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3 Reasons Your Reactive Dog CAN Get Better

Anxious Dogs

3 Reasons Your Reactive Dog CAN Get Better

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Having a reactive dog can be a huge burden. Not being able to walk him without worry because he is showing leash reactivity, not being able to go to the park, not being able to take him to a fun group training class; and always having to watch out for potential critical encounters is wearing and stressful. Maybe your dog is actually really good at training and you would love to participate in dog sports, but the reactivity is holding you back.

Two local dog trainers here in Albuquerque once told me that reactivity in dogs is a life-long predicament. Reactivity does not go away! It was claimed that there is no training solution for them.

The only approach dog owners would have is through management – preventing the dog from challenging on-leash encounters, diverting their attention, keeping them in their own little safe world.

This is not only a hopeless outlook (keeping your dog away from other dogs for his 10-15 year long life?Maybe crating your dog whenever there might be other dogs? Sounds very complicated and not enjoyable to me), but fortunately also not true for some dogs.

Modern dog training has given us the tools and knowledge on how to reduce and at times even eradicate reactivity in dogs. By understanding dog behavior and where it stems from, we can devise a training plan.It is not too late to start training your reactive dog!

Read on to get to know my opinions and solutions for reactive dogs – and why I think they do have a chance for recovery!

I have used the methods described many times with fantastic outcomes on my clients’ dogs. Many went from being quite aggressive dogs and having to be separated at all times to being able to peacefully coexist. Sometimes they even form friendships with other dogs.

If you are looking for a very in-depth approach to tackling reactivity, we have an online class with hours of videos and instructions for addressing reactivity that has helped hundreds of owners vastly improve their canine companion’s behavior. Satisfaction guaranteed, or you get your money back:

 

 

 

Here are the top 3 reasons your dog can and will get better!

Reactivity And Discomfort

A lot of reactivity originates in discomfort. Even though it may look like our dog is “protective” of us (likely not) or “dominance-aggressive” (also likely not), the most plausible and common reason for his behavior is that he is not happy to be where he is, stressed and (very often)scared.

Like humans, some dogs choose to retreat, and some choose to just go for the outright confrontation when faced with a situation that makes them anxious.

This does not mean he actually wants to attack the other dog in front of him – it just seems the only viable option for him.

Especially if your dog is on a leash, it is likely that he will decide on what appears like a dominant-aggressive charging of other dogs, when in fact he just perceives it as the last resort solution to take care of a threatening situation. Your dog reacts to it in the best (and only way) he knows, by choosing to be the first to attack.

We cannot cure this discomfort by scolding our dog. In fact, scolding him for showing his stress through barking, lunging or growling is only going to make him more anxious.
In his mind, if you scold him, then the situation probably is really critical!

Instead, always maintain a calm and collected attitude when your dog gets scared and reacts unfriendly. Just take his leash and move away from the situation until he is more relaxed and happy again.

But, of course on the long run we want to not only prevent our dog from lashing out at another dog – we want to change his reaction all together!

And here is how we do it:

Increasing Comfort

Fortunately, there is not only a possible, but in fact very straight-forward way to address negative emotions.
Psychology has taught us how we can alter feelings that are linked to a certain situation.

For your dog, these are the emotions of profound stress and anxiety when faced with another dog.

Right now, your dog shows his aggressive behavior because the other dog elicits these feelings in him. We can however change these feelings to a calm, neutral and even happy state of mind.

dog_reactivity

If we give him something awesome every time he seems his trigger, he will eventually understand that the trigger predicts the appearance of awesome things.

What is awesome to a dog? Food of course. Most of all, human food.

Pick a really fantastic food. Steak or chicken or cheese. Or maybe just the last thing that your dog stole from the counter. Make sure that it is very special to him.

You do not want to use this food in any other context than when working on the reactivity. The clearer we can make it for our dog, the better.

Set yourself up in a situation in which you can be prepared. Maybe you can ask your friend to come over with their dog. Then, as soon as your dog sees that other dog, start feeding him his special treat.

Have the triggering dog leave the situation. Now you also have to stop feeding your dog. We want to make it very obvious to him that only the scary other dog can make his favorite food appear!

Repeat this as often as possible.

Start at large distances and work your way up to being close to the other dog over time. We never want our dog to feel overly stressed or anxious during this process.

If your dog is so on edge that he will not eat your treats anymore, you need to increase the distance. The brain can only learn if the stress level is not too high.

If we go over this certain critical stress level, all our dog will remember is his fear. Always stay under this stress level and do not push your dog too far too quickly.
It comes with the danger of actually setting our dog back.

It is better to go slow and wait a little longer – once you cured the reactivity you will be able to enjoy your success for the rest of your dog’s life!

More On The “Critical Distance”

Why is it so important to keep that critical distance to your dog’s trigger? Why should he not “flip out”?

The reason is that our brains are programmed to only remember fear, stress and negative associations from threatening situations. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense!

Imagine a dog being chased by a bear and just barely escaping. 

reactive dog runs

Even though the outcome was positive, the dog needs to remember the negative event and be very scared and ready to run fast again the next time he encounters a bear.

He should by no means learn “Oh, I escaped and it wasn’t so bad. Next time I just won’t try as hard.”

reactive dog running

Being too positive about stressful events is not smart. The dog needs to learn that this was super scary and he will be even more anxious next time.

reactive dog runs away

Therefore, your dog must never feel “as if he is chased by a bear”. If you approach his trigger too closely, he will not be able to make any lasting, positive associations in the training session.

Always keep your dog from “losing it”. A barking, lunging dog is not the right state of mind to make positive memories.

Being proactive in setting up your training sessions so that your dog does not cross his threshold should always be the #1 goal for every training.

Reactivity, Exposure and Consistency

An interesting study was recently  published. It explored the question “Does dog contact alone help dogs become more social?”

The answer is yes!

A group of military dogs (who are often kept in isolation and not allowed to have a lot of doggy play time) were given supervised play dates with their fellow working dogs, while the control group did not get play dates.

After eight weeks of these play dates, they underwent some testing. First, the dogs’ reaction to a plastic dog was examined, and then the dogs’ reaction to an actual dog walking by while they were tied up on a leash.

Both times, the dogs with the regular play dates showed less offensive and defensive behavior – they were a lot more relaxed.

reactive_dog_training

Regular exposure can help your dog conquer his reactivity by making it more normal and less unusual and frightening to meet other dogs.

If you have the chance to let your dog enjoy the company of another dog, try it! It will help him understand faster that other dogs really are not that bad.

A word of warning: Only give this supervised and controlled exposure a go if you know your dog and his level of reactivity. You need to know exactly how much he dislikes being around dogs (and people) and not put him into a situation where he will go over his threshold. If you are unsure, or your have only recently adopted a rescue dog, work with your dog on leash for now.

Don’t give up hope!

Reactivity is never fun. Thankfully, you can change his feelings towards other dogs. Remember that no person or dog enjoys being scared. If you can show your dog a way to be happier and more relaxed, he will gladly accept it.

Until then, management can be your friend!

Here are some management ideas. Hang in there – it is not easy to own one and you are doing great work every day!

Management vs Training

What is management, anyway? What makes it different from training?

Training – obviously – is aimed at changing a dog’s behavior on the long run. In our case, this might mean counterconditioning/desensitization. Training is a longer process and we rarely see immediate results in behavior modification. The goal of training is to get him (or her) to a point at which he does not require much guidance or outside help anymore to deal with certain situations – we want to have changed his behavior in a way that it will always be appropriate.

Training takes time, and during that time we still want to keep everyone safe. We also want to make sure that the way our dog experiences the world does not make him even more suspicious of it!

Here is where management comes into play. Management in dog training refers to the process of setting up the dog’s environment in a way that makes good behavior likely. If a puppy chews on shoes, you can put the shoes away. While this does not teach him to stop chewing on shoes (that would be training), it achieves the same result for the moment: No more shoes are damaged.

Or – if he has trouble settling at night, you put your puppy into his crate with a delicious bone. 

For an anxious and stressed dog it is crucially important to have proper management in place. Otherwise he might escalate a situation that is scary for him in the worst case. In the best case he will not be able to advance in his training as quickly as he could. Smart management can help him feel as comfortable and happy as possible and go hand in hand with training.

Let’s look at how we can manage can keep everyone happy and safe.

Long Leashes

long leashes

This one may seem counterintuitive. You have a reactive dog, the last thing you want to do it to put him on a long line for sure?

Actually, the opposite is true. By having our reactive dogs on a short leash, we can easily increase their stress as they are not able to use body language the way they usually would.

As we sense a potential tigger approach, we tend to wrap the leash around our wrist or hold it high up in the air, further restricting our dog’s movement and making him feel like there is only one way out of the situation: outright attack.

If you are at a distance to a trigger at which your pup is already lunging and going crazy, you are too close in any way – long line or not. Ideally, you want to always keep your dog at a distance at which he is under his threshold – meaning not stressed enough to “go wild” and not be able to listen to you or take treats anymore.

So since you want to keep a healthy distance in any case, while you are at this distance your dog might really benefit from being at a long leash that allows him to sniff and move his body naturally without restrictions.

Chewing As A Therapy

Of course we want the majority of our pup’s life to be not stressful at all. The goal should always be to have the dog not in an anxious state during as much time as possible. You can think of it as a general way of improving his life by providing him with as much calm and happy time as possible.

One way to give him relaxed, content downtime is by providing plenty of appropriate chew items.

Often I ask clients “Does your pup have chew toys?” and they say yes and show me a collection of torn-apart stuffed animals and rope toys.

These are not appropriate chew toys. 

If your dog enjoys chewing, please do not let him chew on anything that is made out of fabric (or, for that matter, plastic, wood etc.). He is not meant to ingest these materials and while most of the time he will probably be fine, if he does happen to get a blockage this will be both dangerous and expensive to treat.

Instead, let him chew on items that are made out of animal parts. Here are my personal favorites:

  • Deer Antlers
    Deer antlers are an old breeder secret. Puppies (and adult dogs!) love to work on these non-destructible chew toys. Make sure that you get antlers that are large enough that your dog will not be able to fit them into his mouth as a whole.
    Deer antlers are pricey, but the good news is that they will last virtually forever.
  • Beef Hooves
    If you have a sensitive nose, these might not be your favorite. Once a dog has thoroughly chewed on a cow hoof, it starts to smell quite intensely.
    If you are not sensitive to smells or if you have an outside area where your dog can enjoy his cow hoof though, go for it!
    Cow hooves can be found in any feed store for less than $1 and provide long-lasting chewing fun for your dog.
  • Kongs
    Kongs are fantastic refillable chew toys. Use your favorite recipe to fill them and freeze to make them a go-to canine popsicle.
    For any reactive or stressed dog I recommend to make sure you have a few frozen Kongs ready to go at any point in time, so you never run out!
  • Bully Sticks
    I have yet to meet a dog who does not love bully sticks. While they are not the cheapest chew item out there, they do last at least an hour for most medium-sized dogs (and many hours for smaller dogs) and make them very, very happy. One of my doggy day training clients in Albuquerque always has a bully stick ready for me to give to the dog when I leave. The dog used to be quite distressed about my departure and I could hear her crying from the outside as I went to my car. Since we introduced the ritual of giving the bully stick, this is a thing of the past. The dog already runs to the cupboard with the bully sticks when she sees me getting ready to leave and eagerly awaits her treat. Then she is happily chewing as I leave and not anxious anymore.
 
 
What To Avoid

Here are some chew items you want to avoid, or at least be careful about:

  • Nylabones
    These are plastic chew toys “infused” with some taste, like chicken, bacon or peanut butter. Unfortunately, these toys win in neither tastiness nor safety: On the one hand, many dogs abandon their Nylabones after a few tries since they seem to not thoroughly enjoy the taste. On the other hand, a heavy chewer might well be able to slowly chip away and ingest the plastic of a Nylabone, which again is definitely not what your dog should be eating.
  • Rawhides
    Rawhides are great chew articles as long as your dog is not consuming larger amounts of them. If you have a heavy chewer who easily eats a whole retriever roll within minutes, you may want to refrain from giving him rawhides. The safest way to have your dog enjoy rawhides is to only give them to him for a little while and then allow them to dry before the next round.
  • Any Kind Of Artificial Toy
    As already mentioned, please do not give any kind of non-animal matter to your dog to ingest. This includes tennis balls, knotted rope toys, stuffed animals, soft rubber toys and similar items.
    I once had the shock of my life when a pet sitter told me she let a dog chew and eat a whole frisbee throughout the cause of a night.
    If your dog has trouble giving up items that he should not chew or eat (such as clothing, shoes, toys), read here how to prevent resource guarding and teach him that it is ok to give his treasures back to you.
 

Sniff Walks

sniff walks

Many aggressive dogs do not feel entirely sure and confident about their surroundings. Once they have shown us reactivity we are vigilant to keep them under control and allow them as little access as possible to situations that might become stressful for us and them.

Sadly this often goes along with reduced walks and outside adventures. Dogs really benefit from being walked and love to sniff. If at all possible, try to find situations in which you can allow your dog to take a sniff walk.

Sniffing will let him feel more informed and therefore confident about his environment. It also is a naturally calming activity – one that in fact dogs often seek out by themselves to diffuse potentially tricky situations!

In my neighborhood lives a quite reactive older dog. His owners take him on two sniff walks every day – one early in the morning and one late at night. That way they avoid the other dogs who are walking while at the same time giving the senior time to sniff everything in detail. He loves his sniff walks – I often watch him from our living room window in the mornings slowly walking and gently wagging his tail as he takes it all in with his nose.

Mental Exercise

reactive dog think

If your dog is struggling with unwanted behavior like this, providing appropriate physical exercise can be difficult as you cannot let your him off-leash, take him to dog parks, to your neighborhood park or even to a doggy daycare.

Thankfully, it is not just physical exertion tires dogs out – but also mental one. Reactive dogs can really benefit from challenged to think carefully and solve puzzles with smartness rather than force.

Here are some ideas:

  • Names Of Rooms
    Have your dog in one room of your house and hide a treat (or toy) in another one. Get him, bring him to the room with the treat and show it to him. As you are doing this, tell him what the room is called.
    Do this with just one room at first – he will quickly understand to rush to this room when you tell him to and get his treat. Over time, gradually add the other rooms of your house. Eventually you can tell him the name of any room and he will know where to go!
  • Hidden Treats
    Hide treats with a variety of objects. You can out them under towels, under plastic cups, under turned-over cardboard boxes, in paper towel rolls, in plastic lunch boxes with the lid partially closed etc. Let him work out how to solve these puzzles.
    I recommend to not go straight to the next puzzle once your dog has solved one. Instead, I usually present the same puzzle to them multiple times. Often dogs are able to for example tip over a cup and eat the treat underneath it once after a couple tries, but when you set up the game again they are as clueless as in their very first attempt.
    Always repeating the puzzles teaches them to pay attention to their problem solving strategy and to make an effort to remember it as they will need it again!
    I find that this even carries over to other areas of training, such as trick training or obedience. Dogs that have experience in solving puzzles multiple times tend to memorize new behaviors quicker.

If you need more ideas, our Brain Games Class has hours of videos with different mental exercise ideas for small spaces.

Routine Building

dog routine

Reactivity often goes along with feeling uncertain. If our dogs perceive a situation as out of their control, completely new and unknown it can make them feel uncomfortable and anxious.

While we cannot guarantee that our dogs will never be in a novel situation, we can try to make sure that even if they are in a new place, they will always have something they know.

By this “something” I do not mean a toy to play with or a mat to lie on – after all, we might forget these one day – but a trick routine that the dog practices until he is really good at it and can do it in his sleep.

These tricks should be neither boring nor especially challenging. Do not pick a 2 minute Sit Stay as part of your routine or balancing on a small wooden beam that your dog can barely stand on. After all, we want to make sure he has a good time and is enjoying himself!

Some tricks that work great for routine building are:

  • Spin Left And Right
    This trick is not only very easy and fun, but also intuitive for many dogs! Your dog may already spin when he is excited or expecting something good happening, such as when you come home from work or right before mealtimes. You can put it on a cue and use it for your fun routine!
    If your dog does not naturally spin yet, you can lure him in a circle with a cookie in front of his nose. Make sure that you lure him right at the level of his nose and not too high up. If he only moves his head or sits down, your cookie is probably too high up or you are moving it too quickly.
  • Hand Touch
    In this trick your dog touches his nose to your palm. It is a great behavior for getting your dog’s attention. He cannot be distracted by anything if he is touching his nose to your hand!
    It is also a trick that dogs often are able to do when everything else fails. My Border Collies for example, especially one of them, can get stuck in a “Border Collie freeze” – snapping into their herding mode in which they move very slowly or not at all and are not able to respond to cues such as sit, down etc.
    No matter how stuck, mine are always able to do a hand touch!
  • Paws Up
    Teach your dog to put his front paws up onto an elevated object while his hind feet stay on the ground. This can be a bench, a curbside, a rock…the more creative you can be and the more objects your dog can practice this on, the better! Use the same cue for all objects to help your dog generalize.
    This can also be helpful for dogs who are struggling a bit with new and unknown surfaces. While jumping up on a strange surface with all four feet is too committing for shy and unsure dogs, they often feel brave enough to put their front feet on.
  • Paws Up Side Stepping
    This is an advanced version of Paws Up. If your dog has been doing well with the last trick, you can now stand facing him and move very slowly to the side. You can have a cookie in your hand to lure your dog as you are doing this. He has to move laterally. This is not a movement he does a lot in his daily life so you want to be patient, move in small steps and reward his efforts generously!
  • Jump Over Leg
    Teach your dog to jump over your leg. You can start out sitting on the ground to prevent him from “cheating” by slipping underneath your leg. Put your foot against a barrier of some sort (such as a wall, a couch, a tree etc.) and toss a cookie over your leg so that your dog has to jump over to get it.
    Over time you can raise your leg more and more and move away from the barrier.

(If you need more trick ideas or video instructions, our dog tricks online class has plenty!)

Now that you have a repertoire of tricks, put them into an order. This could for example be spin left, spin right, hand touch, paws up on the nearest object and jump over your leg as a finish.

Keep that order – we want to make sure our dog always knows what comes next and can rely on this in any environment and situation. Dogs actually are extremely good at learning behavior chains and remembering what even long series of tricks.

If you get bored over time with your routine and your dog has learned new tricks, you can add them onto your existing chain!

Finding The #1 Hobby

Some reactive dogs can forget everything around them when they are focused on an activity they really love. For many dogs, this is playing with a specific toy – most commonly balls or frisbees.

If your dogs loves to chase and fetch, use this activity to your advantage as much as possible.

The more time your dog can spend being “in the zone” and pursuing his favorite activity, the better. Often this can later help the dog transition to being around the things that he is reactive to. Let’s for example look at playing frisbee:

Helping By Playing Frisbee

The following has worked for several of my clients who have dogs that are extremely fond of playing frisbee. (If your dog does not love toys quite yet, try out this method to make him love playing)

You want to start out playing in a safe space far away from anything that your dog might react to. For many owners, this is their own yard. But even if you don’t have a yard you might be able to find a place that is not frequented by too many people or dogs, such as a school yard in the late evening (make sure you are allowed to use it first of course), an open space that is not very busy etc.

Begin by just playing with your dog there. As always, you want to make sure you follow the rules of playing and training:

  • Don’t Overdo It.
    As a rule of thumb you can assume that your dog will start the next session with the mindset he left the last one with. That means that if you play until your dog has had enough and wanders of to sniff the bushes nearby, you went too far. Instead aim for him to look at you demanding and maybe even be a bit frustrated that your session ended when you call it quits. If you stop when he is still going at 110%, this will be the attitude that he will begin the next playtime with!
  • Always Be Fun.
    It is tempting to scold our dogs when they don’t pay attention, don’t fetch as well as we would like them to or stop the game because they seem much more interested in peeing on everything nearby than playing.
    Keep in mind that you want to make this playtime fun for your dog, in fact you want to make it the funnest thing in his life. This will not be successful if you are nagging or scolding him.
    Instead, be as upbeat, friendly and happy as possible and your dog will repay it with much more engagement than if you get annoyed at him!
  • Pick Your Dog’s Happy Hour.
    All dogs have times of the day during which they are more awake and alert than others. For many, these happy hours are in the morning and in the evening. If your dog ever gets the zoomies, jumps at you for attention or seems to be restless, this is a great time to put his energy to good use by playing.
    It is not ideal to wake your dog up from a nap and start playing with a still half-asleep pup. Instead, wait for him to show you that he is ready to go and have some fun!

reactive training tip

After you have played enough in the remote location that your dog gets the crazy look in his eyes whenever he sees his frisbees, you can move to a slightly more crowded place. This could for example be a park.

Make absolutely sure that you have physical control of him by attaching a long line to him so he cannot take off and get into trouble.

Of course, the long line is only there for safety – we do not want to approach any people or dogs so closely that our dog gets worked up enough to charge to the end of the leash.

Now you play with him just like you did in your prior location. Pay attention to being connected to him the whole time – we do not want to give him too much opportunity to look around and potentially get worried about what’s there. For some dogs, it can be really useful to get them out of the car, run to the place where you will play and then play for five minutes. After the time is up (and your dog is still interested in playing), race back to your vehicle.

Over time, your dog will start to associate the fun he has with you and his frisbee to the park and perhaps even the people and/or dogs in the distance that he used to feel uneasy about. At the very least he will learn that he can have fun and a good time in public, and that it is possible to ignore and tune out everything that might bother him for his frisbee.

A Word At The End

Owning a reactive dog is never easy. Doing your best to keep everyone safe, help your dog work on the reactivity and still have some fun downtime can be a challenge for everyone.

If you are encountering this challenge, know that you are doing great, no matter which step of the journey you are on.

Again – if you are looking for an extensive course to tackle your dog’s reactivity, check out our online class that has helped hundreds of owners and their canine teammates – and it comes with a money-back guarantee to make sure you love it!

Happy Training!

Comments (2)

  1. Sam

    Steffi,
    Thank you for your article. We have a 4 yr old rescue beagle that is very reactive to dogs. We can avoid him barking at the front window if we are feeding him treats, but walks are still quite difficult anytime a dog appears. We try to go in another direction, but he usually will still bark. Questions: on walks we will feed him treats when a dog appears; if he starts to bark we continue to feed him treats. Is this teaching him that he gets treats each time he barks at a dog on his walk? He loves his walks and we try and find times to walk him when less people are out with their dogs. Are we hurting his progress if he is going over the threshold once a day on his walks? Finally, he has very good eyesight and will bark at a dog 150 feet away from us. Would it be helpful to have him wear goggles or something similar to reduce his ability to see dogs from so far away? Lastly, we have not tried to socialize him with other dogs since we got him last October. He was bit once and does not have proper socialization skills (he runs directly at dogs). It is appropriate for us to focus on his reactivity first, then tackle socialization? Thank you for any information that you could provide?

    1. Steffi Trott

      Hi Sam, yes I think it is perfect to focus on his reactivity first and then the socialization. As far as the other questions – they have a bit longer answers that you can all find in a lot of detail here:
      https://spiritdogtraining.com/online-dog-training/tackling-reactivity/
      Crossing my fingers for good training success for you!

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