I had a great question recently:
“Is it possible for a dog to be reactive to quiet and ‘the unexpected’?”
The person who posed this question was puzzled that their dog seemed able to cope with busy or noisy situations, but would react violently to any sight or sound when the environment was otherwise empty or quiet. The owner was worried that his dog may be unusual or wrong in some way.
As I answered, it became clear that quite a few owners of reactive dogs are puzzled by this. So I’m giving you my answer as it may answer a question that you have too!
This is a good question! It baffles and misleads a lot of people.
Picture this: you are visiting your local shops. It’s afternoon, the shops are busy, there are mothers with pushchairs, delivery vans, people with shopping bags, boys on bikes … How do you feel?
Absolutely fine and comfortable, I’d bet.
Now imagine you go there at 1 in the morning. The place is deserted. You hear footsteps getting louder, and peering into the gloom you can just make out a figure heading towards you. How do you feel?
Most of us would be on high alert at the very least, possibly really alarmed.
The same man ambling through the crowds in the afternoon probably wouldn’t have bothered you at all.
There is a technical name for this - it’s SEC or Sudden Environmental Change.
Dogs are designed to spot things which are different, things which shouldn’t be there. They can single out something amiss and focus intently on it. This is one reason why they have earned their place in our homes down the ages. They are alarm sensors!
So your dog is behaving absolutely normally.
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Sudden Environmental Change? Wha’?
There is a reason so many of our working dogs are so useful in their work. Take German Shepherds for instance, who can spot an intruder or an escaping criminal in a split-second, and take action.
Border Collies, those wonderful sheep-herders, can instantly spot a ewe whose ear is twitching in the wrong direction, indicating that she’s about to break and take the flock with her. The Collie can get round in an instant to block the ewe and make sure she keeps going in the right direction.
In the image at the top of the page, young Coco Poodle just has to check out this strange sign in an otherwise green and empty landscape.
Sighthounds can spot the tiniest movement in a still place at a huge distance. Something moving in the landscape could well be dinner!
Dogs searching for evidence may not have a specific scent or object in mind - they’re just looking for something that shouldn’t be there.
And this is why your dog may react dramatically to the doorbell, or a car door slamming outside your home.
WHO IS THIS?
WHAT ARE THEY DOING HERE?
ARE WE UNDER THREAT?
For this ability alone, dogs have earnt their place by our fireplaces for so many thousands of years - it’s about 30,000 years, in fact.
The fact is that the hearing and sight capabilities of the dog so far outweigh our own. When it comes to their noses, they are unparalleled, and are the reason dogs are an important tool for the police, and in airports and ports worldwide. They’re far quicker at discovering evidence and identifying contraband than much of the sophisticated machinery also in use!