12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Week Six: Let’s Jump for Joy!
Criterion:Click and treat your dog for being creative
and solving problems amid his triggers.
Week Six is our last class. What your students most need at this point is the knowledge to continue educating their dogs and the commitment to doing it. I tell them that this week I want them to relax and have some fun with their dogs as a reward for all the hard work they’ve done in the previous five weeks. To that end, I want them to work on an activity with their dogs that does not involve looking at other dogs specifically. Instead, I want them to start being aware of the environment that they are in while they practice focusing on teaching their dogs something entirely new. After they leave class and increasingly expose their dogs to the real world, they will have to be subtly aware of their surroundings while simultaneously able to focus on what their dogs are doing and communicating.
Learning to Focus on the Dog and the Environment
In this final week of class, you need to go over and encourage your students to practice the skills they will need to solve challenges independently and creatively in the real world. Teaching your students to start shaping their dogs to offer behavior and to experiment with agility obstacles is an enjoyable way to prepare them for those situations, but you can use any novel shaping activity. While rehearsing well-taught behaviors in the presence of a trigger is a good and necessary skill, learningnew things in the presence of a trigger is perhaps the ultimate proof that a dog has transitioned successfully from a reactive state of mind to one where he is able to think and solve problems.
The students will use a number of learned skills in new ways:
•quickly setting “on-the-fly” criteria
•maintaining a high rate of reinforcement
•being aware of both transitions in the training environment and in the dog’s body language
•practicing their own mechanical skills by clicking, juggling equipment, and delivering reinforcement efficiently
•working in short sessions to keep their dog engaged
Students, like their dogs, need to practice skills in many contexts before they become fluent. That’s a lot to do at once, so they should celebrate success in these exercises!
One at a time, I ask each student and her dog to come out from behind their barrier and interact with an obstacle—typically jumps or tables. The dog on the floor can hear and smell—but not see—the other dogs working behind their barriers. Likewise, the students’ dogs behind the barriers can sense greater activity out on the floor.
I usually bring out an agility table to offer students the chance to practice a pure shaping activity. A student can click and treat her dog for first glancing at the table, putting a single paw on it, putting both front paws on it, and so on until her dog jumps up on the table. What also is helpful in this sort of activity is just getting the dogs moving. Many reactive dogs stiffen up from the anxiety they feel in challenging environments. Interacting with an obstacle helps them loosen up. Here are some steps for students to follow.
Teaching the Table
1.Walk toward the table; say nothing.
2.If the dog shows any interest, click and treat, and place the reinforcement right on the table. This not only increases the “value” of the object that, up until now, has no value to the dog, but it also helps focus him in a roomful of dogs and handlers.
3.If the dog puts a paw on the table to get the treat, click and treat that, again placing the treat on the table.
4.If the dog becomes bolder about getting the treat, he may put two paws up on the table or even jump up on it. Small dogs often circle the table looking for better points of access if they can’t reach the treat as readily. Keep on rewarding these interactions with the table.
5.When the dog does jump on the table, click and toss the treat off the table to encourage him to jump on it again (and to stretch that anxiety-stiff body and get rid of some of the tension!).
6.Keep clicking the dog for jumping on the table, and treating with treats tossed off it, but encourage the student to keep her dog calm and under threshold. Her dog is learning that tables are wonderful!
A student clicks and treats her dog for investigating the foreign object—the table (left), putting a paw on it (center), and climbing up on it (right). Exploring the environment this way shows that this dog has become much more confident about his surroundings.
One of my favorite activities for Week Six is teaching a basic agility jump. I spread jumps throughout the classroom to maximize use of available space. I then ask each student to teach her dog to jump over a very low agility jump, either by using a hand target or by walking with her dog over the jump. I number each jump to direct students to specific or multiple jumps so that I can manage for traffic flow and safety.
Introducing the jump obstacle, a student initially and instinctively reaches for a lure. The students—and you—will notice that luring frequently creates dogs that trip over the jump bars because they are more focused on the movement of food than on what their feet are doing. Since many a student has relied on lures routinely to distract her dog from the environment, she may need support to feel confident allowing her dog to scan the environment visually to assess the obstacle. Remind students that a hand target can help a dog focus on the task at hand.
When a dog can think through being around triggers and offer new behaviors, like going over an agility jump, it’s a sure sign that he’s become much more relaxed around his triggers.
As always, during this exercise remember that some dogs will need to work closer to their barriers than others, so that they can retreat to a “safe place” if they become over-aroused or overstimulated by the increased distraction level in the workspace. Once students get over their fear of allowing their dogs to scan the environment and assess the obstacles, they are pleasantly surprised at how well it goes.
The Path to True Partnership
While these six weeks have brought each of your student teams a long way on their journey, the path to partnership has really just begun. To achieve maximum success, each team requires continuing education. I like to offer my students a variety of options for proceeding with their training.
Some may choose to continue practicing with their dogs on their own, at first setting up exposures with friends and their dogs before moving on to unfamiliar dogs and people. Others may decide to participate in an introductory agility class, nosework or scent games classes, or perhaps a Canine Good Citizen class. For dogs that struggle with reactivity or aggression issues directed toward people, their next step may be contacting Julie Robitaille, co-producer of the TACT DVD and program for Touch Assisted Clicker Training. Locally, Julie is the expert for teaching students how to manage their human-aggressive or human-reactive dogs, building tolerance to and potential interaction with human “strangers.”
“This is not an overnight process: You will not complete a six-week class and go strolling down the street with complete faith that your dog will remain angelic, merrily ignoring each trigger he passes. But if you put in the effort and use the tools that Emma provides with consistency and diligence and ask questions to help finesse your skills as you find more challenging situations, you will be rewarded with a better bond with your dog and the ever-increasing ability to deal with what life throws at both of you.”
—Tish, owner of Grover
The Art and Science of Exposure
Whatever path students choose to continue their dogs’ education, the hardest lesson for most is learning to “translate” lessons learned in class to real-life scenarios. For six weeks, students have had you and your assistants supporting and guiding them about what to do, when, and how. Your pre-class huddles let students know what was coming and, with your advice, prepare for it so that they and their dogs could be successful. Your post-class debriefings allowed students to look at events objectively, analyze what happened, and, if necessary, plan improvements. Actual time with their dogs in class at first may have been so stressful for the students that they couldn’t think or act, but over the weeks practicing ways to build their dogs’ tolerance of triggers has given them a skill set to prepare for and meet these challenges successfully. All this took place within the protective cocoon of the supportive community you and your assistants have built.
From the outset, however, you told your students that your goal was to turn them into dog trainers, so they could plan and make the kinds of decisions for themselves that you’ve been making for them. Now it’s up to them to implement what they’ve learned about exposing their dog to triggers, but there are some commonsense guidelines you can give them:
Practice those emergency behaviors! As much as each student might like to control the world out there completely, there will always be surprises. It’s best to be prepared with behaviors to escape with your dog, hide him behind you, or distract him with sniffing, behaviors that are so well practiced you don’t have to think about them.
Always remember that “your dog is your teacher.” Just as your emotions can change from moment to moment, your dog’s can, too. Your success last week in agility class doesn’t guarantee the same performance this week. No matter how eager you are to improve your dog’s behavior, don’t rush it. Read your dog carefully as you proceed, and set your exposures to his pace.
For exposure work to succeed, plan. What’s the trigger? What will it be doing? How far away? What reinforcement will you use? How long will the exposure last? What will you click? How many clicks are you aiming for? If your dog reacts, what will you do? Is there an escape route? If not, can you hide your dog behind you? What, in your mind, will constitute success?
Whatever the plan, the first few times make it easier or simpler. Lower the criteria. Aim for a shorter exposure. Pick a site with no distractions. It’s the best insurance against failure.
Prepare meticulously. Make sure you have all the gear you need, clicker, treats, and so on, and have it clear in your mind exactly what you’re going to do. If you’ve enlisted a friend to help, using her dog as a trigger, give her specific instructions about exactly what you want her to do. You could even conduct a dry run without your dog if it would make you feel more comfortable. Make sure that your practice space is as you thought it would be, without unexpected distractions—only the ones you are counting on.
Include in the plan a quiet place and time to decompress, digest, analyze, and write in a training journal. The best way to move forward is to understand where you’ve been and to know which plans succeeded and why so that you can build on them. It’s equally important to figure out where and why things went wrong so you can avoid those mistakes in the future.
Breathe! Be kind to yourself and to your dog. As Karen Pryor says, “It’s only behavior!”
Week Six Foundation Behavior
Perhaps you, like many owners of reactive dogs, wish only for the simple pleasure of walking down the street with your dog at your side, even if another dog/handler team is using the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. I know that this was an important goal for me in my life with Ben; my Golden Retriever was such a handsome boy I wanted to show off not only his good looks, but some nice manners as well. I taught Ben those skills through the parallel walking exercise. You will learn what it feels like to walk your dog with another team without an inappropriate reaction. Once your dog has acquired this skill, you will find that it offers you a taste of “normalcy.”
While you initially may learn this skill in the controlled environment of the classroom, for the best results you should continue practicing these exercises with a variety of dogs after you graduate. To make this learning process fun and prevent setbacks, at first practice with dogs your dog already knows, and later with neutral and friendly but unfamiliar dogs. Follow the instructions below carefully to practice this exercise safely:
Training Parallel Walking
1.Invite your friend and her nonreactive dog to go for a walk with you. Choose a place where there is little possibility for off-leash dogs or uncontrolled triggers and where there are visual barriers in the environment, like woods or parked cars. Safety first!
2.Prepare all of your equipment. You will need a clicker, highly palatable treats, a treat pouch, and the double-leash system and supporting equipment you used in class.
3.Establish your dog’s working threshold. How close can he get to your friend’s dog at a lateral distance while maintaining his composure? The best threshold is one where the dog is curious but not explosive!
4.Walk forward, moving parallel in the same direction as your friend and her dog at the distance you’ve determined is safe. The arrangement of the line should be as follows: dog, handler, dog, handler. If you cannot walk side by side, you may have the other handler start walking ahead of you. As your dog grows more comfortable, you can slowly close the gap and establish his threshold distance for working parallel.
5.Click and treat, using a high rate of reinforcement, for any behaviors that are not aggressive or part of your dog’s reaction sequence.
6.Work in short sessions that are geared toward success, and quit while you’re ahead!
For dogs that are ready, you can set up a parallel walking exercise in class, using cones to separate the student/dog teams. Make sure the two teams are aligned dog–student–dog–student. Each handler should click and treat often as the dogs walk along the cone path at a distance apart that both can tolerate. For the antsy, feeding the floor can help. Turning can be an extra challenge, so if a student needs to put a treat right on her dog’s nose to keep her dog with her in the turn, that’s fine.
If you are unable to arrange controlled parallel walking exercises with known dogs, scope out your neighborhood for opportunities where you can replicate the setup described above. When I was working with Ben, we struggled to find volunteer training partners, so I looked for parks with lots of space where people frequently walked their dogs on leash. After locating a calm dog, I positioned myself so I was walking in the same direction as the other dog at whatever distance Ben could tolerate comfortably.
Also consider going to facilities that hold obedience or training classes. These locations often offer reactive dog handlers the opportunity for multiple exposures as students enter and exit the classroom with their dogs. Pet store or veterinary hospital parking lots also provide lots of practice in a short amount of time, if you can find such locations with enough space to keep your dog under threshold. Think strategically. Especially when you first start working outside, find settings where the visibility is good so that you don’t have a trigger dart out suddenly from behind a corner you couldn’t see around. In case you need to beat a hasty retreat, park your car where you can reach it easily.
A Primer for Running Exposures
Now that class is over, it’s critical that you continue your dog’s training. Since planning and managing exposures are both essential and a bit intimidating, here are the basic guidelines.
Remember that each time your dog engages in a reactivity sequence, he is rehearsing and getting better at that behavior. Each negative experience in the presence of a trigger reaffirms your dog’s suspicion that the trigger is something to be worried about. Going over threshold never teaches your dog the lessons you’d like him to learn. Therefore, you will need to find one or more locations where it is possible to expose your dog to triggers at a safe distance that keeps him under his reactivity threshold.
You can use the formula described below with any trigger. Whether your dog is sensitive to dogs, people, deer, or moving objects, the process is the same. I use the “dog” example here because most of the students who take the reactive dog class come because their dogs are sensitive to other dogs.
Use the training equipment you use in class, including your clicker and the highest value treats in your arsenal.
Clicking Away Reactive or Aggressive Behavior
1.Work below your dog’s reactivity threshold. Be sure you have enough space to retreat to safety in case of an emergency.
2.Decide in advance how long your training session will be. Start off with a short session, perhaps 30 seconds to 1 minute. Slow and steady wins the race: it is always better to err on the side of caution when increasing session length. Add only a few extra seconds at a time in the initial stages of training while you are building your dog’s “exposure muscles.”
3.Quit while you’re ahead. You may be tempted to extend the session for as long as your treats will last if all is going well, but exercise some impulse control and don’t overextend your sessions! Celebrate your success by ending the session before it goes downhill; this is one of the lessons I learned from Ben as together we learned about the exercises presented in Click to Calm.
4.Click and feed your dog at a high rate of reinforcement each time he looks at or hears another dog.
•When you feed your dog, deliver your reinforcement so that he focuses on your face, luring the dog away from the trigger. Try to turn his body, or at least his head, away from the trigger and toward you as you feed.
•If this is impossible, step in front of your dog to body-block as you feed him a treat. You are using your body to create a visual barrier.
•If your dog struggles to break his gaze from the trigger after most clicks, you’ll find the “Come Front” emergency behavior to be an especially helpful refocusing tool. Practice this behavior in a number of distraction-free environments before taking it out in public. Increase the level of distractions for this exercise gradually before using it in a trigger-rich environment.
5.If you are noticing any of the warning signs mentioned in “Your Dog’s Melting Point” (here), or if your dog is so stressed that he has stopped eating, move farther away from the trigger, opening up as much space as your dog needs to feel comfortable eating and working.
•After each click, feed your dog by dropping food on the ground. Your dog cannot be sniffing and reacting at the same time. By delivering your food on the ground, you are manufacturing an alternative, incompatible behavior and preventing your dog from reacting or triggering a reaction in another dog.
6.Watch for subtle signs of relaxation in your dog, a lessening of tension, more normal breathing, a softer gaze. Remember that your observation skills and ability to read your dog have improved markedly during class so you have become more adept at knowing when and how to proceed. When your dog is comfortable looking at the trigger and responds instantly to the click to get his treat, withhold your click a second or so to get him to turn back to you and offer you eye contact before you click.
•The more successful exposures you set up, the quicker your dog will generalize that a trigger is a cue to look at you and the less often you will have to start with clicking just looking at the target.
7.If your dog sees a trigger and whips around to offer you eye contact unbidden, click and feed him lavishly; it’s a sure sign that he not only understands the game; he’s comfortable enough in this situation to play it with you! Great work! You are on your way to establishing this game as a default behavior your dog and you will love.
One Change at a Time
Once your dog cues reliably off a trigger to look at you, you can increase the challenge in a variety of ways:
•Move a step or two closer to the trigger.
•Wait for longer eye contact before clicking.
•Cue a well-trained behavior, then click.
•Make the trigger more challenging. For instance, if your trigger is a sitting dog, ask his handler to walk him back and forth across your path slowly, maintaining the distance between you. Gradually you can escalate the trigger dog’s movement so your dog learns to tolerate a dog playing tug with his handler wildly and noisily.
Always watch your dog for signs of stress, and only proceed when he’s comfortable and able to offer you eye contact readily.
How Did It Go?
After each session, it’s time to evaluate your own and your dog’s success. There is meaning behind the phrase “learning curve”—learning never occurs in a straight line. Remember that setbacks are part of the training process and provide valuable information that you can use to structure future training sessions better. Be as kind to yourself as you are to your dog, and avoid getting discouraged; just as your dog is growing in his skills, you are still developing yours as well.
Ask yourself questions like these:
How long was the session?
How close were you to the trigger?
Was your dog calm, overstimulated/over-aroused, or over threshold?
If your dog reacted, ask yourself,
•Did any specific behavior or action by the trigger stimulate the response? (For example, the trigger dog started tugging with a toy or lunging on the leash.)
•How did you respond? How well did your intervention work?
•How long did it take your dog, after going over threshold, to calm down to a level where he could start learning again?
•Was there more than one trigger present (for instance, one dog approaching on leash while two others suddenly darted by in a chase game)?
Keeping track of trends in your training, using a notebook, spreadsheet, calendar, or other record-keeping format with which you are comfortable, will expedite your training. Draw a smiley face on the calendar for each successful session, and note days on which you felt less successful with a paw print (I prefer a paw print to a “sad face” because it is a simple reminder that reactivity and aggression are actually normal behaviors for all canines. These behaviors are only problematic when they spiral out of control or create dangerous situations for humans, dogs, or other animals). Once you have worked your dog through his reactivity, looking back at your training record is such a great reminder (and positive reinforcer for you!) of how far you’ve come together as a team.
Keep a Training Journal? Really?
As humans, we notice when things go wrong but often dismiss quickly when things go unbelievably right! When your dog has an outburst (even if it hasn’t happened in the last six months), you feel defeated and may question whether working with your dog was the right thing to do. You forget easily that your dog has made tremendous progress and hasn’t reacted in so long.
With Ben, I can remember being frustrated with him when he broke his Long Sit during an obedience class! I had to remind myself: Hey! This dog couldn’t even be around dogs in any form or fashion. He couldn’t even watch another dog on TV without going after one of my other dogs. And here he is, in a room full of 30 dogs, sitting quietly in a line-up of 10, and I’m upset. Hello??!!!!
Your training journal helps you keep things in perspective and the demons of self-doubt at bay. The very fact you make the effort to use the journal shows your commitment, and it will pay off for both you and your dog.
Decide how to continue with your training: take a class, work in outside environments, or take private lessons. If you sign up for a class, take one where you already know the subject matter so that you can concentrate on your dog. Also, be sure to let the instructor know that you might hang out on the sidelines and click and treat your dog for watching all of the strange people and dogs in the classroom. Only move into the classroom space when you are sure that your dog can handle it. And, when in, stay for very short periods of time. Prepare to get to the class early enough to survey the situation and be prepared to leave early so that you do not get caught in small corridors and hallways.
•Check out the environment first without your dog before entering with your dog.
•Decide where to put your dog’s crate, treats, and so on, ahead of time. Or keep your dog in the car during “down” time.
•Before entering a building with your dog, use the “Get behind” cue to check out the workspace quickly before your dog enters.
•If you are taking a group class, bring your dog in after the class has already started so there won’t be any stray dog/handler teams clogging up the entrances to the building and the ring. In the same fashion, leave the class earlier than all of the other students. Be careful about students coming into the building for the next class as well.
•Do not assume that the same behavior will exist in the same environment from week to week. Make sure you observe your dog first before deciding your level of exposure.
•Choose your criteria based on the behavior that you see there, at that moment.
•When going into a new environment, briefly lower your criteria. As your dog begins to generalize the behavior, adjusting criteria will take less and less time.
•Use a treat, and a rate of reinforcement, higher than the distraction level of the environment.
•If your dog is not eating, it means that he is over threshold. Learning cannot take place at this level. Re-evaluate.
•Work your dog under threshold for short periods of time.
•If your dog reacts, move farther away from the trigger. Unless it is a safety issue, be sure to move after the dog has either stopped reacting or lowered the intensity of his reaction.
•You may need to practice the “Cueing Eye Contact” exercise frequently while in a highly stimulating environment.
•Take away all of the opportunities for your dog to rehearse undesirable behavior.
•Be ready to find a spot against the wall to body-block another dog from touching your dog. Teach your dog the body block ahead of time.
•Get your dog used to staying behind you for an extended period of time.
•If your dog has an explosion, think about the following:
•Were you in the environment too long?
•Did you get too close to the concerning trigger?
•What type of reinforcement were you using?
•At what rate?
•How long did it take for your dog to recover?
•Could you control the environment?
•If not, how can you do so in the future?
•Be sure to update your training journal when finishing the training session.