By Dr. Sophia Yin
Rocky, my German Shepherd, barks and lunges at dogs when he’s on leash, but he’s fine off leash. What do I do?
Emo, my Australian Cattledog, acts oddly around dogs. When we walk down the street and he sees the neighbor dog behind the fence, his ears go out to the side and he glances around and seems excited, but he doesn’t look at the other dog. Why does he do this? Is he fearful or does he want to play? And will that change how I work with him?
Happy, my terrier, goes berserk when he sees squirrels. Is that just a genetic trait or can I change it? Is there anything I can do?
These are three cases of dogs who are reactive or at risk for being reactive soon. Regardless of what they are reacting towards and the underlying cause of the reactivity, the general approach is as follows:
- Temporarily staying out of the difficult situations and other situations that will exacerbate the reactivity until you have the skills needed to work productively in these situations.
- Improve your ability to provide direction for your dog and work on your dog’s impulse control.
- And then focusing on training more appropriate behaviors and changing your dog’s emotional state in the high reactivity situations.
Here are the steps in more detail.
Temporarily avoid the reactivity situation and other situations that will exacerbate the problem until you have the skills needed to productively work in those situations. What situations are we talking about?
Situation 1: Avoid all of the specific fear and reactivity situations unless you have the skill to work productively in them. The goal is to prevent practicing of the reactive behavior and to prevent getting into the situations that could escalate eventually into a bite. So, if your dog is reactive to dogs, then do your best to avoid dogs unless you are prepared to be working with your dog. Note that this also means that you will need to develop skills to work with your dog in those high reactivity situations since they may pop up unexpectedly.
Situation 2: At the same time, avoid all other situations of overarousal since the more the dog practices overarousal the more he is likely to show overarousal in the reactivity situation. For instance, if your dog’s main issue is that he barks and lunges at other dogs, it’s important to realize that if he gets practice looking out the window and barking at people who pass by, it will cause him to be more reactive when he sees dogs on walks. Or if he plays in an overly aroused way with another pet in the household it may increase his arousal in the reactivity situation.
Situation 3: If the cause of reactivity is fear, then also avoid all fear-inducing situations even though they may seem unrelated. For instance, if your dog is fearful of skateboards, then seeing a skateboard early in the day will scare him and increase the likelihood that he reacts in a fearful/reactive way to his primary reactivity target (dog/squirrels, etc). So avoid these fear-inducing situations unless you are specifically working in a session on changing the dog’s emotional state.
Take Fido through my version of the Learn to Earn program that helps the dog develop impulse control and handlers develop the ability to direct the dog. Dogs can learn to perform many behaviors in increasingly distracting situations; however, if they have the tendency to react rather than thinking, it can be difficult for them to think about doing what you have trained when they are in that high excitement situation. In my version of the Learn to Earn Program, we teach the dog that he can have what he wants if he looks to you for guidance. but that unwanted behaviors such as barking and whining to get you to approach, pulling on leash, and trying to race out the door don’t work. Once they have been rewarded a ton for saying “please” by sitting and looking at you for permission, then we practice in easy situations where we can ensure that unwanted behaviors won’t work. For instance, we drop a treat behind you and then block the dog from getting to it. When he realizes he can’t get by you, he’ll try the other behavior he’s just been rewarded for so much. That is, he’ll offer to say please by sitting automatically and look at you for direction. Once he does, then he gets the rewards that he wanted. In this way he learns that he can’t just take things without asking; he has to control himself and ask politely first. Once he can develop impulse control in many easy situations, then the impulse control can carry over to the high arousal situation—allowing you to get enough of his attention to direct him to perform more appropriate behaviors.
Specifically work in the reactivity situations by training replacement behaviors that involve focusing on you and putting the dog in a different emotional state.
For cases where you can’t carefully control the distance or intensity of the situation (how close the dog or squirrel is) it’s useful to teach replacement behaviors that help you keep your dog focused on and having fun with you rather than allowing them to stare at and then react to the stimulus. Once handlers gain good control of their dog such that they can handle sudden appearances of the stimulus and relatively close distances, other techniques such as “look at that” on cue and look back before they get overly excited in order to receive a treat can easily be added to the plan.
While many people really focus on waving a super-yummy treat in their dog’s face, we’ve found that many other factors are equally important in training your dog to focus on you instead of the distractions around them. That is, handlers must develop the technical and mechanical skills and body language needed to lead like a partner in a dance. This includes the skills to move in a way that helps the dog focus on them and the ability to transition smoothly from one exercise directly into the next for many exercises in succession. In the distracting situation, if the dog ever wonders what the next step is or what you’ll want next, his mind will wander and he’ll direct it back on the dog, squirrel or object he’s reacting to.
What Can Be Learned in a Workshop?
Our workshops and classes focus on working on human-only drills first so that handlers can first gain the efficiency of movement needed to provide clear direction to their dogs and to make the exercise fun regardless of whether the food reward is super-yummy or average. Then once each human-only drill has been performed, handlers practice the same skills with their dog. For each exercise, we have developed an objective scoring system that measures important aspects of technique as well as the result of technique on the dog’s response—the ability of the dog to remain focused and to follow the handler’s moves.
Once the owners have made the subtle but important changes to their technique and are getting better responses in their dogs, we work on using the exercises with distractions—the distraction that they actually react to OR any known distraction that they can handle. The goal is to present the distraction at a level that the dog-handler team can handle and then work in progressively more difficult distractions. The goal is to always keep the dog below threshold so that it’s not actually reacting.
Lastly, we also work on impulsivity exercises—such as teaching the dog who goes crazy to greet people that people will only greet you if you first sit politely and focus on your owner until they give you the ok. Or teaching dogs who are distracted by food on the ground or other dogs’ toys when competing in obedience, or even when just on a walk, that the way you earn that toy or food that is sitting on the ground (that you have set up in practice sessions) is to first focus on your owner in a heeling pattern. The goal is to increase the length of the heeling pattern systematically so it would be long enough to get past the distractions in real life. In the practice situations, you reward your dog with the objects of food he wants, first every single time, and then on a variable schedule. Then in real life, he will have enough self-control to focus on you with that type of distraction.
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So how long does it take? Can you see a difference within a short workshop?
The most common comment we get from observers who don’t know the history of the dog is, “My dog is much worse, he’d be going bonkers now.” They can’t comprehend that the dog they are seeing generally would go bonkers in that situation but isn’t because the handlers have learned the technique well enough to handle the situations we are putting the dog in!
Many dogs will need to also go through the Learn to Earn program once they get home so they can handle the variability of situations that they may see when they practice in their real-world environment. But once the handlers have the basic understanding of the importance of technique, their dog can improve at a much faster rate!
List of exercises that are often performed in workshops
- Timing and Treat Delivery Drills: Humans-Only
- Backwards Movement Drills: Humans-Only
- Say Please by Sitting Automatically
- Repeat Sits Backwards and Running to the Side
- Using the Repeat Sit Backwards in Distracting Situations (To prevent reactivity in the controlled OR the emergency situation)
- Impulse Control: Leave-it by Blocking
- Impulse Control: Leave-it When Food or Desired Objects Are at the End of the Leash
- Walking and Changes of Direction—Human-Only exercises (speed that keeps your dog at a focused trot and footwork)
- About Turns, U Turns—Human-Only (footwork so you avoid confusing your dog)
- Methods for Getting Dogs to Focus When Heeling on Walks—Repeat Sits on Left Side vs Targeting
- Using the working and turning patterns to keep your dog focused in the safe as well as the emergency situation
- Patterns for Passing or Avoiding High Distractions—Such as getting out of the emergency situation