12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Week Five: “I See It, but What Do You Want Me to Do?”
Criterion:Click and treat your dog after he looks at a trigger and then, as a result of your withholding the click for a second or two, looks back at you.
In Week Five, the main goal is to teach students the second step of exposure: training the dog to offer the handler eye contact when he sees a trigger. We start the class by giving each student practice in exposing her dog to a trigger from a safe distance. Once each dog is comfortable getting clicks and treats for looking at the dog or human trigger without reacting and readily reorients to his handler for treats, I instruct the student to delay the click slightly. If her dog expects a click and doesn’t get one, he may spin back to her as if to say, “Hey, didn’t you see that I looked at that other dog? Where’s my treat?” At that point, the student clicks and treats her dog lavishly.
A Profound Change
When a dog looks at a trigger and offers his handler eye contact on his own, unbidden, a powerful change has taken place in his understanding. Now the dog is learning to take responsibility to look at his handler when he encounters a trigger that is either concerning or scary. It is no longer his handler’s responsibility to try to shield her dog from looking at the scary trigger. It remains the handler’s responsibility, however, to keep her dog safe by managing the environment and making the most appropriate decisions for her dog. That means that once a student has trained her dog to give her automatic eye contact when he sees a trigger, then she can start cueing him to do a behavior that is incompatible with erupting. And once a dog has a method for keeping himself safe in the face of a trigger, over time the trigger ceases to be so scary or troubling, and the dog gains confidence in conquering his demons. Perfect!
I taught Ben to give me immediate eye contact when exposed to another dog, no matter when or where it came from. For example, if I was in a room with Ben without any other dogs, typically he lay somewhere nearby. If a dog walked into the room, instead of reacting, he immediately rose and sat in front of me, giving me steady eye contact. I looked at him, then scanned the room expecting to find a dog there, and made a decision about what to do to keep us both safe and comfortable.
Options for this Week
Whether you use class dogs or a nonreactive dog for these exposures depends on how far along each student/dog team is in their training. Keep the primary goal in mind. It’s better to make the task easier for reactive dogs by using a neutral dog as the trigger so the reactive dog can concentrate on the game rather than on dealing with the extra stress that an exposure to a class dog might entail. If you have no choice but to use other class dogs as triggers, try to use the quietest ones.
I first outline the process of training the dog to offer eye contact using a neutral trigger. Later in the chapter I offer options for dogs that catch on to the new criterion quickly and are ready for the challenge of other class dogs (or, for the human-reactive dogs, more “lively” assistants).
In either case, I always try to open up as much space as possible. If you feel that your options are limited because you have too few students, be sure to maximize your use of the space and barriers available to you in the teaching facility. By doing initial exposures between teams that are stationed at opposite ends of the classroom, generally you can maximize the use of the space and barriers available, but you can always make adjustments as needed.
Bouncing Dogs off Each Other
While there are a variety of successful techniques you can employ when structuring these exposures, I refer to the method I currently use as “bouncing the dogs off each other.” I ask one student with her dog (“Team A”) to come out from behind their barrier, while she clicks and treats her dog for any desirable behaviors or accidental exposures during the process. I then ask another team, usually positioned on the other side of the classroom (“Team B”), to walk out a few steps from behind their barrier. Once they have moved into the main training space, I instruct the handler for Team B to ask her dog to sit in front of her with his back to Team A.
The handlers for both teams are now clicking and feeding their dogs for any and every instance of appropriate behavior (Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior or DRO). The body position of Team A’s dog is irrelevant: he may choose to sit, stand, or lie down while Team B’s dog should remain sitting. For both teams, the best behavior to click during this exposure is reorientation to the handler.
Don’t be surprised if each of the handlers is concentrating so hard on her dog that she temporarily forgets her own mechanical skills. You may see hands resting in treat bags rather than in a neutral location, which lures the dog’s attention away from the exercise, or treats tossed haphazardly instead of presented at the student’s waist where they would reward her dog for turning away from the trigger. While such careless placement of reinforcement may not be problematic for this particular exposure exercise, sloppy delivery may interfere with progress in later exercises when the dog will need to be able to move seamlessly with the handler, watching her body closely for cues that indicate a change of direction.
Aim for Comfort and Fluidity
The goal during each exposure is approximately 10 clicks per team. Wait for the Team A student to develop a rhythm and some fluidity in clicking and treating her dog for looking at Team B before you ask the student to delay her click. If her dog seems tentative or edgy, he’s not ready yet. Don’t rush this step, even if it takes several turns before the team is comfortable with the first step. It may be the case that a student doesn’t recognize that her dog “gets” step one and is ready for step two. She may feel that she’s got the situation under control (Whew!) and doesn’t want to mess it up by trying something new. Both students need your coaching.
Upping the Ante
If you have a class of dogs that catches on quickly to looking at the trigger and offering their handlers eye contact immediately, then you can start exposing the dogs to each other. As you work through these exercises, trust your instincts. I always err on the side of caution: start by using the quieter dogs as triggers. If you feel that two particular dogs are likely to be an inappropriate match, you probably are correct. There is no need to take unnecessary risks at any point in a reactive dog class.
Hints on Pairing Dogs for Exposure Practice
Generally I try to pair two dogs that are opposites. For example, I might expose a dog-reactive dog to one that is people-reactive. If I have a class where all of the dogs are dog-sensitive, then I might try pairing the least sensitive one with the most sensitive one. One pairing I avoid is exposing the most vocal dogs to each other, especially in the first weeks of class. If I need to, I stick with the neutral dog (from Week 4) and increase the criteria from there. For very fearful, human-reactive dogs, I pick the calmest assistant with the quietest body language I can, and I pay close attention to the dog’s gender preferences, if he has any.
When Dog A is able to look at Dog B’s backside and reorient to his handler, I ask Handler B to turn her dog sideways while sitting, so Dog B is now perpendicular to Dog A. Throughout this exercise, the handler is clicking and treating Dog B for the same criteria as Dog A: offering eye contact to his handler. If both dogs are successful at this initial distance, I instruct Handler B to turn her dog very slowly so that her dog is facing Dog A at a distance. It is critical that you take this exercise as slowly as is necessary to ensure that both dogs are successful. If either dog struggles with this exercise, quit while you’re ahead! If one dog is having an easier time of it than the other, you can pair that dog with another team for an added challenge.
The goal for each criterion level is approximately 10 clicks per team. Such discrete goals help control the length of exposure sessions and set the teams up for learning success. Repeat this exercise with each team in the class, increasing the difficulty level for successful teams by reducing distance, practicing with a new team, or adding the criterion of movement—for instance, asking one dog to watch another dog heel with his handler.
Change only one criterion at a time. For example, once two dogs can look at each other and reorient to their handlers successfully from across the room, you could have Dog A, positioned in front of his barrier, watch Dog B practice hand-targeting in the middle of the room. If successful, ask the two dogs to switch roles so Dog A hand-targets in the middle of the room while Dog B watches. Gradually increase the movement and/or the proximity of the “performing” dog in the middle of the room to the “watching” dog. If all goes well, then you could try Parallel Walking (see here), in which two teams walk side by side, separated by a ring gate, at a lateral distance from each other that keeps both dogs under threshold. Normally I introduce this exercise in a more advanced level of the reactive dog class.
Sometimes it takes objectivity to appreciate when a reactive dog has made progress, as Stephanie’s story about her Australian shepherd, Floyd, illustrates. Undersocialized in the first four months of his life before Stephanie got him, Floyd was initially shy of people and growled at strangers. At 18 months, he had his first nipping incident—this was the first such incident, but by no means the only one.
Halfway through the reactive dog course, when Floyd and Stephanie were out playing Frisbee in her parents’ backyard, a neighbor took her border collie puppy out for a stroll. The puppy began to bark, and, Stephanie says, “Floyd took off like a freight train, charging the lady and her puppy. Mentally, I panicked, sure he would bite. I ran after him as fast as I could, only to fall in my haste. Floyd screeched to a halt at the lady’s feet, barking and jumping in the air without making physical contact. This time he didn’t bite. I called his name, and he came back to me.”
While this was not the first time Floyd had charged this neighbor, it was the first time Stephanie realized the training was working: “Floyd was learning, albeit slowly, to control his impulses even when I was unable to offer him immediate direction. I was so relieved, my heart burst with pride!” she says.
She and Floyd continued to make progress. In the final class, Stephanie says, “the dogs had to lie down for about a minute while strangers wearing hats walked around them in circles. Floyd’s ‘Down’ was the best in the class! He even rolled onto a hip, a sure sign that he was increasingly comfortable and felt safe. Mission accomplished!”
In general, I try to keep successful pairings together as I raise criteria. If I change the pairing, then I have to expose the dogs all over again from the start to make sure that they can tolerate the harder exercises. As with all exercises, some teams will progress more quickly than others, so juggle criteria as needed to help each individual team find their success! It is also critical that each student understand what constitutes progress for her dog and that she learn to recognize it.
I tell my students that next week the goal is relaxing and having fun with their dogs. Your students are developing the knowledge and skills to keep their dogs under threshold, and their dogs are learning that their owners will keep them safe. At this point, I like to let the students experiment with teaching something new and fun to their dogs (like playing on a miniature agility teeter). It’s one thing if a dog can respond to well-trained cues in the presence of triggers. It’s quite another if he’s relaxed and confident enough to problem-solve, so this exercise also gauges how far each student/dog team has come.
Week Five Home Management
Play with a Purpose
Many dogs love to play with their owners, and those that don’t can be taught to enjoy play. While it may take a little extra time to teach a reluctant dog to play, the rewards are well worth the effort. Even the most dedicated dog owner gets busy, and combining quality play with a mentally stimulating training session will give you the most bang for your training buck. While these benefits extend to all pet owners, they are of special value to the owner of the reactive dog, a dog that needs a strong bond with his handler to navigate challenging and trigger-heavy situations successfully. Finding a game that your dog loves and using it to reward behaviors you like is perhaps the fastest and most reliable way to build great and reliable behaviors.
You Start and End the Play
To build a better relationship with and better manners in your dog, you start and end the play. Giving in to the demanding dog that drops tennis balls in your lap for hours on end, squealing and whining, only reinforces that demanding behavior. I learned this lesson the hard way once with my American Eskimo dog, Corey. Corey frequently (and rudely) demanded that I throw tennis balls for him. Whenever I was busy with a task, he scratched my arm until I gave him my attention. While I acquiesced to this behavior for some time, the day he scratched my arm so hard he ripped my shirt, I knew I had to take a different approach.
Little did I know that I had actually taught Corey to demand play by giving in when he insisted I play. Responding when he scratched my arm reinforced his demands. Ignoring him sometimes and giving in other times actually put the behavior on a variable reinforcement schedule, strengthening the unwanted behavior. The more he practiced—and the more intermittent the reinforcement—the more intense his demands became.
I had to decide when it was time to play and to make sure there was time for that each day…according to my schedule. When I wanted to play each day, I went to my hidden toy container and took out the tennis ball. You will do likewise, and likely will find that your dog exhibits some undesirable behavior like barking or jumping when you retrieve the ball. It’s important to ignore all these demand behaviors, waiting for a pause in which you can insert a cue for a behavior that you want from your dog. Only when your dog has completed that behavior is it time to go outside and let the games begin.
The best time to initiate a session of play, then, is when your dog is behaving well and doing something you like, such as relaxing quietly on a mat or at your feet. Ignore your dog’s demanding behaviors, and wait for him to settle before calling him over to play; this will teach him that quiet and calm behavior is the way to earn the fun games he loves so much.
Leave Him Wanting More
Once you have begun a play session, make sure you end it before the dog decides to quit or check out. If you like to play retrieve games with your dog, how many times will he fetch and return with the ball before he decides to take the ball away and find a cool spot in the shade to chomp it to shreds? If your dog fetches an average of ten times, consider ending the game after seven or eight tosses.
If your dog does not know how to retrieve, you can teach him how to enjoy this game inside. Once he is having a great time fetching throughout your home, move the game into the backyard. Training your dog to retrieve prevents unwanted situations like “reverse fetch” or “keep away” where the dog runs around the yard with a ball in his mouth, wagging his tail like a maniac. You chase him around in exasperation, and all your neighbors peer out their windows, laughing as they video the scene on their phones for later YouTube postings. Nobody wants that (well, except for your neighbors, your dog, and the YouTube audience).
Monster: A Fetch Game
Please note that some dogs do not know how to play or may feel inhibited about play because they fear being punished. For these dogs, toss the ball and entice the dog to pick it up. If he picks the ball up in his mouth, tease the dog, or chase and follow the dog, showing him that you are interested in the ball. This is how I taught Ben to play ball again (he had stopped playing after a trainer I went to early on “hung” him on a prong collar). I gave him the ball, crouched, and said, “I’m going to get you!” slowly following him around as he happily ran around me, holding my arms up stiffly like a walking Frankenstein. (These tactics were not scary to Ben, obviously. When doing similar exercises with your dog, know how he likes to play and be approached.) Ben loved this game, which eventually blossomed into a typical fetch game that I named “Monster!” I began using it as a conditioned reinforcer when I showed Ben in obedience competitions. When the judge said, “Exercise finished,” I looked at Ben and said “Monster!” and he leapt for joy as we moved along together to the next exercise.
What About a Game of Tug?
Tug is a fantastic game that gets an undeservedly bad reputation. Played with structure and rules, tug is a great way to build a bond with your dog, provide him with physical and mental exercise, and reinforce him for desirable behaviors with something other than food. Because tug involves high levels of arousal and dogs using their teeth, it is best reserved for adults. You should not play tug with a dog that is aggressive toward you or anyone else who might tug with the dog.
Take the tug toy out of the box and show it to your dog. Ask him to perform a well-trained behavior, like “Sit.” Once he sits, mark the behavior, and give your dog a cue like “Take it!” to start the play session. You can then tug with your dog, back and forth: he tugs, you tug, taking turns. I do not allow the dog to whip the toy from side-to-side by himself at this time. We are playing cooperatively and will “kill” the toy together!
After tugging back and forth for a couple of rounds, ask your dog to drop his end of the tug toy with a cue like “Out!” If you have never taught your dog how to release a toy, simply place a high-value (human-grade) food treat in your mouth, and as you give your dog the release cue, spit the piece of food at your dog’s nose. Hot dogs or string cheese work great for teaching dogs to release tug toys! Most dogs will drop the end of the toy to find the treat. As your dog releases the toy, praise him and show him where the treat has fallen. It usually takes only a few repetitions until your dog is dropping the tug immediately when you ask. Nice job! You can then play another round of tug or put the toy away.
When ending a session with my dogs, I signal the end of the session and hold the ball or tug toy over my head, heading to the house as the dogs jump up to get it. I want them to love and treasure these sessions, and I build that enthusiasm by keeping our sessions variable and making it impossible to predict when and how I want to play. Remember that keeping interactive toys picked up and out of your dog’s reach when you are unable to play or uninterested in playing with him will help preserve each toy’s special value.
Week Five Foundation Behavior
Teaching a dog to assume a stationary position and maintain that position until cued for a release is one of the holy-grail behaviors of dog training. Not only is it useful; it is impressive to watch. Have you ever walked into an obedience class where dogs of every size, age, and temperament are lined up sitting and waiting patiently for their handlers to return to them and release them for the next exercise? It’s this exact scene that made me fall in love with the sport.
With dogs that struggle with reactivity or aggression, mastering a “Stay” can help you control your dog regardless of the situation.
For safety reasons, you want your dog to stay until you tell him to move, period! Because holding a position in the face of distractions is such an important safety behavior, it is worth laying a solid foundation and slowly building the behavior by asking for more. Since you usually will want to keep your reactive dog close to you, the emphasis in this class is on building duration.
You can practice teaching “Stay” in either a sit or a down position. Start with the position that is more comfortable for your dog, and use the same technique later for the other position. You will want to practice so that your dog can stay in the designated position reliably in front of, behind, and beside you.
Training the Rock-solid Stay
1.Select either a visual or a verbal cue for “Stay.” You may add this cue as you are teaching the behavior or once you have taught the concept of stay, whichever you prefer!
2.Remove the treats from your hands so you don’t distract or lure your dog out of position.
3.Move your dog into heel position on your left side, position him in a sit or a down, and say “Stay.”
4.Pivot to face your dog so that you are standing toe-to-toe.
5.Count to ten. Without bending over your dog, massage him calmly and offer encouragement and praise to keep him in position. Move your hands slowly. If you must bend, bend at the knees instead of bending over your dog.
6.Repeat your stay cue if you are using it at this time.
7.At the end of the behavior (no more than 5 seconds, at first), click and feed your dog. If you can pivot back to your dog’s side before clicking, do so. If not, click and feed him in front.
8.Release the dog in a neutral tone of voice. You may want to avoid using “OK!” as your release cue, since you may use it without thinking at a time when you would not want to release your dog from his stay.
9.To build duration, slowly lengthen the amount of time that your dog remains motionless, awaiting his release cue. Add at most 5 seconds at a time, and only if your dog is successful at holding his position 80 percent of the time at the shorter interval.
10. Once the dog is staying in position until released reliably, you can “ping pong” your criteria by varying the amount of time he is expected to stay, alternating between shorter and longer stays.
Week Five Foundation Behavior
Cueing Eye Contact
Last week, you practiced clicking your dog for any nonreactive behavior he offered when faced with a trigger and reinforced him when he turned toward you for his treat. This week, following your practice in class, you are going to kick it up a notch and teach your dog to look to you for guidance when he encounters a trigger he finds concerning. The trigger, in fact, becomes a cue to check in with you.
As you are working through this exercise, remember that this process will look different for every training team. Some will require more time or repetitions than others to achieve the same end goal. Fret not; this is a normal part of the learning process.
Initially, your dog’s head will likely be “bouncing” between you and the trigger as you compete with the distraction for your dog’s attention. With practice, however, your dog will offer you his focus more readily and steadily. When your dog begins looking to you for guidance and reinforcement in response to seeing (or hearing) a trigger, you are halfway to winning the battle with reactivity: you now have an operant dog that is ready to learn better coping skills! This dog deserves a jackpot: Bravo!
Note: The instructions below use a dog as the trigger, but any other trigger that’s relatively predictable in the workspace you select will work as well.
Training Your Dog to Offer You Eye Contact When He Sees a Trigger
1.Expose your dog to a trigger at a safe distance.
2.Allow your dog to look at the trigger, but withhold the click for a couple of seconds to see if your dog turns toward you in anticipation of a click as if to say, “Hello? I was looking at that other dog for a second. You must have missed it. Surely you intended to click?”
a.If your dog locks eyes with the other dog or freezes, click, and interrupt the moment by feeding. Don’t push it!
b.Deliver treats on the floor or ground if needed.
3.When your dog turns his head to look at you—even for a split second, click for the eye contact.
4.Repeat. Click and reward liberally when your dog notices a trigger and reorients in your direction.
5.As your dog improves at this game, gradually increase the duration of your dog’s eye contact with you before you click and treat.
If your dog sees a trigger (left), and calmly reorients to you, offering eye contact (center), give him lots of praise and great reinforcement (right). If he freezes or locks on to the target, feed the floor or interrupt the moment by clicking and feeding.
Week Five Emergency Behavior
Teaching your dog how to get behind your body on cue is a trick that lets you use yourself as a visual barrier for your dog when a trigger approaches and environmental barriers are unavailable. No matter how well you try to control the environment in which you are training, surprises, the traditional enemy of reactive dogs, are occasionally unavoidable. This convenient behavior will empower you in such situations, like one that occurred in an agility class I once attended with Ben.
One night at class, a young and exuberant dog came down with a severe case of the zoomies, romping around the room wildly. Few dog owners can resist cracking a smile at such a sight, but such a distraction in the working environment is a huge challenge for any dog and handler team, let alone one working through a reactivity problem. While once such an event might have promoted a meltdown for Ben and me, the well-taught “Get behind” behavior saved us both from going over threshold.
I asked Ben to get behind me, which afforded me the opportunity to quickly toss a handful of high-value treats away from us and toward the approaching dog, where her owner could collect her as she gathered the treats off the floor. “Get behind” helped Ben and me avoid disaster and showed him he could rely on my fair guidance and judgment to keep him safe in the face of a situation he would perceive as dangerous.
If you practice this behavior enough, you may find that your dog begins to go behind you on his own when confronted with a situation he finds anxiety-inducing, allowing you to address the situation appropriately. When this transition happens, the trigger becomes a cue to “Get behind,” and the behavior becomes a cue to you that your dog is nearing his tolerance threshold and is requesting additional space for himself.
Training “Get Behind”
1.Start with your dog in front of you.
2.Begin by having your dog target your hand in front of your body, at your body’s center.
3.Click and treat your dog for performing this behavior.
4.Now that you have refreshed the stationary targeting behavior (where your dog moves toward your stationary hand), it is time to begin teaching a moving target, that is, teach your dog to follow your hand as you move it in any direction. Build the behavior in tiny increments. At first, you may only be clicking and treating a stretch of the neck, then building toward one paw moving toward your hand, then a full step, and so on. Your dog’s success will dictate the rate at which you build this behavior. If your dog refuses a touch, it is likely a sign that you have raised your criteria too quickly. Build this behavior until your dog can move from your side to behind your body, clicking and treating each touch.
5.Once your dog moves behind your body, click and offer him several treats in that position.
6.Once your dog is going behind your body reliably and enthusiastically at least 80% of the time, select and add a cue that would come naturally to you in an emergency situation.
You should teach the “stay” portion of this behavior separately as a foundation behavior.
Start with your dog targeting your hand directly in front of you so he is facing you. Click and treat him for touching your moving target hand. In a sweeping U-turn, you will slowly move him behind you, clicking and feeding him along the way. Once he is behind you, click and treat him generously.
Training the Body Block
There are times when you might want to be able get your dog behind you in a more protected fashion, in effect to body-block another dog from getting to him. In that case, it would be helpful to train your dog to “Get behind” up against a wall, so that he ends up sandwiched between the wall and your legs. That position allows you to watch and face a threat head-on. Since a sudden movement into a constricted space can be unnerving to your dog, you should get your dog used to “being trapped” between you and the wall slowly. Cue “Get behind” near a wall, and gradually narrow the space as you move closer and closer to the wall. Once your dog is used to the narrow space, you can proceed with more speed.