A friend and I were recently talking about our reactive dogs. "Reactivity is reactivity, right?" she asked me. "The trigger doesn't really change the approach at all. Wouldn't you agree?" What an excellent question! A while back, I believe I described as "any unwanted behavior a dog offers when presented with a trigger" (I think I did anyway, I can't find it now). So under the idea that an unwanted behavior is an unwanted behavior, then yes, reactivity is reactivity. On the other hand, there's a wide variety unwanted behaviors, and just as many causes and triggers as there are different dogs. Nowhere is this more apparent than with my own two reactive pit bulls.
Maus is a gentle soul and a nervous one. I often refer to him as the bravest of my dogs, because EVERYTHING scares him, and he tries so hard to be good anyway. He's the type of dog that is afraid of fire hydrants (I'm not kidding) and twitches at plastic bags. For the first year that I had him, it took at least fifteen minutes just to convince him that going outside for a walk was kind of a good thing. Sometimes. Maybe. He's still the only dog in the house that isnt's required to sit before going out the front door. It's just not a big motivator for him: "Here, Maus, sit and behave so we can go do something you don't like." Maus's main trigger is people, which is a Big Deal in and of itself. I'm much less willing to take risks with him than I would be with a dog that has a different trigger. Biting a human is pretty much the worse thing a dog can ever do. I'm lucky, though, that when Maus is confronted with a trigger, his first reflex is to run away. I remember once at the vet, Maus tried to hide by climbing over me, under his chair, and through the wall behind us - and that was before the vet even looked at him. Maus has eye contact issues: he'll stare at something and he can't bring himself to look away. His eyes start getting wider and he goes very still. He growls – not loudly, not viciously, but quiet and steady. If I let him get past this point, he might bark a few times, and he's air snapped once or twice. There's not a lot of show to Maus, and personally, I think that makes him pretty scary. So I watch him obsessively, work him slowly, and keep things very calm and relaxed.
If Maus if like a calm, chill fall day, than Rubi is the boiling heat of summer. She does everything with full force and gusto – trust me, you know when she's reacting. Everyone in North America knows when Rubi is reacting. I've never seen Rubi retreat from anything. It's like someone removed the "caution" part of her brain, an intense contrast to Maus who is cautious and suspicious of most everything. It's hard to imagine two dogs less like each other. B likes to move, Maus likes to sit and watch. B moves forward when she reacts, Maus runs away. The root cause of Rubi's reactivity is definitly frustration - "I want it, and I want it NOW!" - whereas Maus is motivated out of fear. Rubi loves to work; she'll go for hours and never show signs of flagging. Whereas Maus tends to think he's done after about forty-five minutes of intense training (if we're doing somthing low-key, he'll hang in there for longer). After so many months of training, I'm 90% confident that Rubi's behavior is learn. She has enough drive and energy that she found he own channels for it when people weren't able to keep up with her. I believe Maus's issues are primarily genetic. He had, by all accounts, every possible advantage that a homeless dog could get growing-up: a foster home, good training, lots of socialization, the whole package. And yet, here he is, neurotic as a lemming (I imagine lemmings are quite neurotic, although I admit that I do not understand the lemming mind).
Is it possible that there's a gentic component to Rubi's issues? Oh, undoubtedly. After all, it's unlikely that Rubi would be reactive if she wasn't such a high drive, high energy dog. In order for any animal to be capable of any activity, it has to be physically and mentally able to do it - both genetic qualities. Fish do not perform neurosurgery. And pigs, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, do not fly. But if Rubi were given the same advantages in puppy hood that Maus enjoyed, would she have the same problems that she or Maus have now? I find it unlikely. However, that doesn't mean her issues are easier to fix because they are learned behaviors. I've met many dogs in her situation who were unable to overcome their pasts, just as there are many genetically unsound dogs who are similarly trapped in their own minds. I've mentioned before that a reactive dog is always a reactive dog; there is no "cure" for reactivity. It's not just not within a reactive dog's capabilities to undo that hyper awareness of other dogs (or people or skateboards or fire hydrants - whatever your demon might be).
In the end, reactive dogs have a handicap. How deep it goes and how heavy it weighs depends on the individual dog. While the core techniques for most reactive dogs remain the same, the best way to lighten each dog's burden is as unique and intricate as the dog. It's one of the reasons relationship is so important; knowing the dog is one step closer to understanding how to best to help them. And, of course, while a cure might be out of reach, you never know how well you might be able to fake it. Pigs not might fly, but who's to say how high they can jump?