Deciphering the Dance: Is it fear, leash reactivity, or aggression?

I’ve spoken about Phoebe’s reactivity before as it’s been one of the major anxiety based behaviours we needed to overcome. Some of our work on this has included obedience training, weekly behavioural Fun Class and lots of reading and scouring of the internet.

I’m happy to report that after a year and a half of hard work with Phoebe we are both far more calm and have both learned better coping mechanisms and to trust the other one to handle any situations with a bit more confidence and better coping mechanisms. This of course doesn’t mean that the issues have magically disappeared, but there’s definite improvement.

We go to the Fun Class at Dog on the Couch every Saturday morning. This specific class is the one Phoebe “graduated” into after we completed the obedience certificate, but we still needed a lot more work and guidance. This specific class is perfect because the dogs have a range of needs and temperaments, different levels of socialisation and most importantly 90% of the work is done “on leash” so that both anti-social and overly-boisterous dogs can always be kept under control to not pose any threats to the other human and canine participants while having fun and training.

This past week I got to see first hand how far Phoebe had come with her reactivity and tolerance of other dogs when one of her off leash canine classmates rushed at her.

The background to this is: when Phoebe began Fun Class a year ago we had to constantly maintain our distance from other dogs because she would lunge, snarl and bark all the time. The behaviourist would do her best to console me, but I have to be honest and admit that I was often very despondent. This cycle would continue, but then with determination and small corrections she has become better and better at being around other dogs. She can now be close to them, but they just mustn’t make challenging eye contact or stand too close. This was the most wonderful positive thing to happen! We constantly celebrate all the little achievements! But as with most stories, there is a BUT…

… but there is a bouncy Beagle in class who has decided that since the day he first wanted to greet Phoebe and she spurned him that he just can’t take his eyes off her and needs to “yell” (a.k.a barking ferociously) whenever they are in the same area. He can bark at her for hours on end, and can get a bit out of control if he gets close to her. It’s often very frustrating for me, Phoebe, his owners, and himself, but our trainer Mignon has been diligently working on teaching us coping mechanisms that we can apply practically in everyday situations like these. The good news is that Phoebe has been doing excellently and happily ignores his barking and hysterics as long as he isn’t close to her. WELL DONE PHOEBE!!

Now that we’ve covered the background, let’s move on to this week’s unintentional practical lesson on leash reactivity.

As part of our preparation for the Silver Canine Good Citizen we spend each lesson practicing one of the 12 requirements. This week it was interacting with your off-leash dog near other on-leash dogs. When Phoebe and I went to stand in front of the class I gingerly removed her leash and we jumped and played around for a minute and then she sat quietly as I put her leash back on again. Phoebe has never struggled with focussing on me, but now not only does she focus on me, but she’s reached the point where she can even totally ignore the other dogs. Yay Phoebe!

… but then it was Benji the Beagles’ turn. his focus with his owner is still off if Phoebe is around, so I quietly left the area we were practicing in and walked away. I only realised afterwards that a big mistake I made was to stand by Benji’s Mom and chat. Benji was doing great at playing off leash with his Dad, but then it happened… out of the corner of his eye he saw Phoebe standing with his Mom across the field.

Uh oh.

Within a flash Benji was racing across the field barking at us and making a beeline for Phoebe. Phoebe was really great at ignoring him, and I thought I might successfully be able to quietly steer her away before chaos erupted. No such luck. There was a great racket, Phoebe was straining at the leash, they were both bouncing around each other and there was lots of baring of teeth. At the moment I heard Mignon yell at me to drop the leash and walk away I had already decided to do exactly that. I walked off clapping and calling Phoebe to me as I remained calm on the outside, but on the inside I was silently panicking and trying to remember the shortest route to the nearest emergency Vet. But then a wonderful thing happened: I heard the hullabaloo behind me start to die down, and realised Phoebe was trotting right behind me and Benji had been safely secured as soon as she turned around. Crisis averted. Phew

Doing the Dance. As Phoebe and Benji circled each other and yelled I had to figure out if this dance would end with a polite curtsey, or if something more serious would transpire

Doing the Dance. As Phoebe and Benji circled each other and yelled I had to figure out if this dance would end with a polite curtsey, or if something more serious would transpire

So what was it that happened here? And what lessons can be learned?

When I first got Phoebe I really struggled to understand the differences between Reactivity, Fear and Aggression as to my untrained eye they all seemed to be the same thing, and all warranted a panicked reaction. I could still have it wrong here, but the way I interpreted this situation was that in this case Phoebe was displaying Leash Reactivity, and has learned enough trust and coping mechanisms to handle the situation in a completely appropriate manner.

By my understanding, the following are the ways she would have reacted differently according to the “root” emotion:

Fear: Had Phoebe been fearful she would have been nervous at first sight of Benji running toward her. She would have displayed typical body language signs like cowering, whale eye, whining and starting to try to run. Once Benji reached her at full speed (and volume) I’m pretty sure she would have barked and struck a fast nip and/or bite at him – they were certainly close enough to each other for either one to cause harm to the other!

Aggression: I’ve never thought she was an inherently aggressive dog, but if she was, I’m sure she would have risen to the challenge as soon as she saw him barreling toward her, and there would be one (maybe two) barks to back off followed by a dog fight with casualties.

Leash Reactivity: To me, this is clearly what it was because as soon as the leash was slack and I dropped it she danced around a bit more, but began to lower her barking levels, she was also very happy (and anxious) to leave the situation quickly by choosing to run after me and go to where she knew I would make the right decision as to our safety.

It’s moments like these that make me so proud of how far Phoebe has come. It also reminds me of how far I have come in gaining a better understanding of the way she thinks, and as to how I need to remain calm and remember that both of us know the right decisions to make in order to calmly escape a situation either of us are uncomfortable in.

Phoebe’s Effectiveness Summary:

Issue Addressed: Leash Reactivity, Fear

Tool(s) Used: Basic Obedience – Recall, Understanding Canine Body Language

Cost: Low. Training sessions on Obedience, play etc every week

Ease of Implementation: Easy to Moderate. Once you know what signs to look for, and can implement your knowledge of training and body language this becomes easier and easier

Phoebe’s Effectiveness Rating: 5/5. As with all training and learned behaviour, this is only effective if the learning is ongoing. I try to walk Phoebe every day when possible, and teaching her to ignore other dogs, and how to react to them is something I am consciously doing every single time her leash is put on. It’s great to see the hard work pay off emotionally and in practical situations.


Have you had any moments where you struggle to decipher if your dog is being reactive, fearful or aggressive? How did you manage the situation?


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