Reactive is the term coined by dog trainers and owners who own dogs that overreact to certain stimuli. It might be the sight of other dogs, people, kids, loud noises and chaos. The dogís reaction to these stimuli is usually a bark and lunge type of behavior that scares the pants off both the person or dog being barked at and the person holding the leash. Reactivity may be part of the dogs genetic make up or could be from a lack of social experience or a particularly scary experience.
Overall, dogs that are reactive can benefit from lots of training and remedial socialization and some simple management tools as well. If you own a dog like this take heart, there are many of us who share those embarrassing moments with you and through training (and lots of it) you will see the light at the end of the tunnel.
First of all realize that your dogís reactivity is not as unpredictable as you might originally think. Most dogs who exhibit this behavior problem do so in specific circumstances. Your dogís trigger might be the close proximity of other dogs, or only male dogs or only female dogs. Maybe youíve noticed that it only happens on leash, or when there are toys, food or other resources around. Maybe your dog overreacts to men with beards or people wearing hats, or toddlers who reach for him. Whatever the instance the first step towards getting the problem under control is to try to isolate all the areas in which your dog reacts and write them down. This will not only make the problem far less unpredictable but will give you information on where to start your training program.
Once you have all the places, times and circumstances down you can then decide where you want to begin. Look at your list and decide which of the instances is the most important for you to gain better control over your dog. If your dog is nervous and reactive around young children and there are several in your neighborhood you might start with kids. Someone elseís dog may react to dogs on leash and because they are constantly bumping into other dog owners on their walks they might consider this a top priority.
Now that you have identified where to begin here are some tools youíll need to make your program a success.
The Right Equipment
As many of you who have taken classes with us are aware I am a big fan of the gentle leader head collars. Dogs who are reactive should have one of these on at all times when they are out walking. Not only do these collars give you much more control, but they offer the dog a sense of security as well. By guiding the dog by its head you are able to give him a lot more information without injury or correction. If your dog, no matter how big or how small starts to react to someone or something, you have the option of turning and leading your dog away safely and preventing anything bad from happening. It does take time to introduce this piece of equipment and if you need assistance in introducing it directions can be obtained at our training center.
A second piece of equipment you will need is a clicker and treats. The click should mark any moment when your dog is in the presence of the stimuli but is not reacting to it. You should be reinforcing generously any other behavior other than reactivity in order for the dog to learn an alternate way to behave.
A Good Shaping Plan
No one gets very far without knowing a little bit about what they want and where they are going. Youíve already written down where and when your dog is overeactive, now you must decide what you want your dog to do instead. If you donít define your goal in terms of what you want your dog to do instead you will not be able to reward your dog for choosing it rather than reacting. Identifying the rewardable behavior is the key to any successful shaping plan.
Once you have set a goal you now must sit down with paper and a pen and break it down into trainable steps. For instance if my dog reacts to dogs on leash my goal might be to have him look at me when he sees another dog. To get to that end goal Iím going to have to break his training down into lots of little tiny rewardable steps. I might teach him a leave it command which means stop what you are doing (looking at the other dog) and look back at me. I will have to start this in the absence of other dogs at first because that situation is too distracting for him, and later build other dogs into the plan. I might teach a leave it in my hand, then on the floor, then thrown at a distance. I might start off with food leave its, then graduate to tissue, socks and toys, people and dogs at a great distance (more than 20 feet away). As the dog showed that he could be successful at this I would then gradually decrease that distance until the dog could leave another dog in close proximity. By mapping out all the steps I would have a clear plan for achieving my goal of a dog that looks back at me when he sees other dogs. You need to be this specific (and in some cases even more so) for each instance that you want to train.
A Simple Tool For Under Socialized Dogs
Targeting is a behavior that we can use to build up confidence in dogs that are afraid of certain types of people or unfamiliar objects. This behavior involves the dog touching his nose to the palm of your hand for a click and treat. You start off with a food treat in the palm of your hand with your thumb holding it in place. Click your dog for bumping his nose to your hand and give up the treat. After six repetitions remove the treat from your palm and repeat the same thing again, this time the dog is bumping your hand for the click, but the treat is coming from your pocket or bait pouch. Repeat this until the dog is really enthusiastic, then start moving your target hand so that your dog must follow it for a step or two in order to touch it.
Change position, repeat the whole thing while in a standing or kneeling position, in a different room, around a distraction. When the dog is readily offering the behavior in all different positions, go ahead and add another person to the game. This part is easy, the other person sits close to you and you take turns offering your hands for a nose bump, clicking and treating each repetition. Start with a food lure in the new persons hand for the first couple of reps until your dog starts to catch on to the game. Once he seems to understand it, start moving away from each other so that the dog has to run back and forth between the two of you. Gradually transfer the touch to objects by holding your hand near the new object until he is bumping the object instead of your hand and then start putting distance slowly between you and the object. This tool is invaluable when retraining a dog who spooks aggressively or fearfully in the presence of strangers or new objects.
Owning a reactive dog is not easy, there are limits on where you go, and what time of day you go there. You may choose to do more management and less training by keeping your reactive dog home and not taking him out in public much. There are dogs that blossom with training and generalize it easily and dogs that need training for every little detail of each new situation. Whatever you decide, realize that reactive dogs are responding emotionally to whatever stimulus is present and no amount of yelling or correction will ever help them be better. Being your dogs advocate by using the right equipment to control him, providing as much training as you can and keeping him safe are your most important responsibilities. At any point if you feel your dog is beyond reactive, that he is truly dangerous or has bitten people or got in fights with other dogs, seek the help of a qualified professional in implementing the appropriate training program for your dogs problem.
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