12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Week Four: “I See It!”
Criterion:Click and treat your dog for offering any nonreactive behavior while a neutral trigger is present.
As head coach of the reactive dog class, it is your responsibility to determine a working threshold for each training team in your class: How far does each of these dogs need to be from a nonreactive dog to eat, learn, and stay focused on his handler?
To ensure everyone’s safety as you work through this process, this week you will be exposing class dogs to a nonreactive, well-trained “demo dog.” By using a neutral dog as the trigger, you are minimizing the risk of inappropriate reactions. This is the first time you will be exposing the reactive dogs to another dog in the classroom environment intentionally.
If this seems like a daunting task, fear not! You have spent years honing your skills in quickly and accurately assessing canine body language, and this knowledge will serve you well in helping you to keep your class running smoothly, efficiently, and, most importantly, safely! Preparing well for this class will leave you feeling confident and calm, the very emotions you will want to demonstrate for your students, who will likely be quite nervous.
Hints for Preparing for First Exposures:
• Check that all of the dogs/handlers are behind the same barriers as last week.
• Ask the neutral dog’s handler to stay as far as possible away from the reactive dog so that you can get critical feedback on how each exposure goes.
• Place some kind of visual markers on the floor (cones work well) to mark how close you want each student to get to the nonreactive dog. Typically, the students have no idea where they are in space and move forward mindlessly as they try to click and feed at the right time.
You Want My Dog to Do What?
Besides determining each dog’s working threshold, the other critical element of this class is to teach each student that the way to salvation lies in not only allowing—but encouraging—her dog to look at his triggers from a safe distance (so he doesn’t react) and then rewarding him for doing so. Most students find this concept crazy and certainly frightening, but it is the first step in training the dog that triggers are cues to look at his handler. Note: In her excellent book, Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt has popularized a term for this concept, which we each arrived at separately. She calls it the “Look at That!” exercise.
The reason that the Click to Calm exercises are so successful is because they actually teach the dog the skills he needs to keep himself safe under the guidance of his handler. The dog learns that when he encounters a potentially stressful or scary situation, he looks to his person for guidance and instruction, without even being asked! Once the handler has a thinking dog at the end of the leash, a dog that is offering attention voluntarily, she may cue the dog to do any one of many incompatible behaviors instead of allowing the dog to launch into a reaction sequence of undesirable behaviors. Such a system allows both the person and the dog to make better choices with less stress.
I tell my students that in order to change a dog’s emotions about his triggers you have to change his behavior toward them first. In effect, what you are doing is like shaping behavior, except that you are shaping the dog’s emotions instead. By rewarding a dog for not going off in the presence of a trigger
•he builds confidence that the trigger is nothing to worry about or react to.
•he begins to trust that you, his life coach, will take care of the menace/irritant.
•he maintains a thinking brain so that he can offer neutral, uncued behaviors (sniffing, turning his head away, taking a breath) or even desirable behaviors (sitting, lying down, offering eye contact, targeting a hand) while the trigger is present.
•he starts refocusing on you for his treat for remaining cool.
•he begins to associate the appearance of triggers with reinforcement from you.
By the end of the hour, each student will have been able to practice exposing her dog to a nonthreatening dog. She will learn to gauge her dog’s working distance and to deal with a dog that is about to go off. Following the steps in the “Sweetening the Trigger” handout, she will be able to continue practicing these skills at home.
The Basic Drill and Criterion
Each exposure lasts somewhere between 30 to 60 seconds and gives me a sense of how much I can push the dog in future exposures. Keeping exposures brief means that
•the shorter the exposure time, the less chance the dog will build to an outburst;
•each student gets more repetitions;
•each rep is less stressful for students because they’re on the spot for shorter (though repeated) periods of time; and
•the experience helps teach students that if there’s an outburst, learn from the mistake, move on, and try again.
For a dog that is dog-reactive, I first assess how well the dog is able to work behind the barrier. Is he focused and eating? Does he seem relaxed? If so, often the first step in his visual exposure is for his handler to bring him out from behind the barrier to just look at the rear of the demo dog. The demo dog will be sitting with his back to the reactive dog and facing the assistant across the full distance of the room (70 feet at MasterPeace Dog Training). If he tolerates that level of exposure well, we can begin to expose the rest of the nonreactive dog across the room, body part by body part, until the dog-reactive dog is able to view the whole dog across the length of the classroom. I have the assistant turn the nonreactive dog to face the side of the reactive dog. Normally I stop there unless the reactive dog is doing remarkably well. Only if the reactive dog is very comfortable with this lateral view of the trigger dog do I ask the assistant to position her dog directly facing the student’s dog, since that’s where problems often start. I usually save that for another week.
For a dog that is people-reactive, I follow a similar protocol except that here the handler clicks her dog for looking at and hearing people. Since we are in a room full of strangers, this is a great opportunity for the people-reactive dog. I stay as close to the team as I can without the dog reacting to my presence so that I can coach. I usually station an assistant at the far end of the room, standing motionless with her side facing the dog. If a standing person is too much for the dog, I ask the assistant to sit. Once the dog tolerates looking at a motionless assistant, we add gentle movement and gradually shape from there. As the weeks go on, we expose the people-reactive dogs to more assistants—of both genders. Sometimes we put on hoods, glasses, and so on. In Weeks Five and Six, when students have a much better understanding of when and what to click and feed, I do “riskier” things like bending toward the dog or moving quickly.
“Emma says, ‘Don’t be distracted by Oscar’s barking.’ I want to learn the signs of the behavior before a reaction begins so I can get Oscar out of situations before he has an outburst. I don’t want to push it; I want him to have a successful experience. At Christmas, when the family crowd had thinned out, I brought Oscar downstairs briefly on leash and clicked and treated him while I told my family to ignore him. It worked, and I returned him to his crate, which he loves.”
The criterion for these initial exposures is simple: Click absolutely anything and everything that a dog does instead of reacting: Sitting, lying down, turning his head, taking a breath, glancing at his handler, offering eye contact, sniffing the floor, targeting a hand, carrying an object—all are acceptable. This criterion illustrates the principle of Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO). DRO works so well with dog-reactive dogs because as the dog offers these behaviors, he is also sending the message to the other (trigger) dog that he is not a threat. A perfect win-win!
Still, running these initial exposures is not a piece of cake. Many students are nervous and prone to the following “mistakes,” most of which you can remedy easily:
•A student thinks she wants to be behind a different barrier and refuses to station behind the old one.
•A student runs out of treats, especially while out on the floor.
•A student does not tell the instructor that her dog had a meltdown a couple of days before.
•A student does not bring the appropriate equipment or footwear.
•A student lets her dog hang out on the other side of the barrier or lets him sniff between the slabs of the barrier.
•A student is looking at me, the instructor, as I am talking to the class instead of focusing on and working her dog.
•A student is talking with her secondary handler or an assistant and not paying attention.
•A student with a small dog is standing up, which means she is not working her dog. I always kid people with short dogs, “I better not see your head above that barrier, because if I do, I know that you are not clicking and feeding your dog.”
Turning Challenges into Opportunities
The reason that I created the reactive dog class was to get people whose dogs had reactivity issues together with other people and their reactive dogs. The beauty of the class is that it offers students the opportunity to have multiple people and dogs to practice with—and all are empathetic dog owners who understand how difficult it is to own a reactive dog. All of the students are strangers to the dogs, and the dogs are foreign to each other. I tease my students that we are all each other’s “live bait” to practice with! At first, when students come to class they are afraid and avoid their dog’s triggers at all costs. “Up until now, when your dog went over threshold, he’s been making the decisions about how to act,” I tell them. “Now you are going to.” As we teach these students in class the skills to handle situations, they begin to want to practice teaching their dogs to look at all of the things that used to terrify them.
Coaching the Initial Exposures
Your students will need real-time coaching about the criterion (clicking any non-reactive behavior the dog offers) and exactly what they are supposed to do. Otherwise, students tend to develop behavior-specific “tunnel vision,” in part because they are so anxious. Many a handler brings her dog out from behind the barrier with a goal behavior in mind (more often than not, “Sit!”) and repeats the cue desperately hoping the behavior will happen. If the dog cannot offer the behavior because he is overstimulated, he is left in a reinforcement vacuum and then begins making poor decisions, leaving both members of the training team frustrated. When handlers get behavior-specific tunnel vision, the rate of reinforcement decreases, frustration increases, and progress halts. Coaching students through their momentous “first exposure” helps avoid tunnel vision and leaves the students and their dogs with a successful experience to digest.
I stand next to each student and her dog (farther away if the dog is people-reactive). I keep reminding her to let her dog look at the trigger. This is a challenge in itself, because for years the student has done everything in her power to prevent her dog from looking at his triggers. So, for me to chant, “Get out of the way. Let your dog look, and you look, too!” is not only totally foreign to my students but also downright scary. Instead, many try to distract their dogs from looking. I explain to them that to get to the root of the problem, “your dog has to learn to look at the trigger and make the decision himself to look back at you, his coach.”
I also tell each student when to click and feed. This is where I can’t keep my mouth shut! I also decide how long each exposure should last since I cannot trust the student to make this decision just yet. At this stage, the students are dependent on my instruction, and I want to guide them as much as possible.
Working outside is ideal for this exercise if you can arrange it, allowing you to open up as much space as your student teams need to feel comfortable and achieve success. Outdoor reactive dog classes do have their limitations when taught in public, however, since you run the risk of having your class interrupted by “visiting” off-leash dogs, poorly supervised children, loud noises, and myriad other uncontrolled and unplanned-for distractions or triggers. So if you’d like to teach outdoors, for everyone’s safety try to do so on private property where you can prevent such unpredictable events. You can use cars, trees, ring gates covered with blankets, buildings, and so on as barriers.
Since I teach all my reactivity classes indoors, I must work within the confines of the space available to me. If I have a dog that is unable to look at a neutral dog across the full length of the room, I allow that team to stay behind the barrier for as long as needed for them to feel comfortable and confident working together.
Even when you teach this class perfectly, and all dogs remain under threshold and work with their handlers readily, Week Four can still be a stressful one for dogs and people alike. Each student/dog team has a long history of reactive responses in similar situations. The hardest situation is when a student/dog team does well during the actual exposure only to have a meltdown later in the hour.
While, ideally, you might want to end the class with kudos all around, I’ve found that, emotionally, that’s not possible. When students finish their first exposure, they are in a “happy” state of shock. They hadn’t known what to expect, and when things work out OK, they are speechless, quiet, not sure what to say. They also are tired from the experience and focused on getting their dogs back to their cars without incident and getting home. Many e-mail me privately if they want to discuss their experience further. Being available to my students by phone or e-mail helps build their confidence and ensure their success. In contrast, for the most part building camaraderie among students happens during our pre-class debriefings.
You’re more than halfway through teaching the reactive dog class: congratulations to you, too! Next week, we use the same setup as this week to expose class dogs to each other for the first time, if they are ready. The same principles apply except that students will get to practice a more real-world scenario in a controlled environment.
Week Four Home Management
Toys with a Purpose
Why give your dog toys “for free” when you could give them for good behavior? For many dogs, play is both a powerful motivator and one of the best ways to build strong bonds with their people. By playing with boundaries, you are improving your dog’s manners and your relationship with your dog—talk about a win/win!
Divide your toys into the following categories:
•mentally stimulating toys
Standardtoys are toys that the dog has access to throughout the day. They may be variable in type (tennis balls, stuffed animals, squeaky toys, and so on) and are often stored in a toy box. Your dog may pull a few out here and there but rarely plays with any of them for an extended period of time. Having constant access to these toys, your dog often grows bored with them over time. It’s just like children who get dozens of toys on Christmas, and by New Year’s are still playing with only three of them.
Rotating your dog’s toys is a great way to keep them fresh and exciting. To combat “toy satiation,” take your dog’s toys out of the toy box, put them into a new container that he cannot access, and place the container on a closet shelf, in a drawer or cupboard, or in the basement. Give your dog two or three “new” toys daily only after he has performed a reliable behavior.
Each day, you can go to the container with your dog and make a big deal out of choosing a hidden toy. Build his excitement. Pull a toy out of the box, show it to your dog, and ask “How about this one?” in a happy voice. Cue your dog to sit, and as he does, you can either click or verbally mark the behavior (“Yes!”) and then give your dog the toy. Your dog may then run away happily or do what he likes with it. Repeat this procedure three times daily, each time with a new and different toy.
If you have children, let them assist in selecting toys for rotation and presenting them to your dog. It’s a fun way to help them become more involved in the responsibility of pet ownership and builds a good relationship between your children and your pet. If you choose to teach your dog to put his toys away (something your instructor can help with), ask your dog to put his toys away each day. Otherwise, you or the children should make sure the toys get back into the container and put away until the next day when you can pick three new toys.
Interactivetoys are those that you use to play cooperatively with your dog. Frisbees, tennis balls, and tug toys fit this category. As with the standard toys, you should keep these toys out of sight until you are ready to engage with your dog. Providing the toys only when you are ready and wanting to play with your dog will keep their novelty and reinforcement value high. This strategy also prevents unwanted attention-seeking behaviors, like a dog dropping tennis balls in your lap and barking for play when you are trying to help your daughter with her homework on the couch. Next week’s Home Management assignment covers the rules of play with your dog.
Mentally stimulatingtoys are those that act as “babysitters” when you cannot watch your dog. These toys require the dog to concentrate, and they help drain excess energy—they function as the canine equivalent of Sudoku or crossword puzzles and can keep your dog mentally entertained for hours. Perhaps the most popular is the classic Kong toy, which you can stuff with a variety of yummy foods and freeze to provide your dog with hours of fun. (You can buy Kong toys at www.clickertraining.com.) Mentally stimulating toys are ideal for rainy or snowy days when you may not be able to get in a good long hike, or for when you need to keep your dog in his crate for several hours while you entertain visitors. Giving your dog something to do will help prevent him from engaging in unwanted behaviors.
For the Love of a Kong
Some dogs, particularly puppies, need to learn how to eat food from a Kong.
For these dogs, putting a smear of food near the large opening makes it easy and fun for them to lick it out. Gradually, you can begin stuffing the Kong more fully. As you start filling the Kong, it can help to place dry treats (pieces of kibble), which dispense easily, inside the Kong, with just a smear of a soft treat, like peanut butter or cream cheese, around the edges.
The dog then receives a large jackpot for his efforts. As his skills improve, you can begin reducing the amount of kibble and increasing the amount of soft treats (canned dog food, cream cheese, peanut butter, yogurt, and so on) at the top.
For high-energy dogs, it’s a good idea to feed every meal from these types of toys, replacing the dog’s food bowl with work-to-eat toys. Most dogs are more than happy to make such a transition—the difference between a meal out of a frozen Kong and a meal from a dog bowl is much like the difference between a meal served at a fine dining establishment and one purchased at a drive-through fast food restaurant. Once your dog is accustomed to eating from food-dispensing toys, a regular food dish is a bit of a letdown!
In addition to the Kong toys, there are a variety of commercially available puzzle toys (like Nina Ottosson toys, available at www.clickertraining.com). You also can experiment with making your own work-to-eat toys with materials readily available in your house. Try giving your dog supervised access to a clean water bottle full of kibble, or smearing canned dog food inside of a cupcake tray and freezing it.
Week Four Foundation Behavior
Sweetening the Trigger
In class this week, we talked about how changing your dog’s emotions about his triggers requires changing his behavior toward them first. As a first step, you practiced letting your dog look at a trigger from a safe distance so he didn’t react. You clicked and treated him for looking, and he turned back to you for his reward.
To start training this behavior at home, you need to set up situations where your dog looks at a trigger (another dog, a kid on a skateboard, a moving car) but remains under threshold, so pick your distance and the nature of the trigger carefully. You learned how to do this last week practicing “Your Dog’s Melting Point.” Your task is to reinforce your dog for anything and everything he does that is not part of his normal reaction sequence while that trigger is in the picture. Don’t be surprised if, after a few successful sessions practicing this exercise, you see your dog visibly relax a bit when a trigger appears. He may not be as cool, calm, and collected as the dog of your dreams, but he’s definitely learning some skills to keep himself safe—and you less frazzled. This success “sweetens” the trigger.
Note: The instructions below use a dog as the trigger, but any other trigger that’s relatively predictable in the workspace you select will serve as well.
Sweetening the Trigger
1.Work with your dog and his appropriate training equipment (your two-leash safety system) within his established threshold. Generally this means in a learning space free of “space-invading” people and other dogs, even those with “friendly” intentions. What you need is distractions (dogs, people, and/or other triggers) that are visible but that are not focused on approaching, greeting, or otherwise interacting with you and your dog.
a.Your dog should be stimulated but not over the top. How much space does he need to be able to notice, but not react inappropriately to, his triggers?
b.Work in short, successful sessions, no more than 30 to 60 seconds.
c.Record the results of each exposure session, using one sticker or notation for a successful session, another sticker or notation for a less desirable outcome.
d.Watch the trend. If more sessions are less than desirable, change your training plan.
When practicing clicking and treating your dog for looking at targets, be conscious of trying to get the dog to turn toward you for his treat. To get your dog to turn away from the trigger, you may call his name (as the student is doing here), put a treat on his nose to lure him into a turn, present your hand in front of you to cue a hand target, or use the Come front! exercise.
2.When your dog simply looks at the other dog (or other trigger)
a.Click and feed your dog rapidly.
If you are unable to click, simply feed your dog as quickly as you can while the other dog is present.
b.If your dog fixates on the other dog, try several of the following:
Say your dog’s name, then click and treat.
Present your hand, and cue your dog to “Touch.” Click and treat if your dog complies.
Stick the treat on his nose to try to turn his head as you turn your body in the opposite direction. Reinforce him for following you with a click and treat as you do so.
Start walking backward. Click and treat your dog for following you (the “Come front” exercise).
3.When your dog hears another dog, quickly click and feed your dog.
Your behavioral history is a roadmap of where you’ve been together and a source of information you can use to plan your next training session to maximize confidence and learning. If you occasionally have an unsuccessful training session, your notes will help you tease out what is different about those sessions so that you can work through the challenges together. If you are seeing an increase in undesirable behaviors, it means that some part of implementing the technique needs attention, so please contact your training coach who can assist you in reformulating your training plan.
During each class, we will review your training reports from the previous week, so be sure to bring your notes along with you to class. You and your classmates will learn together about what works well and what doesn’t. This sharing time is important not only to get feedback about your dog, but to create supportive relationships with your classmates, sharing your successes and setbacks as you learn.
It is better to limit your exposures to the classroom if that is the only environment where you are able to work your dog while ensuring both your safety and your dog’s ability to remain under threshold. One of your most important roles as a canine life coach is to prevent your dog from rehearsing the behaviors you are trying to remove from his repertoire.
As you are working through these issues with your dog, remember to take away all opportunities for him to rehearse his undesirable behaviors.
Week Four Emergency Behavior
We’ve all been there. You’re out for a walk with your dog, enjoying a beautiful day together. Quietly, you celebrate that your walk thus far has been trigger- and stress-free and you’re almost home. And then it happens. A jogger turns a corner quickly and is barreling toward you. Your heart races, and you begin scanning the environment desperately, looking for a visual barrier behind which you can hide until the distraction passes. You’ve used all the treats you brought along on this walk and wonder how you can distract your dog from this potentially volatile situation.
There’s nothing worse than feeling powerless to prevent your dog from going over threshold. It’s scary, embarrassing, frustrating, and dangerous. The “Go sniff” exercise will empower you; you will never have to feel that powerless “What am I going to do?” panic again. Imagine how good it would feel if, instead of panicking, you could just ask your dog to “Go sniff” and know his nose would turn away from the approaching distraction and toward the ground for a good scent inspection. Sniffing is a perfect example of a behavior that is incompatible with aggressive or reactive displays.
Training “Go Sniff”
1.Walk your dog on the grass.
2.Stop forward movement. Stand still.
3.Scatter a number of high-value treats on the grass in front of your dog’s face. While these treats can be crunchy or soft, crunchy treats will buy you more time.
4.As your dog watches you sprinkle treats, insert the verbal cue “Go sniff!”
5.Stand up straight and allow your dog to take as much time as he likes searching for all the treats.
6.As he finishes, say “All done” in a neutral manner and continue walking forward. A verbal cue is helpful to end the behavior officially so that when you use this strategy in real life, you can ask your dog to finish sniffing when you are ready to resume the walk.
7.You may periodically “reload” the ground to prolong your dog’s sniffing, building duration into this behavior for when you need it.
8.Practice this behavior on a variety of surfaces, including concrete. Practice distractions and duration separately and often before you begin asking for prolonged sniffs in arousing environments.