I have worked with a LOT of reactive dogs for a LONG time now. As my city has become more populated and people are living in closer proximity to each other, I have seen the number of reactive dogs grow exponentially. When working with reactive dogs and their humans, I like to toss out a whole bunch of techniques, mainly because I do not think there is one perfect way to “fix” every reactive dog and I also feel we need to take the human end of the training into account. Some of these techniques may work great for some dogs but if their human is having a hard time executing them, well, we need to try something else. Other techniques may be much easier for the human and thus, success!
So, here is a general protocol to be used for dogs who are lunging/barking/pulling towards certain triggers (dogs, people, cars etc.) when on a leashed walk. You may not need them all but read through, try them out, and see what will work best for you and your dog.
To start, in order to apply the best techniques for your particular dog, you will want to figure out the root cause/s of your dog’s reactivity. In many cases, dogs are reactive for one of two reasons or a combination of both:
- Fear-based – not exclusive to, but often common with small dogs and mature dogs. These dogs may also be nervous or anxious in other environments.
- Frustration and impulsivity, or “frustrated greeters” – often adolescent dogs who play well with other dogs off-leash. “I really, really, really want to say HI!!!!!!”
- Conflicted dogs – these dogs can exhibit behaviors of both of the above.
For dogs who are reacting solely from a lack of impulse control you can skip right to OPERANT CONDITIONING below (or at least jump there rather quickly) however, it certainly doesn’t hurt to treat your dog when you see other dogs/triggers either. For fearful dogs however, because we want to change the way your dog FEELS about the trigger, we start the protocol with Counterconditioning and Desensitization then move to Operant Conditioning (DRO’s), Emergency Cues and Additional Techniques.
*NOTE: Even though we (humans) may be focusing on one of these at a time, keep in mind that CC & OC are not mutually exclusive and that dogs are always learning from their environment. We are never really doing just one of these at a time. Even when we are focusing on (classical) counterconditioning, we can look for behaviors our dog is offering up and then choose to reinforce those specific behaviors, thus using operant conditioning too. It is important to be aware that both classical and operant learning are happening at the same time even though we may be focusing on one at a time. Our dogs are taking notes from everywhere!
COUNTERCONDITIONING AND DESENSITIZATION
- In CCDS we are making a direct correlation between the trigger and something the dog loves (food works!).
- The dog sees the trigger and we immediately give the dog a high-value treat.
- We are NOT NECESSARILY WAITING FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR here, we are just making an association.
- “Trigger goes by = hot dogs fall from the sky”
- It is imperative to keep the dog UNDER THRESHOLD – at a distance far enough away from the trigger for the dog to be able to eat and function without reacting.
OPERANT CONDITIONING (DRO – Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors)
- Teach the dog alternate behaviors: Look, Touch, Sit, Wait, Leave It (great help for bird and squirrel chasing) and tricks like Bow & Peek-a-boo (stand between handler’s legs).
- Find It/Scatter Feed – say “find it” and drop food on ground. This should be done is lots of different environments, not just when trigger is present. “Find it” is a game that brings the dog’s head to the ground and avoids any hard staring or direct eye contact.
- Emergency U-turn on a cue (“whoops”).
ADDITIONAL TECHNIQUES THAT MAY BE HELPFUL FOR YOUR DOG
- Engage/Disengage Game
- Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT)
- Teach Go Say Hi to dogs who are reacting because they are impulsive or frustrated.
- Play The Counting Game (thanks Chirag Patel!)
- Work with a clicker or verbal marker to capture (no cue needed) desirable behaviors.
We cover all of this (and more!) in our Reactive Rehab group class and seminar. One of the biggest obstacles for working with leash reactive dogs is being able to do “set-ups” while keeping the dog under threshold. A well-run, positive group class for reactive dogs can be very effective to providing this so please seek the help of a professional if needed.
More articles can be found on the Dog’s Day Out Reactive Dog Board on Pinterest.