You Have a Friend- Reactive Dog Training Program

white dog with blue harness and a happy face

Why do we need to talk about reactive dog training and how it can help? Simply stated, when we bring a dog into our families, we have an idea of what life will be like with this new family member.  As a dog trainer, I often have the opportunity to hear the stories clients share of what they hoped life would be like with their dog.  Some see doing long hikes in the woods, others see sitting on a patio at local restaurants with their dog, soaking up the energy of the city on a warm summers evening.  Of all the stories I hear, not one person has said to me that they were really hoping their dog would be reactive to people or other dogs.

Having a reactive dog brings with it a host of issues, for the dog, the pet guardian and the public.  Being the guardian of a reactive dog myself, I understand the emotional toll that caring for a reactive dog can take- you cannot let your guard down for a second!  What other dog guardians see as a relaxing stroll on a hiking trail or through their neighborhood, becomes an exercise in hyper vigilance of the pet guardian as well as the dog.  After just 15 minutes, the pet guardian is exhausted, the dog is on edge and nobody had a good time!  There is hope!  There is help for the reactive dog, but before we get into that, let’s talk about what is reactivity and how can reactive dog training help.

 

What is Reactivity in Dogs?

According to an article posted by the AKC, reactivity is simply when a dog overreacts to certain stimuli.  It may have a variety of reasons including improper socialization, fear of the stimuli, insufficient impulse control training, or other reasons.  We have to remember that dogs are wonderful at what we call single-event learning, which simply means that one negative experience can shape a dogs view of a particular stimulus.

As an example, I used to have a Great Dane named Jesse.  Jesse loved other dogs and attended a day care in Ohio when we lived there.  One day, a Golden Retriever was overstimulated and he redirected a bite right onto Jesses ear.  Jesse was injured and taken to the vet.  From that day on, he was reactive to other dogs, but especially dogs that were about the size of a Golden Retriever.  That one event shaped his view of dogs and how he interacted with them  going forward.  This happens often with dogs- they are wonderful at associations and learning. This is not to say that every time there is an incident, your dog will become reactive, but only to demonstrate that an event CAN shape their responses.

Dogs can be reactive to one stimulus (or trigger) or multiple.  Common triggers for reactive dogs include:

  • New people approaching the house
  • People approaching on the street that the dog does not know
  • People with facial hair, hats, sunglasses, backpacks, or large jackets
  • Children
  • Other dogs that the dog does not know
  • Wildlife (squirrels, rabbits, etc)
  • Skateboards, bikes or cars
  • Joggers, runners, etc
  • Barriers like fences, crates, etc

 

 

What does Dog Reactivity Look Like?

Dog reactivity can be confused with aggression, but it’s different; although the two are related.  Typically, aggression in dogs stems from fear and they use, what we term aggressive behaviors, to create space or avoid a threat.  This can be anything from growling, lunging, barking, biting, etc.  I use the phrase “what we term aggressive behavior” because it is our view that the dogs behavior is inappropriate, but from the dogs perspective, it’s communication, and it works.  This is topic that is best suited for another day, but just realize that dogs use their bodies and voices to communicate intent to each other. That intent may be “go away and give me space”, “I’m friendly and want to play” or “Please don’t see me as a threat”.

tan dog showing signs of anxiety by pulling his ears backWith reactivity in dogs, the behaviors can be similar.  Often we see the following:

  • Barking
  • Lunging
  • Hiding
  • Tail tucked- or raised high and stiff
  • Shaking
  • Trying to run away
  • some dogs will redirect their frustration and nip or bite at the leash, their guardian, etc.

Every dog is different in how they present when they are reactive, but the one thing that is common is they are trying to create space between themselves and the trigger.  Many dogs have learned that if they bark or lunge, the scary thing goes away so they keep doing it!  Remember dogs are great at learning!  If something works to create the space they need, they will keep doing it. When a communication is not working, however, (for example, growling is not working) they may escalate until something does work.  “Barking isn’t working? Ok , let’s add lunging and see if that works.  It did-Noted.  Next time, bark and lunge”.

black dog with blue harness and green leashOne thing to keep in mind, oftentimes we see dog reactivity get worse with a leash or a barrier like a crate.  The reason for this is that dogs use their whole bodies to communicate what their intent is and what they are thinking.  When we add a leash to the mix and hold it tight, we take away their ability to move away, to roll over and show their bellies, to change direction, etc.  Basically, we take away a large part of their ability to communicate with the world.  Add to this, the fact that many of us approach dogs in a head on manner (which can be perceived as threatening) and it becomes easier to see why the reactivity increases with a leash.

What are the Consequences of Dog Reactivity?

Dog reactivity is a sign that your dog is fearful or anxious.  None of us want our dogs to feel the physical or mental effects of stress and anxiety because it can lead to health issues. The hormones that are released in your dogs body when they are experiencing stress, fear or anxiety can have serious health implications including a shortened life span, trouble learning, cardiac issues, and more!

When reactivity is not addressed, the observable behaviors can increase leading to aggression.  A reactive dog may nip or event bite another dog or person (even their pet guardian).  They may escape their harness and run away, jeopardizing their physical safety.  Plus, a dog who is reactive is having how they view the world shaped.  Imagine if you had to go outside for a “relaxing walk” but all you felt was incredible fear and anxiety, you are hyper vigilant and nervous the whole time.  Eventually, going for that “relaxing walk” becomes a very negative experience and you are not able to enjoy leaving the house.  In fact, just getting ready to leave increases your stress and fear.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the emotional side for the human end of the leash too.  We, as a society, have a tendency to judge others and to not tolerate what we don’t like.  When a dog is barking, lunging, trying to run away- as a pet guardian, we can be very aware of the judgment of others.  We are often embarrassed and wonder if people think we are not good pet guardians. We want others to know that our dog is a good dog, but we don’t know how to share this when our dog is loudly and forcefully trying to create space.  I know the stress it causes me when I need to be on alert the entire walk, or when my dog is having a difficult day how it can be embarrassing.  I often hear pet guardians share that they feel like they cannot enjoy a walk with their pet, like others are judging them.  They often feel like no one understands- but they are wrong.

Dog reactivity is rising for a variety of reasons.  We ask dogs to live in an environment they were not evolutionarily designed to live in, we ask them to be in close proximity to many stimuli with little chance to fully decompress and so many more reasons.  This means that more dog guardians than ever understand the emotional and physical toll of caring for a reactive dog. A program of reactive dog training that focuses on caring for the dog and the pet guardian is what we have developed.

 

Reactive Dog Training: how to help

When we are working with a pet guardian for reactive dog training, we take a three pronged approach of Observe, Honor and Teach.  These phases are fluid and interconnected.  We will explore each one here, then will do a deeper dive into how training can help a dog with reactivity. We call our program You Have a Friend- Reactive Dog Training Program because we believe that by building the relationship between pet guardian and pet, we are helping them forge a friendship that is strong and leads to great success with increased trust, reliance and compassion.

In a previous blog post, Leash Aggression in Dogs, we covered things like management, threshold and other basics of reactivity. This post is intended to discuss how the three prongs of our program work together to help both the pet guardian and the dog when training reactive dogs.

Observe: the reactive dog and environment

gray and white poodle in a park, observing body language in reactive dogOur first step is to speak with the pet guardian and get details about what they are seeing in their dog.  What are the triggers? At what threshold does the trigger elicit a reactive response from the dog? What does that response look like?

We will physically observe the dogs body language when walking with their guardian to see what the dog is communicating and when. We watch to see how quickly the dog recovers, or if they can recover.  We also watch and observe the guardians body language (we often need to remind them to breathe, relax or loosen their grip on the leash). Many pet guardians are not aware of the fact that when they are anxious or predicting a reaction, they send energy down the leash and the dog is able to read and respond to that energy.

Of course we also observe the environment.  We are looking for triggers in the environment, trying to predict when a trigger may appear (this is important for the later two phases of honoring the communication and teaching). We are aware of potential ways we can change direction and create space for the dog, or can we use environmental items like parked cars to prevent the dog from being exposed to a trigger within their threshold.

Honor: the reactive dog

Next we work with the pet guardian to put these observations into practice to help their dog.  We teach them about canine body language, what is their dog trying to share with them.  Noticing more subtle forms of communication that your dog is sharing and honoring those, will help your dog realize they don’t have to go right to the extreme.  If the pet guardian sees their dogs tail drop and their ears pull back, and the guardian helps the dog create more space and get comfortable, it is more likely the dog will try to use the more subtle cues next time.

Honoring your dogs emotions shows them they can trust you.  Trust is key in working on reactivity.  My dog, does not care for other dogs, however, he trusts that I will keep him safe, won’t ask him for more than he can do and will protect him.  Because we have this trust, when we are approached by an off leash dog, he now looks to me and waits for my reaction.  We have a relationship that he fully understands I will do everything I can to keep him safe, so he no longer feels the need to react with barking and lunging.

Honoring the dog in front of you is more than knowing that your dog can easily see a dog 50ft away and not react but will have a reaction at 30ft.  Once you have that knowledge, you need to do your best to keep your dog under their threshold until they are more comfortable and able to be 20 ft away without triggering a reaction.  This takes a great deal of attention to their body language.  Honoring your dog also means that you may need to come to terms with the fact that your dog may never be a social, outgoing dog who loves other dogs and people.  This is ok!  Just as some people are extroverts and some introverts, some dogs are very outgoing and some prefer to be less social.

When the pet guardian can honor who their dog is, as an individual, then the relationship can really blossom.  Dogs that feel safe, protected and understood are more likely to grow in confidence and feel more comfortable with their space in this world.

Teach: the reactive dog

small dog placing two front feet on a brick wall while a staff person offers treatsWhen we work with pet guardians, we do teach them about body language, as stated above, but we also teach them how their reactions and emotions affect their dog.  We teach them about reactivity, about threshold and why it is so important and we teach them the importance of finding support.

We work with the pet guardian to teach them some games to play with their dogs on walks.  Games make learning fun, take the pressure off the dog and create a stronger bond between owner and dog.  We use pattern games to accomplish this.  Dogs are great at learning associations, as was stated earlier.  We use this ability to learn associations to pair fun games that teach the dog to focus on the pet guardian, to remove focus from the trigger or to help the dog to focus on a reward to keep moving.

We have found that these games are helpful for pet guardian as well as the dog.  They create a fun environment that reduces the stress and anxiety of walks.  We also teach the pet guardians to spot which games are most effective for their dogs in different situations.

One example of this with my own dog is that Murphy loves to catch treats tossed to him.  When I need him to pass another dog on the sidewalk, we move at a faster pace and I toss him treats as we walk.  This is his favorite game, however, we work with another dog who loves to put two paws up on trees when dogs are passing.  Knowing all the games is important, but knowing which game your dog responds best to in each situation is even more important.

Putting It all Together

Reactive dog training hike, owner with white dog When working with a reactive dog and pet guardian, we need to remember that the three phases of our reactive dog training program are fluid.  As we teach, we need to observe how the dog is responding, we need to honor changes that the dog is showing us and we need to keep teaching and learning with the dog.

As pet guardians get comfortable with the games, learn their dogs communication and are able to honor what they see, we invite them to a group hike.  These hikes are only for dogs that have participated in our You Have a Friend-Reactive Dog Training Program. Each dog and guardian are invited, they are asked to bring long leashes of 10-15 ft to allow the dogs to move and create space as they need to.

The beauty of the hikes are that these pet guardians all understand reactivity- they are not going to approach a dog with the all to common (and frustrating) explanation of “My dog is friendly and just wants to say hi”. There is no judgment when a dog is having an off day- each pet guardian honors the dogs and other guardians who are there.  Camaraderie is built and pet guardians are able to share stories and support one another.  They are also able to share ideas, exchange contact information and finally feel like they are not alone and that their dog is perfect as is.

It’s high time that as a society, we come together and start realizing that not every dog is a social outgoing dog. Not every dog wants to say hi to you or your dog.  A reactive dog is not a bad dog, they are nervous and stressed.  Pet guardians of reactive dogs are not bad owners, they are helping their dogs move and live in an environment that is difficult for them.  The next time you see a dog that is having a reaction, please give them space and give their guardians grace and understanding.

reactive dog using games in training by standing on a table reactive dog training hike with multiple dogs Families on a reactive dog training hike Reactive dog hike

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