12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Stepping into the Role of Instructor
So now that you are seriously thinking that teaching a reactive dog class might be for you, what are the next steps?
You may want to explore further the nature of the job and what personal qualities, knowledge, and skills it requires. Above all, teaching a class of reactive dogs and their frequently traumatized owners demands patience, tact, compassion, and empathy. It also, at times, requires that you be tough and not panic or shy away from situations, such as a student who ignores safety rules. Instructing this sort of class calls for meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and excellent managerial skills. You have to be able to think on your feet, for instance, to deal with a student who is coming unglued because her dog has had a meltdown. Ultimately, you bear the responsibility—and the liability—for keeping everyone safe. I’ve included a “Reality Check” on here to help you make the decision about whether you want to take up the challenge. You’ll have to self-assess your knowledge of the principles of positive reinforcement, clicker training skills, and ability to read dog (and human) body language. The questions on here pose a number of situations that typically arise in my classes. Would you feel confident and comfortable handling them?
Once you decide you’re ready to teach a reactive dog class, you probably will need to have several assistants to keep the class running smoothly and safely. You’ll need assistants to guard all of the doors of the facility, to escort students and their dogs from their cars into and out of the building one-by-one, to help with in-class coaching, and to be your eyes and ears, reporting back to you about each student. I highly recommend a one-to-one assistant/student ratio, but if this is impossible, a two- or three-to-one ratio is doable as well. For more on assistants, see here.
You’ll also want to determine how many students will be in your first class and who will participate. Are you already going to be familiar with these students and their dogs via private lessons? Or are you going to simply publicize that you will be teaching a reactive dog class and see who signs up? How many students do you need to make the class financially feasible?
Because I had limited time and lived too far away from MasterPeace Dog Training to see private clients regularly, we decided to publicize the class and see who would attend. I did not know what students I had until the day of the first class. Although this registration method has worked out well for us, it is not the way that I would suggest starting to teach a reactive dog class. Ideally, I would prefer to see students individually first and then determine whether or not the reactive dog class option is the right one for them. An interview or at least a screening questionnaire (like the one on here) would help you decide if the reactive dog class is appropriate for a client and enable you to group dogs according to their behavioral needs.
In addition, you will also need to provide homework for your students, since much of their work will take place outside of class. For each week’s class, I have included which “Home Management,” “Foundation Behavior,” and “Emergency Behavior” exercises students should work on. Written specifically for the students, these exercises appear at the end of each week’s lesson and are also available as 8.5″ x 11″ handouts online at www.teachingthereactivedogclass.com/resources.
Especially if you’re just starting to teach a reactive dog class, make sure you have liability coverage and that your students sign a liability waiver.
Do you have an appropriate space to teach in? You will need access to an environment where you can control all of the activity that takes place. For more information on teaching spaces and parking, see here.
Teaching reactive dog classes is not for every dog-class instructor, even the experienced ones. It takes a special set of skills and a resilient, patient, empathetic personality. If you’re considering teaching a reactive dog class, ask yourself the following questions. If you honestly answer “No” to some of the questions, think about whether your “No” answer is about a skill that you can acquire or whether your answer reflects a truth about your personality that might make you less than ideally suited to teach such a class.
•Do you feel comfortable working with dogs? How about with dogs that have a bite history? How about working with people?
•Do you feel comfortable making split-second decisions and flying by the seat of your pants, for instance, to jump in and make suggestions if a dog starts erupting?
•To accommodate a struggling dog, can you stay calm and rearrange the room by moving other dogs and handlers?
•Do you feel comfortable working at the pace that your students and their dogs set—no matter how slow that might be?
•Can you be nonjudgmental regardless of how strongly you might feel about a certain subject or what a client’s previous experience might have been?
•Can you read dog body language well? How about human body language?
•Are you comfortable dealing with students’ emotional issues around their dogs?
•Are you comfortable speaking to people who might not want to hear what you have to say? Can you diffuse tension with humor or by other means?
•Can you be available at some point during the week to answer questions—some of them urgent—that come from students by way of either e-mail or phone?
•Are you willing to give out your e-mail address? Your phone number?
•Are you comfortable delegating some responsibilities to your assistants?
•Are you well organized? Can you arrive early for class?
•Are you a skilled clicker trainer?
•Do you know how the clicker is used to reduce aggression and reactivity in dogs?
•Do you have the necessary materials—classroom, equipment, liability insurance, and so on—to teach the class safely?
•Do you have access to assistants? Do you know how you will train them?
•Can you make effective mental notes about students until you have the time to write them down?
What is this dog telling you? How do you know?
What would you do?
In spite of your careful planning and preparations, reactive dog classes often don’t proceed as smoothly as you would like. Here are some typical scenarios I’ve encountered. Would you feel confident and comfortable handling these situations?
•You are loading the dogs into the building, one-by-one, and one of the dogs begins to explode as the handler is trying to get him behind his barrier. There is an assistant at the door asking if she can bring in another dog-and-handler team. What would you do?
•All of the dogs are in the room, and a handler runs out of treats. What would you do? How would you give treats to the handler of a dog that is people-aggressive?
•You have a student/dog team and the dog, despite all efforts, continues to erupt, even when behind his barrier. What would you do?
•A team is out on the floor working on a foundation behavior successfully when an unsuspecting, confused student from the adjacent obedience class barges into the room with her dog. What would you do?
•You have a student who is inattentive about her inquisitive, dog-reactive dog that keeps sneaking out beyond his barrier to scan the environment. What would you tell her?
•You have a student who deliberately ignores all of the safety rules. For example, despite the rule that no student is to take her dog out of the car for any reason when she arrives, this student drives into the parking lot, puts her dog on leash, and walks her dog on the grounds. When confronted by an assistant, she yells that she doesn’t care what the rules are; she needs to potty her dog after a long drive. What would you do?
•You have a student that you know is using punishment as well as positive reinforcement. What would you do?
•A student contacts you during the week crying because her dog got into a dog fight on a walk. She is desperate for advice and consolation. What would you do?
•Despite your encouragement, a tentative and nervous handler is so fearful of losing control of her human-aggressive dog that she can’t really listen to you and follow your instructions. Her dog is getting edgier by the second, picking up on her anxiousness and lack of confidence. What would you do?
Running Reactive Dog Classes from a Training Facility Owner’s Perspective
When Fran Masters, co-owner of MasterPeace Dog Training, and I decided to run an experimental reactive dog class, initially we dispensed with any screenings, testing, private consultations, or pre-class training and took any students who signed up. We’ve kept this system in place, although Fran determines over the phone if a prospective student really has a reactive or aggressive dog. She says, “If someone says her dog is ‘reactive’ or ‘aggressive,’ I ask her to describe the behavior in detail (‘What does your dog do?’). I also ask if the dog is reactive to people, or dogs, or both; how close to a trigger he has to be to react; and whether he’s ever bitten a dog or a person.” If Fran is unsure whether the dog is really reactive or is just excited, distracted, and/or exuberant, she invites the person to come to the drop-in pet obedience class. “I can tell then and there where the dog belongs,” she says.
For her reactive dog class, Fran wanted an instructor who, in addition to training and experience, “had an eye for management and safety” and was able to find (and train) enough assistants. “You can’t manage this class alone,” she said, “but, for the finances to work, you also can’t afford to pay the assistants.” Fran said, “Emma attracted assistants because everyone wanted to work with her and learn—it was like getting a free course.”
Unless you plan to start out with a class of two or three students, your next consideration is the rest of your team: the assistants who are critical to the smooth and safe operation of the class. Far more than in other dog-training classes, the job of assisting in a reactive dog class requires knowledgeable, alert, compassionate, and reliable people. Understanding what they do is key to finding and preparing them: Select wisely and train them well.