Thanks for all the great comments about your experiences with dogs who are reactive, whether it’s to other dogs, or to people, or other objects. If you haven’t read the comments, here’s what comes out (at least to me) loud and clear:
1. There isn’t any one method that works for all dogs. Dogs are “reactive” for a variety of reasons, including being afraid of other dogs, wanting to greet other dogs and being overwhelmed with excitement or frustration about it. In addition, some dogs seem to be helped by being first taught an appropriate behavior on cue, others do better if allowed to initiate it on their own.
2. The methods that seem to work best for most people involve teaching a dog to turn and look away from another dog, BEFORE the dog begins the problematic behavior.
3. If the dog is afraid of other dogs, letting him look away and then move away from the other dog is the best reinforcement for most dogs. You can start this by teaching an Autowatch, or by waiting for him to look away himself, and reinforce it with food, play and/or an increase in distance between the dogs. I like to ‘mark’ the desired behavior with a clicker or just by saying “click,” then reinforce with a primary reinforcer –‘marking’ is a more precise way of letting the dog know what behavior resulted in the reinforcement. However, years ago I didn’t use a marker and had a lot of success, so there’s a lot of variability in how you do this. I very much like the addition of having the subject dog move away from the other one after it has looked away and broken eye contact. If the dog truly is afraid of another, surely that is tremendously reinforcing. Interestingly, I found that as the years went on I began moving backward three or four steps when a dog did an Autowatch . . . but didn’t consciously add it to the program until recently.
4. If the dog wants to get to other dogs to interact, (and is barking because she is frustrated) then increasing the distance between her and another dog is a punishment, not a reinforcement. For these dogs, you can teach some form of polite behavior, like stopping and looking back at the owner, again long before she has reached threshold, and give her food, play or access to the other dog as a reinforcement. Needless to say, interactions should be done carefully and only with dogs who are totally trustable.
5. UNDER THRESHOLD is a key here. I’ve long believed it and your comments support that most people have been more successful if they set up a dog so that it can see another dog, but is far enough away that the subject dog hasn’t yet begun barking and lunging and carrying on.
6. [That is why] SET UPS are tremendously helpful. Treating reactivity goes much faster if you can arrange for someone with a non-reactive dog to help you out. But if you can’t, you can take advantage of situations in which you know that you can control the distance between the dogs: Perhaps there is a dog behind a fence who is not too reactive that you can use as a stimulus? Try driving to the parking lot of a dog training center, where you know the dogs will be on leash and will be moving from Point A to Point B. How about your local vet clinic? Pet Store? Just be sure to pick places where you know the other dogs will be on leash and you can be the one to control the distance between your dogs.
7. EMERGENCY U TURN: Life tends to happen to us when we didn’t expect it, so everyone needs a conditioned response to a dog showing up too close or by surprise. You can use the Emergency U Turn before your dog responds to prevent trouble (and give your dog lots of reinforcement once you’ve turned and moved away) or you can use it to get out of a bad situation in which your dog is already reacting (just turn and move away, no reinforcement this time, but stop when you think your dog can listen and ask for an appropriate behavior.) The key is to have practiced a fast pivot and cheerful retreat, so that both you and your dog are conditioned to do it fast in an up-beat, happy way instead of being in a panic.
8. REINFORCEMENT? Remember it is defined by the receiver, so knowing what works best for your dog is crucial. If you’re going to mark an appropriate behavior and reinforce it, you need to be sure you know what works best for your dog.
Here’s a video illustrating Willie being given food rewards and then tug games as reinforcements for Watch, AutoWatch and Where’s the Dog? He’s looking at an adolescent Dogo Argentino, who he has played with once as a puppy and parallel walked with outside the office. (He’s still nervous about her when they are in the office.)
Normally, if he is truly nervous about another dog he’ll take food but he snatches it with his ears pinned, while he’ll relax much more if he gets reinforced by playing tug. In this particular video he is very interested in greeting Lily, and the difference in his response to food versus play is VERY subtle here . . . can you see it? You’ll see a combination of on cue “Watch” and “Where’s the Dog”, and Autowatches in which Willie looks at me by himself… I wasn’t paying much attention to who initiated what, (note how I totally ignore an Autowatch). I was attending to getting a good recording of his different responses to food versus play. That turned out to be more subtle than usual in this case, but discernible. (Note that when I say “Stop” I’m talking to the videographer, not to Willie!)
The last half of the video shows you the result of our work. In between taped segments, we let them sniff at the fence (camera was off, darn), and then released them into the play pen together. (Lily the Dogo was taken to the middle of the pen so that they wouldn’t meet at the gate, always a tension-filled place for dogs to greet.)