12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Goals of the Reactive Dog Class
Reactive dog class serves two primary purposes: providing owners with critical handling skills so that they are well equipped to deal with challenges that may arise in their communities, and providing dogs with the life skills that they need to exist comfortably and thoughtfully in environments that previously provoked anxiety and heightened arousal levels and reactivity.
The dogs that will be attending your class may be uncomfortable in the presence of strange people, other dogs, or both. They may express this reactivity in a variety of ways. Some dogs will bark and lunge on the leash, hackles raised, pupils dilated, looking like a scene straight out of Cujo. Others may shut down, trying to hide behind their owners, tails tucked between their legs, ears flush against their skull, brows wrinkled in consternation. Both types of dogs can benefit from this class and learn the skills needed to face their triggers in a new way, by looking to their handlers for guidance. The cues they learn in your class not only predict reinforcement, but safety. Reactive dogs need more of a guardian than a pack leader.
A Matter of Trust
Do not be surprised if you find that the owners of reactive dogs have become reactive to those triggers as well! Many of your potential clients have been publicly humiliated and ridiculed because of the seemingly irrational and even scary behavior of their dogs. The decision to take this class often is the result of much pain and suffering that has occurred up until this point. Some owners come as a last-ditch attempt to see if anything can be done before they make the final decision to surrender their dog to a shelter or put the dog to sleep. Regardless of the reason a client signs up for a class, it is important to realize that these students can be much more sensitive and emotional than your typical pet dog clients. You need to take special care to be certain that these students feel comfortable with you as well as with your assistants. These students need to feel safe in the environment that you provide so that their minds can be free to learn and practice all of these new exercises. In short, you need to earn their trust before they can learn.
The Isolation Bubble
Before Stephanie and her Australian shepherd took my reactive dog class, Stephanie said Floyd “was such an anxious dog that his emotions dramatically affected both his quality of life and mine. I kept him in a bubble to keep him, our neighbors, and me safe. I removed him from situations where he got nervous or growled.” When Stephanie and Floyd went out for walks, she crossed the street when a stranger approached to avoid a potential incident. “While I tried to recognize the warning signs and prevent possible incidents,” she said, “I was untrained and needed help in becoming more proactive.” Floyd’s reactivity directly affected Stephanie’s social life. “I couldn’t have company over if Floyd was around,” she said. “If my friends or a date came over, my parents ‘babysat’ Floyd at their house for the evening. I never took him to parks or out in public with me. Neither of us was having much fun.”
Much as the dog’s default behaviors in the presence of triggers may include barking and lunging, the reactive dog owner’s learned responses may include changes in respiration (gasping, quickened breath), tightening (or even jerking on) the leash, or uttering long strings of expletives. It’s not only the constant, nagging fear that the dog will have a meltdown and the owner won’t know how to handle it, it’s the unpredictability of the environment that also magnifies the stress of owners of reactive dogs. “Will the neighbors’ kids be playing basketball in their driveway?” “What if that overly friendly Lab comes charging out of his front yard again to greet us?” Some owners may have bought into the theory of dominance and will have preconceived notions of how dogs learn. Almost all owners are likely as nervous about encountering reactivity triggers as their dogs are, so keep in mind that your two-legged clients (the ones who sign your paycheck!) will require the same teaching techniques you know work well with dogs—breaking behaviors down into small, achievable goals; teaching with patience and reinforcement; and setting realistic criteria. Above all, they will trust you and gain confidence when they learn that class is a safe environment, and the tools you give them actually work.
I stress to my students that this will be an emotional journey for them and their dogs. Ultimately, each student is going to change her dog’s behavior by changing the way he feels about the environment. And that change travels up the leash, so that she can be a calm, assertive handler. The student will learn to create positive feedback loops where there were only negative ones. Her dog will learn that the wide, wide world is still an unpredictable place but that he can rely on his or her * life coach, to keep him safe. He will develop a new behavioral repertoire to meet that unpredictability, and that will take the second-guessing out of everything his owner does with her dog.
Reforming the Human-Animal Bond
In order for this process to work, the dog must trust the handler and all of the decisions that she makes, no matter what environment the dog is in. When I meet a dog and handler for the first time, I can never assume that this relationship is in place.
Typically the relationship between a reactive dog and his owner is damaged and needs to be reassembled. The owner frequently tries to communicate with the dog based on what she thinks her dog is trying to tell her. (Through the years, my mentor Karen Pryor has often reminded me, “Do not make training decisions based on what you think the dog is thinking because most of the time you will be wrong!”) In these circumstances, the dog carries the decision-making power, and the owner tries to respond to him in the best way that she knows how.
Susan and her fearful, reactive Lab mix, Roger, are out on a walk. When he sees another dog, Roger starts lunging and growling, catapulting himself to the end of the leash. Susan, trying to control the situation, starts dragging Roger closer to her, screaming “NO!” at the top of her lungs. We humans are a verbal species. We try to control chaos and make “bad” behavior stop by doing what comes naturally to us: speaking, possibly yelling. Dogs, on the other hand, are acutely fine-tuned to read body language. Thus, Roger finds Susan’s frantic yelling and tugging on his leash most reinforcing: “GO AWAY! Mom’s going to yell at you, too!” Because of Susan’s and Roger’s miscommunication, this scene repeats itself over and over again, and Roger’s behavior steadily deteriorates.
It is critical to strengthen the human-dog relationship so that the dog looks to his owner for direction and gains confidence in knowing that his owner “will take care of” the scary situation so he doesn’t have to. The dog needs to allow his handler to make certain decisions for him, especially in highly stressful situations. Revamping this relationship starts in the home environment and radiates out. Only when the reactive/aggressive dog knows that his owner will keep him safe in whatever dire (from his perspective) situation he may find himself in can he confront his fears head-on. Building such confidence requires
•teaching the dog foundation and emergency behaviors that he can perform in stressful situations, and
•gradually exposing him to his triggers at a level that he can tolerate.
At that point he will have become a thinking dog that can actually choose to perform “acceptable” behaviors rather than reacting blindly to his triggers.
After taking the reactive dog class, Susan and Roger can now walk down the street uneventfully. When Roger sees a dog coming, he immediately gives Susan eye contact. From there she can decide what she wants him to do: keep walking, sit and stay, or move in the opposite direction. Gone are the days when Roger would explode at the glimpse of another dog!
Teaching Students to Keep Their Dogs Safe
The primary goal of this class is to create an environment where everyone feels safe learning. At no time during these classes is the goal to put dogs or people “over threshold” and into situations where they will be rehearsing unwanted behavior. Therefore interaction (with the other dogs or handlers) is not one of the goals of the class. As the instructor, you will have to control the environment until each of your students has learned to take control of her environment and her dog.
In the reactive dog class, you will teach each handler how to expose her dog, at a slow and reliable pace, to various triggers that the dog finds concerning. The handler must learn to accurately assess her dog’s threshold (the distance at which the dog can be exposed to a trigger without provoking a reactive response) and to use cues and reinforcement to build the dog’s confidence in the presence of the trigger he finds frightening. Little by little, the dog will grow more and more comfortable in the presence of the trigger so, eventually, he will be able to ignore it, and even perform trained behaviors, in this previously challenging environment.
If the dog and his handler are to be successful as a team, the handler must coach successfully. It is her job to provide guidance (cues) and feedback (reinforcement) to her dog for the most appropriate behaviors, attacking fear at its core through building confidence. It’s a special thing to watch how liberating it is for dogs and their people when they have the tools needed to feel safe exploring new situations together, often for the first time.
Training Foundation Behaviors
When I was working with individual clients in consultations, often the first question I asked my client was, “What do you want your dog to do instead of lunge at another dog?” Clients often looked perplexed at what seemed to be such a simple question.
“I just don’t want him doing it!” was a typical response.
“Well, if you don’t know what behavior you want him to do, how is he supposed to know?” I’d ask in return.
That is the work of leadership—teaching dogs what is expected of them and building value for the behaviors that are most critical. It is a handler’s job to decide which behavior is most appropriate for the dog at any moment, in any environment.
isis the role filled by foundation behaviors. These behaviors fill the void once occupied by reactive responses, are first trained in distraction-free environments, and then are practiced in social situations. Taught correctly, sitting, lying down, polite leash manners, and offering attention to the handler may become the dog’s choice at times he once would have vocalized, lunged, snapped, or fled. Throughout the process, the dog remains a thinking dog so that he offers these behaviors happily. The dog’s confidence grows, the handler feels better and happier, and now the feedback loop between dog and handler is one of increasing, rather than decreasing, confidence levels.
Training Emergency Behaviors
It’s one thing to enjoy reliable responses to your cues from the comfort of your couch in your living room when nothing is going on. It’s another thing entirely to know what to do on a walk, for instance, when another dog and person pop out from behind a truck, mere inches from your reactive dog’s face. From squirrels to kids to other dogs to that feral cat that loves to tease, there is a potential new surprise around every corner. This class is intended to give your students the tools and skills they need to navigate such inevitable situations with confidence, aplomb, and, best of all, pride in themselves and the training they’ve done under your guidance. While foundation behaviors give dogs a framework of predictability, emergency behaviors like “Get behind” and “Come front” give them a way to respond when the environment quickly becomes unpredictable, as is bound to happen at some point.
Offering Safe Practice for New Skills
Remember learning how to drive? Those first few trips in the car probably weren’t the smoothest. You may have been nervous. It took you a while to learn how to adjust your mirrors and seat just right, to make sure to check all those mirrors before pulling out into traffic, and to find out where all the switches, buttons, and levers were and how they worked. As you gained practice, these motions became more automatic, requiring little of the concentration and focus they once did. You grew in confidence, merging, accelerating, and braking, and all of those actions became smooth and reflexive.
There is still an adjustment period when you get into a new car, but the more cars you drive, the shorter that period is. Some brakes are touchier than others, sometimes the windshield wiper controls are on the right, other times they’re on the left, but essentially, it’s all the same exercise. Now, when you go on vacation and take whatever rental car is available, you can make all the adjustments and pull out of your parking space within a matter of seconds. Similarly, every scenario you can allow training teams to practice their skills in safely increases fluency so that default behaviors—for the handler, cueing and reinforcing, and, for the dog, looking and responding—become automatic. It’s just what they do instead of gasping and tightening the leash, or lunging and barking.
The only way you can learn how to drive is by getting behind the wheel, and the only way that reactive dogs and their owners can learn how to act in the presence of triggers is by actually being in the presence of triggers. Throwing such training teams into an environment without a solid training foundation is like giving a 16-year-old the keys to a Lamborghini and hoping for the best: that doesn’t set up either the dog or handler for success!
In this class, as students entrust their dogs and themselves to you, you will be handing your students the keys to a new life with their dogs. This class may be challenging to teach and it requires commitment and an investment of your time—and theirs. For those who choose to teach it, however, the rewards are significant. It feels pretty good to save a dog from losing his home or his life. It feels even better to watch a team walk out together after their last class into a world they feel they can explore together with trust and mutual enjoyment instead of fear.
Never Give Up
Inside, mixed-breed dog Rowan was gentle, goofy, and cuddly with Patti and Patti’s other dogs, but outside was a different story. On leashed walks, Patti says Rowan was “a snapping alligator” that lost her mind when she saw another dog and growled at people wielding strange objects like mops. It took weeks of working behind a barrier for the noise-sensitive dog to tolerate the sound of clickers and to take her favorite treats. But Rowan loved going to school. Patty and Rowan remain serial repeaters in the reactive dog class. Now, she says, “I’ve exposed Rowan to more and more of the outside world, and, although it’s still scary for both of us, I recognize that we’re works in progress. For every new adventure that we haven’t covered in class, we are having more successes to celebrate! When Rowan sees the assistants and students from our earlier classes, secretly I think she loves to hear as much as I do, ‘Oh, wow! Look at how far she’s come!’”
The reactive dog class can only achieve these goals, however, if you are able to turn your students into dog trainers who can plan and solve problems on their own. To do that, they need to have a thorough grounding in the program’s basic concepts, the subject of the next chapter.