Last week I received a topic suggestion from a blog reader who has a reactive dog. What in heaven’s name does one do about dogs who are off leash, while you are responsibly walking your dog on leash in “on leash only” areas, and yet some goofball dog runs up to your own and ruins all your hard work for the day/week/month?
Argh, I feel her pain. After years of working with Willie’s reactivity when he was young, I can instantly recall the feeling of helplessness and horror as some dog comes barreling toward your own.
I’ve written a lot about this, (see “Aggression Toward Other Dogs” in the Learning Center) but I thought this was a good time to revisit the topic. It’s such a common problem and affects a multitude of dog owners. Besides finding myself thinking a lot about Willie’s first years as a reactive dog (nothing like a medical emergency to start you reminiscing), we just put up a long-scheduled sale on the Dog-Dog Reactivity DVD and booklets, so this issue has been on my mind for a variety of reasons. Today I’ll link to posts and articles I’ve already written (don’t miss the comments, some of them are brilliant), but thought I’d summarize my thoughts about the issue now. Some things change, and some things never do.
YOU: You know the in-flight instruction to “put the oxygen mask on yourself first”? That’s our first job, to find a way to avoid that sense of helpless panic when a dog comes barreling toward you. Toward that end, three things:
1) Avoid When Possible: Apologies for starting with the obvious, but if I don’t say it I’d be remiss. It breaks my heart that the reader who wrote loves to walk in State Parks (so good for her and her dog) but is accosted by loose dogs that set back her treatment plan. I hate to say it, but sometimes you just have to avoid areas where you know dogs aren’t on leash for awhile, even thought it’s a loss. I found that walking Willie or client’s dogs in areas close to busy roads drastically cuts down on the number of loose dogs. Not as nice a walk for sure, but safer while you’re working on a treatment plan.
2) Feel Strong: It’s not good for you or your dog to feel helpless and panicked when a dog runs at your dog. It can’t possibly make your dog feel more relaxed, it makes it harder to respond appropriately, and it’s no fun. However, how else would we feel when we know that a dog fight might ensue or at minimum your dog is going to react badly? BUT, if you have some tools in your pocket you can radically change how you feel. I learned this the hard way when doing a house call and being surrounded by four seriously aggressive dogs as soon as I got out of my car. What did I have to protect myself with? Pretty much nothing. That’s when I began carrying a walking stick, NOT to ever, ever hit a dog with, but to protect the space around me or me and a dog. I have literally almost never had to use it (i.e., wave it at a dog or hit the ground in front of my legs), but I can’t tell you how much less helpless I felt. If you feel stronger, surely that can help your dog too.
3) Wait! What’s That? The other tool, which you literally carry in your pocket, is a handful of small, tasty dog treats to throw into the face of an approaching dog. Here are some videos that illustrate how to Stop an Approaching Dog. Basically, you throw (hard) a handful of dog treats into the face of the dog, and it stops them cold in many cases. Will this method stop a dog hell bent on attacking you or your dog? Of course not. But it is much more effective than people usually believe, and stops dogs who are loping over to ‘say hello’. I learned it from Trish King, have used it numerous times and have had consistently good results with it. Caveat: You have to practice this. Have to. I’ve learned with clients that if they haven’t tried it on a dog they trust, trotting toward them and their dog, they will never try it when they need it.
YOUR DOG: Well, how long do we have? Obviously we could talk for days about why dogs are reactive, not to mention how to define “reactive” in the first place and then what to do about it. I’m using it as a catch all phrase that includes any dog who is uncomfortable in the presence of an unfamiliar dog. Usually we are talking about dogs who growl, snap or bark at other dogs but there is no reason not to include dogs who go still and silent, turn their heads or display some kind of discomfort in the presence of an unfamiliar dog.
Dogs can be “reactive” for a variety of reasons, the most common being fear, but what’s most important in my opinion is to discover the triggers and use both operant and counter conditioning to change a dog’s response from OH NO! to OH BOY! I describe the program I used for Willie in The Cautious Canine, and illustrate several methods with a variety of dogs in my Dog-Dog Reactive Seminar DVD. But here are the basics:
1) Identify the Triggers and the Tells. Exactly how far does a dog have to be away from your dog to elicit a response? Be specific and thoughtful about context–it will vary depending on the dog, (how big, how fast, etc.), the dog’s experience in the last day or two, and any other environmental stimulus that can effect your dog. Write it all down, it will help you be more specific. Regarding the “tells,” what does your dog do to communicate he is uncomfortable? I don’t mean a full-bore lunge and explosion of barks, I mean the first time your dog’s mouth closes and he goes still. Or stops and obsessively sniffs the ground. Or… whatever your dog does to first alert you that he is uncomfortable. Put on your detective hat. Channel Jane Goodall. Take notes. Be specific. Get into it, it actually can be fun. There are many good resources out there to help you learn to read subtle signs of discomfort. One, garsh, might be my DVD, Lost in Translation. Another one is Barbara Handelman’s book, Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook. For more ideas, go to Dogwise, they have a great selection.
2) Operant to the Rescue: The sky’s the limit here, but I find it extremely helpful to have a couple of cues that your dog has mastered that you can use to create the response you want. I describe “Watch” or “Look at Me” in detail in The Cautious Canine, because if your dog is looking at you, he’s not lunging at barking at another dog. I found playing tug to be a better reinforcement than food for Willie, but every dog is different. You can also teach a Playbow on cue (a wonderful way to relax both your dog and the other one), “Get back” (behind me), Sit (no matter what else is happening),
You can also wait for your dog for your dog to offer the response you want on his own. See Grisha Stewart’s BAT 2.0 for a good description of how to set your dog up so that he is on the boundary of his “threshold,” and reinforce him the instant he offers a relaxed response. Some trainers believe that dogs learn much faster if allowed to initiate a behavior on their own, and I think that is true for many dogs. In my experience, it depends on the dog. I honestly like having as big a repertoire as I can (Terry Ryan talks about having a big tool box–I think that is brilliant and have always tried to follow her advice.) There are so many resources out there that can help you here. Again, the best thing I can do is refer you to Dogwise and their extensive selection of helpful books.
3) Thank you Pavlov. The line between operant and classical conditioning is much fuzzier than is often allowed, but the end goal of any kind of treatment for a reactive dog is to change the dog’s internal affect so that his or her behavior changes. That’s the basis of classical conditioning, which changes behavior by changing internal affect and physiology. Here’s a video and links to other articles that show how you can pair something your dog loves with something that scares them to change their response. They key is to start with a low intensity version of what’s scary, and a high value version of something your dog loves. (Example: Your dog sees another dog two blocks away, and you immediately give him a treat or play tug with him.
In my experience, there is no one method that is best for every dog. Terry Ryan famously said that all good dog trainers need as big a tool box as they can get, and I’ve followed that advice my entire career. Every method has its advantages and disadvantages, which is why I go through all of them in the Dog-Dog Reactivity Seminar DVD. (I promised my staff I’d mention that it’s on sale again. Can I have chocolate now?)
I hope this summary acts as a good resource for those of you out there who are dealing with this issue. I think dog-dog reactivity is a much bigger problem than it was before–so many of our dogs meet other dogs when on leash and being forced by sidewalks to walk directly toward them, and so many people are getting their dogs out more (yay!). The good news is that most dogs can learn to happily anticipate greeting other dogs. Just ask Willie, who, with a very few exceptions, loves meeting other dogs now.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Ahhhh, what a difference a weekend makes. Not to mention putting Willie’s major surgery behind us and knowing that he should be fully recovered in three weeks. In case you missed it, here’s a summary of last week, in which Willie had emergency surgery after collapsing on Tuesday. Here he is, resting below me as I clack away on my laptop. He is subdued (I think a great example of “learned helplessness”–great topic for a future blog, hey?) but given that they took out 1/3 of his liver and his gall bladder just a few days ago, he’s doing great. We are so grateful for the care he has received from such great veterinarians and medical teams.
And more good news: Maggie and I took a few hours off and went to John Wentz’s winter series sheepdog trial Sunday morning. (Jim was on Willie duty, bless him.) I had one goal and one goal only: Keep Maggie moving and on her feet the entire run. That’s harder than it sounds, because stopping your dog can give you a tiny moment to evaluate what the sheep are doing and decide what to ask your dog to do next. I was super happy with our run because I met my goal, although not perfectly. I said “Stand” twice, which I know is not a cue she and I have mastered, and she lay down both times (she loves to lie down), but I got her up instantly. Overall we did well, and I got to practice keeping the run flowing as I need to. I made a handler’s mistake at the second drive panel, all on me, so we didn’t get a winning score, but we had a great time, I accomplished my goal and she handled the sheep beautifully.
And John has lambs, first I’ve seen this year:
And just to pile on the good tidings: Look what is popping up through the soil! Oh oh oh. I wonder when the first bulb flower will bloom. Any guesses?
xxx case study of “lock and load” dog xxx
xx dog-dog reactivity I xxx Sept 10 2010
xxxx dog-dog reactivity II the basics xxx