I’m often asked what to do when a dog shows reactive or aggressive behaviour and how a guardian can ensure that it never happens again. My response usually surprises guardians.
For decades people have been told that they should punish their dog or interrupt the behaviour and that’ll stop it from happening. Although you may see the behaviour stop or decrease in that particular moment, likely the next time you’re in a similar situation, your dog will respond reactively again because punishment doesn’t lead to understanding. In fact, using punishment is likely to lead to further confusion, mistrust and disconnection.
So what should you do when your dog behaves reactively or aggressively? You should listen to them. Reactive behaviour isn't a choice that a dog makes to purposely behave badly. Behaviour is communication and reactive behaviour is a way for your dog to tell you that they are in a situation that they can't handle. I know aggression and reactivity looks offensive in nature, but in most cases, the behaviour you see is actually defensive and functions to avoid conflict or escape a scary situation.
Similarly if you were to run into a grizzly bear while out on a walk. You are not making a choice to behave the way you do. Your nervous system is kicking into survival mode to get you the heck out of there because you are in a potentially life threatening situation. If you put yourself into your dog's paws and imagine their experience through fear the way you'd experience something terrifying, you'll see that your dog is not trying to be bad, they are desperate for help to feel safe.
A great number of guardians expect cooperation or responsiveness to cues from their dog when they are triggered into a defensive or survival state but this is actually impossible if you consider the way the brain works. When you dog's mental state shifts from being calm and connected to defensive, there are changes that happen within the body and the autonomic nervous system to shift their focus from joy to survival. How well could you cooperate if you felt like your life was in danger? How well could you learn something new? Have you ever tried to solve a math problem as a rattle snake slithered towards you? What would you need in that moment?
Advances in neuroscience have provided us with a deeper understanding of what dogs need in these moments and how we can better support them through their fear and help them learn. Dogs don't need to learn to heel or to sit & stay to overcome their fears. What they need is to feel safe and then they need to replace the fear with joy. Fear and joy are incompatible emotions so to overcome fear, focus on the things that bring your dog joy.
The 3Cs give you a actionable plan to help your dog relax, feel safe and experience joy. Without considering the 3Cs it will be very difficult to access the canine learning brain in a gentle, effective and ethical manner. The 3Cs are: calm, connection & cooperation - in that order.
When your dog is having a hard time, the first step is to get them back to a calm & regulated state. Your dog can not cooperate & respond to cues if they are in a defensive (orange zone) state or a survival (red zone) state. Dogs in these mental/emotional states are only thinking about escaping or surviving and although their behaviour may look offensive, it’s really not meant to hurt anyone but rather to avoid any potential conflict. To reach the canine learning brain you must help your dog regulate and return to a calm state and then you can move onto step two: connect.
Once your dog is calm, you can connect in the emotional space with empathy, understanding & compassion. Connection and feeling safe work together in a dance of reciprocity. You can’t have one without the other. To be connected is to also feel safe and to feel safe is also to be connected. Connection happens when you take a moment to share a space of empathy, acceptance and understanding, rather than feeling like your dog needs to change or behave better. To be connected both you and your dog must feel calm.
Once your dog is calm and you're both connected, your dog will be able to shift out of the orange zone and into the yellow zone. After they’ve left the defensive state behind, they are now in a learning state, which brings us to step three: cooperation.
To help your dog overcome their fearful, reactive or anxious behaviour, you have to help them to a calm, regulated state first, then they need to feel safe through their connection with you, then and only then, can you gently transition into playing learning games that promote fun & cooperation to bring on the JOY!
To teach the canine learning brain, remember the 3Cs in this order:
Calm - regulate
Connect - safety
Cooperate - learn
This is how the brain works and following these steps will not only transform your partnership with your dog, but also how you support your children and resolve conflicts with loved ones.