case may be". All those sports are specifically not open to reactive dogs. They don't make a blanket statement as a sport saying, yes, we would like reactive dogs to be here. It's actually quite to opposite.

But in that vein, they may actually have a dog who would prefer if other dogs didn't sniff their butt, or something like that. These very same people say, "Well, I've been in these much higher octane sports and activities, and I've been able to manage my dog just fine, everything is okay. So, all of your concern about a separate trial is not really well founded".

I would just have to disagree. The reason being is that it is true that at Scent Work, you are not having dogs running at full tilt. They're not doing obstacle courses. They're not maybe at the same type of adrenaline high than a dog coming right off an agility course maybe. That is true. But there's a different type of adrenaline high. And again, we just have to be blunt about this. If as a sport, not going into specifics about particular venues, but as a sport, we are saying that dogs who are "reactive" are welcome to come and attend and compete. You are now dealing with a different population of dog.

That's not to say that I think reactive dogs are bad. I don't. But we have to just be honest about this. These are dogs who are coping with a completely different subset of triggers and issues than dogs who are not reactive do not have to deal with. Those non-reactive dogs are not stress stacking for instance. They're not dealing with all the stresses of life and being bombarded with them every single second. If a leaf blows by for a regular dog they're like, "Oh, a leaf went by." But for a "reactive dog", it could be, "Oh, my god a leaf went by!" And that was on top of everything else that just happened to them within that day before you ever get to the trial.

When people start bringing up other sports, I honestly think that's it's a false equivalency. We're comparing apples to oranges. It's not the same. I agree that there are definitely higher octane activities out there. With those activities for all of my "reactive dog" clients, I will tell them to stay away from those activities like the plague. If your dog is reactive, you should not be probably going to an agility trial unless they have done an enormous amount of work ahead of time. They have improve tremendously, they have all kinds of coping mechanisms and skills.

Even so, in my humble opinion, is it worth it? Would it just be better to play that game at home where you know the dog can be safe, than put them into a situation where they could potentially make a mistake, which could just be devastating. To not only you and your dog, but to whoever or whichever dog they did that mistake to. Again, this is where I think things keep getting complicated. We're not talking about the same things. We're not looking at this all as the same picture.

My hope with this podcast is that it won't be too much of rambling, but rather we can just really focus our attention on what this stuff is. And we can all talk about it openly and honestly without getting everyone's defenses up. And without thinking that one type of dog is better than another type of dog, one activity is better, or organizations are bad for how they stand on things. That has nothing to do with it. As a community, we just have to be really open and honest. Every single dog has a set of very sharp teeth in their mouth.

Every single dog has the ability to bite. Every single dog has the ability to hurt either another dog or another person. We just have to come to terms with that. And there are some dogs on that scale who will like to use their teeth more than others. That doesn't mean that every single reactive dog does. They don't, but if your dog is closer to the aggression side of that scale, they should not be competing. You should be working with a professional to ensure you're keeping yourself safe, to ensure you're keeping your family safe, you're keeping any other animals in your household safe, and you making sure that this dog is safe. That they're making good decisions. That they're not being put into a situation where they're going to have to use they're teeth.

Again, just a little bit of honesty and looking at these hard questions, and without getting all emotional about it, I think can help all of us in the end just make better decisions for our dogs. Again, getting back to the definition of what a reactive dog is. For me, personally there are these two tracks of dogs who are more fear based, and dogs who are more aggression based. Again, for me personally, if you're more towards the aggression part of that scale, you most definitely should not be competing. If you are truly aggressive you probably shouldn't be leaving your house a whole lot. And you definitely should be working with a professional one-on-one, and that should be in person.

I do online training because I'm incapable physically of actually working with people in person any longer. I worked with aggressive and reactive and fearful dogs for years. I will not work with someone virtually. I just personally do not think it's safe. I would much rather have a trainer there in-person to see with their own eyes what the dog is doing and they can put together a plan.

But now we're going to be talking about the other population of reactive dogs. The dogs who are mostly based in fear where they are barking or lunging because they're trying to make this thing, be it a person or a dog, go away. That's what all that big display is all about. "If you keep coming at me I may have to snap at you. I may even make contact with you. But more often that not, I would really prefer for you to just leave. And if you did leave, then I would retreat and go somewhere else."

Within that subset of dogs, you then have dogs who may also just be fearful. Whereas, yes, they do bark and lunge, but they also are just afraid. So, could just building their confidence overall, letting them know that they'll be kept safe. Could that be enough to help in including in their management? If you're going to be competing with this dog, depending on their level of reactivity, are there ways that you can just put in routines in place to help keep that dog safe? To do proper management, to ensure that they wouldn't have to be doing these sorts of things.

This is where I think as a community we just need to change our perspective of these things. It's not that your dog is being a jerk. It's not that your dog doesn't have manners. It's not that your dog is being abstinent. Your dog is afraid. Your dog is concerned. Your dog is doing what is 100 thousand percent totally appropriate for a dog to do. If I want that thing to go away, I'm gonna use all the tools in my toolbox to make it go away. That's barking and lunging. If that thing has any sense, it will leave me alone because there's a good potential that I may have to use my teeth if it doesn't.

To the dog this makes perfect sense. To us as humans, it's really not cool. It makes us nervous. It makes us embarrassed. We feel as though our first go to thing, particularly when dogs are reacting to other dogs is like, "What is wrong with you?" You're like, "They're just another dog." But to your dog, that dog could be terrifying. A big part of this is just changing the way the community looks at these things. That this is not your dog trying to embarrass you. This is not your dog trying to ruin your life. This is not your dog trying to make things difficult. This is your dog struggling with something. So, we need to come to terms with that as a community as a whole, so that we can have a better way of how we approach these things.

For me personally, if I have a student who has a reactive dog, our first goal is to figure out what type of reactivity is this. Is it towards people? Is it towards dogs? Is to towards both? Could it also include other things? What's the basis of that reactivity? Is it out of fear, or is it offensive aggression? Because if it's offensive aggression then there's a whole lot of things that are off the table, such as competition. We seriously need to work on this behavior modification program. If the dog is closer to just being flat out dangerous, even to the people who are with them at home, then we have some really difficult conversations that we have to have.

Luckily, that's not very common. There's the majority of reactive dogs are completely manageable that's more on the fear side, and you can actually teach them skills of how they can better deal with their triggers. If I have a student who we're working on giving the dog those skills on improving their ability to work around triggers, that we're putting management things in place that the owner, the handler can do. Better decisions that they can make on behalf of the dog. If the dog can learn to defer to their person to say, my person will keep me safe.

The question particularly if they're doing Scent Work with me is, well, they're doing really well in Scent Work and it definitely is helping. It's providing them with a higher quality of life. They really seem to like the game. Everything is going well. Do you think that I should compete? What I would urge all of my students to do is to actually volunteer at a trial with the venue that they were interested in competing with. And that was after they had already reviewed the rules for that venue, and they had seen whether or not that particular competition or organization is actually open to reactive dogs.

For instance, as of October of 2018, AKC Scent Work has put out a clarifying policy that for all intents and purposes, they are not specifically open to reactive dogs. They actually do not even have reactive dogs within their vocabulary as an organization. They will not permit clubs to design rules that are specific for reactive dogs, such as red bandanas or putting in place a six to eight foot spacing rule. That rather if competitors wanted to socialize with their dogs within the parking lots of the potty areas, they are actually welcome to do so.

For my clients that I may be working with who have reactive dogs, my opinion would be that that may not be the best place to put your reactive dog. And it's not that AKC doesn't want your dog to succeed. It's not that AKC hates your dog. It has nothing to do with that. But I always try to look to find how could this all go terribly wrong. If I bring my reactive dog to an AKC trial, to an AKC Scent Work trial, and at the very beginning of that trial there's a bunch of dogs socializing and playing in the potty area, and even dogs who know each other very well, even dogs who aren't reactive, can snark at one another. It's nothing big, but they still snark at each other.

But to a reactive dog, particularly one where it's based in fear where they think the other dogs are going to hurt them, if that were to happen even a little distance away, that can now put your dog at a more stressed state where they're like, "Oh no. There is a threat here, there is something for me to be worried about." The other issue about inviting people to socialize with their dogs is not just socializing with people, but saying oh, yeah, if you wanna socialize dog-to-dog that's fine. It's inviting people to walk up to my dog with their dog. If my dog is reactive, obviously that could be a really huge issue.

For me personally, I would say if you have a reactive dog, maybe at the very least see what that trial host does for their AKC Scent Work trials. If you're not comfortable with any part of it, then maybe compete with a different organization. That doesn't mean that you have to hate AKC Scent Work. Every single organization is completely entitled to create whatever standards or rules they like. As competitors, we just have to play good consumers and do our research. See what's going to work best for us and our dogs.

A lot of us have multiple dogs. I am of the very strange minority of professional trainers where I only have one. But there are many people who have multiple. You may have one dog that you're gonna compete with AKC Scent Work, and another that you may not. That's all about being an advocate for your dog. Find what's going to work best for them, what's gonna work best for you, and go from there. There is no golden rule, right or wrong as far as how to do this. At the end of the day, for me personally, what I would always urge my students to think of is, could you entering this trial potentially be a detriment to your dog being able to be successful after that trial?

In other words, if you were working on behavior modification, you are improving your dogs reactivity overall and so on and so forth. And you've been doing that for months or maybe even years. Would your going to this trial set all that back? And if that's the case, then maybe you just don't go to that trial, because all that hard earned progress shouldn't just simply be thrown away for even an attempt at a title. That just doesn't compute. It doesn't have the equal bearing of worth.

Then the question is, okay, well if I have a reactive dog and if I want to take a really hard look as to whether or not I want to do AKC Scent Work or not, well what about the other venues? Are there other venues that I could look into? Because I thought that reactive dogs were open in Scent Work, because there is only one dog in this pace. Now you have me a little confused.

It is generally true that Scent Work is as a sport generally speaking, is open to reactive dogs. The reason being is that the organization that started Scent Work, NACSW, which created the sport, they are indeed open to reactive dogs. The organization was started and the sport was started by people who worked specifically with a lot of shelter dogs, with a lot of reactive dogs, and they saw the value in the activity. When they designed the sport, it was with that in mind of giving those dogs in particular an opportunity to actually come out and play and earn titles, knowing full well that those dogs aren't welcome in other sports simply because it isn't safe.

This is where having an understanding of history really does help. The whole sport was designed to try to provide a civilian equivalent to what these people were doing in their professional work, of professional detection dog work. But that they also specifically themselves worked with shelter dogs and reactive dogs and wanted those dogs to have an outlet.

That doesn't mean that every single organization has to follow in those footsteps. Make sure that you're reading in the rules. Make sure that you're clear on what it is the organization would like to do. What types of things that either the organization or the hosting club would do in order to ensure that everything was safe. And again, volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. See these things first hand without your dog so that you can see whether or not it's suitable. See whether or not you would just be stressed the whole time. Even if a club is putting together every step that they can to ensure that everyone is safe, depending on you and your own individual dog, it could still be a really stressful situation.

If that's the case, then why don't you just play the game at home? There's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't make you or your dog bad. It doesn't make you or your dog lesser than. It means that you're making a good decision on behalf of both of you. It's really trying to determine what's best for you as an individual. Again, if you have multiple dogs, you may be making different decisions for each of your individual dogs.

The other thing I really wanted to talk about was in this definition of reactivity, is trying to nail down that one reactive dog may present completely different to another reactive dog. This is where as a community we just have to figure out whether or not that term is of any use anymore. Or if we need to determine other terms to use to describe what it is that we're seeing. There could be that a dog is "reactive" where they bark and lunge at other dogs for instance. But only in certain situations, where maybe if that dog that they're barking as is trying to sniff their butt, then they're gonna bark and lunge. But otherwise, they seem fine.

To place that dog in your mind as the only example of a reactive dog would not be giving you the full picture. Whereas other dogs may have a threshold where another dog can be a football field length away, and they're barking and lunging at the little silhouette of a dog on the horizon. We need to as a community have a better understanding of what this means. As dog owners, we do have to take responsibility of knowing who our dogs are, and whether or not they can be successful within a given situation. That is a fair thing to assume. That the onus is on us to ensure that we're advocating for our dogs and we're not putting them into situations where they could potential make a catastrophic mistake.

Like why frankly if it's a bad enough bite, they could be put to sleep. They could be humanely euthanized because of the bite itself, not to mention the damage they did to the other dog or the person, and all that fall out will be terrible. That responsibility lies with us. That's not just because it's a morally correct thing to do, it's also with the law generally speaking.

While that is true, that doesn't also mean that as a community that we don't have to have a understanding of the various types of reactivity. Just because you may have a dog who will just do a quick, get away from me, if a dog is trying to sniff their butt, that that is the only level of reactivity that anyone ever is dealing with. There may be other people who their dog is deemed "reactive" but really, their dog is just horribly terrified. They don't bark and lunge, but they shutdown instead. Instead of stressing up, they stress down. They would still need space. That dog deserves just as much space as a dog who's barking and lunging.

But there's so man people in our community that will completely discount this poor scared dog's desperate attempt to say, "Please stay away from me." And will keep encroaching, and encroaching, and encroaching until finally the dog decided to use their teeth because they had no other recourse, because they weren't being all loud and "obnoxious". Again, as a community we have to have an understanding of what this stuff is. This is why for me personally, having the red bandana rule is a good one.

Just because my dog isn't barking and lunging doesn't mean that I want your dog sniffing my dogs butt. It also doesn't mean that I want you to be encroaching on us. I had a client whose dog was dying with cancer. She was going to one final Scent Work trial to try to kind of have a last hoo rah. She placed a red bandana on that dog because she knew the dog didn't feel 100%. She also wanted to ensure that she was having one-on-one time with her dog and she wasn't having countless people come up going, oh, I want to say good bye.

The dog didn't wanna say good bye to anyone. The dog didn't realize that he was dying. He just wanted to have fun with his mother. So, she put a red bandana on him. People could send their condolences from afar, they were able to have fun for that very last trial. Having this notion that some how reminding people to think, to remember that our dogs are dogs, and that they may not want to be mugged not only by other dogs or by other people is a bad thing, it's just silly. It just, it's something that happens not just within Scent Work but just dogs overall just out in the world.

It's a ludicrous notion that your dog should have to tolerate being completely invaded by other people that they don't know and they shouldn't do anything. You as the person shouldn't be allowing that to happen. If that was your child, you wouldn't allow some stranger to come up and pinch their cheeks and pick them up and twirl them around and pat them on the bum. You would never in a million years allow that to happen. So, the same shouldn't be happening to dogs. This idea that somehow an owner trying to project to people, can you please give us some more space, where the red bandana is a bad thing, in my opinion is just silly.

We have to just be honest that there are times when we just don't think. We're at a trial, we love dogs, we see a fuzzy dog and we're like, oh, I want to go pet the fuzzy dog. But the fuzzy dog is wearing a red bandana. Hopefully something will click into my brain to turn back on and be like, oh, wait a minute that dog needs a little more space. But if that red bandana isn't there, and I'm like, oh, fuzzy dog, fuzzy dog, fuzzy dog, and the owner is like, please stay back, please stay back. And then you have other people going, well are you being so anti-social? It just, it's awful.

Again, as a community, I think we just need to have a better understanding of all these different things. No, it shouldn't be that at a trial that we're trying to accommodate Kujo, who is trying to kill everyone. And everyone has to hide in their cars with the doors locked as a helicopter comes in to oversee whether or not this dog can actually get into the search area. Of course not. That's ludicrous, that's insane, that would never happen. It's not what we're talking about.

We're also not saying that at a trial that only reactive dogs can be accommodated and now all other "normal dogs" are being jipped. That's not the case either. All we're saying is to remind people of who it is that we're working with. We're working with dogs who may not really appreciate other dogs up in their space, and who also may not appreciate other people suddenly coming over in their space.

That honestly applies to all dogs. Your dog doesn't have to be reactive to not like those things. I'm hoping that with this podcast we can at least have a better understanding of what reactivity could actually be. It doesn't necessarily always have to be that the dog is barking and lunging at the end of their leash. It doesn't always have to be towards dogs. It could be towards people as well. That it could be a dog who just needs more space because they're terribly afraid.

But that the onus does still stay with the owner. That we're not trying to advocate their responsibility as an owner. That okay, well, I still need to make good choices for my dog. Yes, you do still need to make good choices for your dog. That's not the responsibility of the community at large, or for the competition al organization they may choose to compete with. That responsibility does lie solely with you. But there are things that we can do as a community, as fellow dog owners, and even as competition organizations to make things safer. To just ensure that everyone is being safe. And that we're just using some common sense.

The one thing that I will say, having worked specifically with reactive, fearful, and aggressive dogs the entirety of my professional dog training career, is that this is a very hot button topic emotionally for the owners. You feel attacked. You feel attacked by the whole world. More often than not you didn't seek out having a dog who is fearful, reactive, or aggressive. You just wanted to have a companion. You may have wanted to do dog sports or something else, but then lo and behold your dog has these issues.

You can get very defensive because if feels as though the world is against you. As a community, it would be nice if we could just be a little bit more understanding so that these people don't feel so attacked. And at the same point, for my fellow people who have had dogs who are fearful, reactive, or aggressive, it's also crucially important to just be honest about your dog. And that can be very, very, very hard.

If you take a good, long, hard look at your dog, and you say you know what, my dog is actually aggressive. My dog isn't reactive, my dog isn't fearful, my dog does want to bite. Then that dog has no place at a trial. And that's hard to admit, I know. It's really, really painful. But we have to be willing to make that determination. I have worked with people who have called me. Oh, yeah, my dog has bitten 14 people, can you help? And it's like, I'm sorry, that dog bit 14 people too many. I can help set up an appointment with a vet so that we could maybe say good bye to this dog. The response was, oh, no, no, no, the dog is fine. It was always everyone else's fault. That doesn't make any sense. At no point in time should your dog have to use their teeth, particularly 14 times. That's insane.

Again, there just needs to be a recognition of responsibility across the board. There is no one group who is at fault for this. Everyone needs to do more, and everyone needs to do better. Part of that solution is just coming up with better terms that we can use so we're all talking about the same thing, then I'm all for that. And I would be happy to work with any of my fellow colleagues to try to come up with better terms, so that we're talking about the same thing. Because a dog who is merely trying to make things go away, is very different from a dog who says "Oh, yes, I would like to kill you now." Those are two completely different dogs.

Just because a dog isn't barking and lunging doesn't mean that dog still doesn't need space. I hope this helps somewhat at least get you thinking about how it is that you may be approaching the topic of what is a reactive dog, of maybe looking at your own dog or your client's dogs in a more honest light. How you may be able to better assess who they are. And whether or not you should be competing with them. If you don't have any of these types of dogs, maybe it can help you have a little bit more empathy, that the people who own these dogs are not looking for special treatment. They're just looking for a little bit of understanding, and an opportunity to have fun with their dogs too.

Because again, more often than not, they didn't seek this out. Not many people walk into a shelter or to a breeder and say, "Hey, I would love to have a dog who has a whole slew of issues. Sign me up.!" That's typically not what people do. It's just something that happens. If you've never had to experience owning a reactive dog of whatever variety that may be, you may just assume that it's because, "Oh, well that person just doesn't know how to train. Well, if I had that dog I'd be able to fix it lickity split." It's not that easy. It's a lot more complicated than that.

Again, I think if we all do better as a community, it would help overall. I feel as though this podcast turned into a little bit more rambling than I would have liked, but I do think that some of these topics are important for us to discuss, and just to think about ruminate about.

I hope it was somewhat helpful. Happy training and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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