10 Tips To Teach Your Reactive Dog To Stay Calm
You are walking down your street with your dog. The sky is blue, the birds are chirping, your coffee in your favorite travel mug is just the way you like. You look at the end of your dog leash at your beautiful dog and feel all is right with the world. Then, bam, out of nowhere, a dog comes charging from a backyard. The dog stops short at the end of an electric fence, barking his fool head off and issuing death threats to you and your dog. You spill your coffee on your work outfit as your dog lunges forward with teeth gnashing and barks. You notice the neighbors peering at you as you get out of there, all the while feeling dismay and anger. Embarrassment overtakes you and you avert everyone’s gaze as you and your dog get the heck out of Dodge.
Sound familiar? It is for me. As a dog trainer who specializes and lives with reactive dogs, this is one of many scenarios that play out over and over again. Our dogs have a lot of reasons why they react. Maybe, like in the scenario above, they feel under attack and don’t understand the rules of our world. They may have been attacked by off-leash dogs, or not been properly socialized when they were pups. Your dog may have had bad experiences while boarded, or at daycare or at the beach or dog park. Whatever has caused your dog to become reactive doesn’t matter. What matters is that from this moment forward you set up your dog for success. My tips below will help.
Your dog needs to go on an emotional detox. Avoid your dog’s triggers. Fake it until you make it.
2. Manage — Be A Potato Head Ninja
Don’t leave things up to chance. When I teach my reactive dog class, I teach several triage methods. Cross the street, plan your escape route, walk with your dog on the side away from triggers. Teach your dog a whiplash U-turn. Walk like Mrs. Potato Head Ninja. Know what is in front of and behind you and where your exits are. The days of ambling down the street drinking coffee are a thing of the past, at least for a while.
Practice blocking your dog’s visual when you are walking and also at home. If you have been hooking your dog on an outdoor run, you need to stop unless you are out there with him. If your dog is flipping out at the windows, block your dog’s access or try a simple fix of putting wax paper on the window. This still lets in the light while cutting down the visual. If your dog is fence-running, you need to find a way to stop that. Don’t allow your dog to fence-run. If you can’t stop it, move your dog to the backyard so the house is a visual block for any triggers on the street. Indoors, block out outside noise with soft, calming music and white noise like fans.
4. Learn Everything You Can About Canine Body Language
Be an expert on your dog’s body language. Start by watching your dog at home and at rest, and then observe him outside. Study canine body language charts and watch videos. Watch dogs play and interact. Learn the cues that show when your dog is relaxed and when he is agitated.
5. Help Your Dog Feel Safe
When your dog feels safe, he will stop trying to drive things away.
6. Don’t Leave Anything To Chance
If you are not sure how your dog will react to something — for example, your sister’s new rescue dog or the cute puppy on the trail — then don’t introduce them quite yet. Take your time, or just avoid it all together.
7. Think About Changing Your Routine
Stressful walks are no fun for you or your dog. If your dog worries about a dog that has rushed him at a fence, there is no need to keep walking past it. Maybe a car ride to a quiet place is just what the “dogtor” ordered.
8. Counter-Condition And Desensitize The Triggers
Make a list of your dog’s triggers. Put the most intense ones at the top. You will need work your way through the list by pairing the trigger with something good.
Many dogs who come to my reactive dog group class get aroused at the sound of dog tags jingling on a dog collar. Start there! While feeding your dog super high-value dog treats, jingle a collar softly from a distance so your dog can barely detect it. Whatever is your dog’s favorite thing, that is what you pair with a trigger. Sometimes we call this open bar. As long as a jingle happens, food is free-flowing. When the jingle stops, so does the food and the bar is closed.
Barking, doorbells and car doors are some of the most common triggers. Can you think of other things that trigger your dog?
When your dog is over his threshold, he will not take food. You need to pair your dog’s triggers with something pleasurable to help change his emotional response to the triggers. This can take awhile, and you need to set it up in advance. It is time-consuming but it needs to be done
9. Address Your Dog’s Issues On An Emotional Level
Remind yourself that your dog is not being “bad,” he is acting in a primitive way. His body has been put on high alert. The fight-or-flight instinct brings with it high levels of cortisol and adrenaline.
To counteract this response, your dog needs positive experiences from a safe distance under threshold. Under threshold, the distance at which your dog has no reaction, is different for every dog. Learn to know your dog’s subtle body language cues so you can help to keep him under threshold.
Your goal is to expose your dog to his triggers from a safe distance so he is under threshold, then gradually bring the trigger closer. Behavior adjustment training can help.
10. Teach An Incompatible Behavior
Hand-targeting, tug and attention are three behaviors that you should be working on, after you counter-condition to other dogs. Your dog will learn that instead of lunging and barking at a dog when one appears, he should look to you.
All reactive dogs should learn to play “Look At That.”
I was very successful with Look At That with my dog Beck and motorcycles. When Beck hears or sees one he checks in with me expectantly, which is a huge change from the dog who scaled my 5-foot fence to chase one when he was my foster dog.
Two Points Of Caution
Here are my final two tips about training a reactive dog. Aversive training is not recommended, as you are just confirming for the dog that the thing he is trying to distance himself from is really bad and scary and can hurt him. Aversive training, including shock collars, pinch collars, harsh corrections and intimidation, can suppress your dog’s warning. While we do not want our dog to growl and lunge, we don’t want a dog who bites without warning either — that can be downright dangerous. While the use of dog food has been scientifically proven to help, be careful that your dog does not get too close to the trigger while focusing on the food. Remember, boring is the new awesome. Happy Training!
Nancy Freedman-Smith owns Gooddogz Training in Portland, Maine. She has over 20 years experience and specializes in dogs with aggression and reactivity but she much prefers to teach people to train their dogs to avoid any and all problems.
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