Dog Reactivity

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Being with your dog is one of the most rewarding opportunities we have…that is unless your dog gets crazy over certain things and can’t be made to calm down, then it can be a nightmare. Most dog’s reactivity is due to one of two things; fear or aggression, fear being the most common. To work through these issues, it’s important we provide our dogs with a safe environment and work to change their associations with the things that put them on guard.

FAQ

You have three choices available (1) Wait and practice distraction behaviors (get as much distance as necessary and possible), (2) Moving Leave it! - walk past other dog (bodies between dogs) and (3) Emergency U-turns, turn into your dog and keep tension out of the leash.
This isn't uncommon at all. Often the leash is the issue. Encourage your dog to come to your opposite side and either sit quietly or walk past appropriately. Distance from the dog is key here!
Shy, anxious, fearful dogs often need something to focus on - at least initially. Teach your pup the Look behavior and then encourage it whenever they see another dog. At first they won't be able to do it for long but with practice most will excel.
To work on this, me and the pup go as far as we have to into the yard to be comfortable enough to take a treat when a dog walks past. The key to getting success here is to go slow and work in small increments. Also try not to let your dog get away with carrying on when you're not there to manage the behavior. And be sure your pup is getting enough exercise.
Set up a playgroup with a mature dog who will correct the puppy - appropriately. This can actually work well for many young adult dogs who also come on too strong. The key is finding a large and appropriate dog to interact with.
Teach your dog something to do anytime a dog comes close (come to the side of your knee works great) but also be sure to intervene and not let the other dogs get too close (bodies between dogs!) Work to change your dogs association with other dogs by sitting with them in a place where they can watch but not interact with other dogs and feed them tasty treats to feel more comfortable.
Some dogs, with the right playgroups and a lot of practice, can learn proper play techniques, others need to be managed to be sure they stay below threshold. Often the age, size, history, etc will affect whether or not this can be overcome.

Before you begin….Management v Training

Managing your dog means setting up the environment and your life in such a way as to ensure nothing bad can happen to them and they cannot do much damage. For example, until I’m sure a dog is over their chewing phase, they’re monitored while in rooms with the decent furniture.

Actually most of us use management the majority of the time – more than 80%! Management is the key to having fun with your dog and not loosing your cool every time you get home. A crate is a common form of management, the dog is confined until they learn not to be destructive when you’re away. Management is also used during reactivity.

At pranaDOGS the management tools we use include belly bands, head halters, no-pull harnesses and for those dogs who have bitten in the past – muzzles. And treats, lots of treats. Consider this, you’re not just trying to get your dog to do something, you’re trying to get them to give up something that has worked for them – that’s asking a lot, for any of us. Do your dog a favor and stock up on cheese sticks, chicken and frozen meatballs.

If your dog barks or lunges or is completely out-of-control on the leash, use a Gentle Leader head halter. Gentle Leaders work by fitting around the dogs mouth and attaching to the leash. If your dog lunges or pulls, their mouth is closed by the pressure on the leash and they are turned back toward you. Often when dogs have success with their mouths (barking, lunging, etc) they don’t try any other coping mechanisms. But if we can get the mouth of the equation, then we can get them to look away and begin to pay attention to you.

Be sure to use tools that help you! Prong, pinch or so-called training collars are negative reinforcement and inject discomfort – and even pain – into an already tense situation. I’ve seen more than one reactive dog loose it with one of these collars on only to thrive once the negative collar was removed.

Use management when you’re zoned out, when you’re on the phone or when you’ve had a bad day. They’re also a great way to start out your walk with an overly happy and active dog. Half-way through your walk, change your dog over to their flat collar or harness to give them a chance to do well. If they struggle go back to the management tool, if they do well, reward them!

To be successful at training your dog, practice Calm Confidence. Lets face it, reactive dogs engage our internal radar where we constantly strive to see dogs before getting caught off guard. Because of this we’ve developed our own coping mechanisms; crossing the street, tightening up our hold on the leash, etc. Many people actually signal to their dog that another dog is near, rather than disguising it.

Just like your pup, you need to build back up your confidence; take short walks ideally in places where you won’t see any dogs. Practice communicating with your dog – practice before you need it – and if you find yourself getting anxious, take a deep breath and shake the tension out of the leash – and your body!

Putting it into Practice

#1 Teach your dog two behaviors: Leave it and Look; then practice in every room of your house, on every piece of furniture, when you’re sitting, standing, upside down, when you’re in a bad mood or a weird one, when it’s raining outside or the wind is blowing. Then in the playground, at the school, wherever you’re going to frequent. Practice until your dog is so darn comfortable that it’s second nature. Remember that it’s important to practice when things are different for your dog, different in the environment and different with you.

#2 Go to a controlled place – a place where dogs walk by but where you can get some distance from them, You need a place or time that has enough dog traffic to give your dog some repetition but enough room to not stress your pup out.

Practice Leave it and Look over and over and over again. Ideally until your dog looks at you as soon as they see a dog (ideally before you even say anything). Oh and this is not a time to be stingy. Tasty morsels every time your dog glances in your direction – don’t look for long looks here, we just need him/her to be able to take their gaze away from the other dog

#3 Once your pup is automatically looking at you when they see a dog 50% of the time or more it’s time to practice on your walks in different settings, with different distractions present and so forth.

And remember if your dog is struggling, you’ve made it too difficult. Just because you can’t tell what’s wrong, chances are something is off. Either take a break or make it easier. Set your dog up for success!

Remember….

  • If you have your dogs back…they don’t need to respond – be sure to always look out for them (even if you’re not going to be around!!)
  • Bodies between Dogs
  • Take a breath….chances are you’re bringing something to the equation, so be sure to work on relaxing yourself, finding ways to keep it fun and light and to not add stress to the situation
  • If you’re going to turn away…Turn into your Dog
  • If things are going sideways….Get Distance. If you can’t get enough distance, get your dog up onto something for some height or get down to their height (for support).
  • The goal is success; so set yourselves up by bringing along some chicken, liver, cheese or hotdogs – and be generous. We’re trying to overcoming a behavior that has been working incredibly well, so we need something strong to break the pattern.
  • Practice Leave it! before you go out for your walks; it’s tough to remember how to do something if you only do it when you’re freaked out. During your walks, continue to practice Leave it! as well as sitting, looking at you, touching your hand, etc
  • Don’t let your dog get pressured or cornered
  • Understand that this is going to take some time…especially if multiple people walk the dog. Many dogs need between 20 and 200 successful repetitions before they begin to overcome their reactivity.

Reference material….

Leave it & Look Exercises

Dog Reactivity handout

What type of dog do you have?

When dogs overreact and Puppy Pacifiers

Interrupt and Redirect

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