12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Your class assistants are critical to keeping the class running smoothly and safely for everyone. They assume rotating roles as set-up crew, escorts, traffic monitors, in-class coaches, observers/reporters, and cheerleaders. While some assistants may view one role as “sexier” than the others, all are equally important. To be effective, assistants need to 1) follow your instructions, and 2) operate as a team, constantly keeping the safety and well-being of students, dogs, and staff in mind.
What do assistants need to know?
What skills and experience are helpful?
Your assistants need to understand the benefits of positive training techniques as well as the downside of traditional techniques for modifying the behavior of aggressive and reactive dogs. They need to know the material well enough to feel comfortable and confident answering students’ common questions about positive training. For example, we once had a student who asked an assistant why her dog was getting worse. “Now he’s growling at people, and he hadn’t been doing that before,” she said. The assistant, sensing that there might be an inconsistency in the routine at home, asked the student when she started seeing this behavior change. She answered that her husband, who “doesn’t believe in this kind of training,” started working with the dog on an electronic collar. The assistant then calmly explained to the student how confusing and frustrating it can be for the dog to earn clicks and treats one day for compliant behavior and to get zapped the next day for inappropriate behavior. There is no quicker way to worsen reactive or aggressive behavior than to create confusion! It is critical that the assistant impart this knowledge without judgment or consternation.
Assistants need to be familiar with basic dog/leash handling skills. Juggling a clicker, treats, and two leashes effectively is a skill that takes time to develop. Your assistants can coach your students about how to handle all the equipment effectively until the students are comfortable doing so without assistance. As a result, well-coached students can spend more time focusing on their dogs and less time fumbling with treats or worrying about dropping a leash.
Experience with reactive dogs makes your assistants more effective observers and coaches. Assistants need to know how their body language will affect the emotional state of the dogs in their care. For example, I teach assistants that, no matter what the student says, assume that all of the dogs are people- and dog-aggressive. That means that when an assistant goes to the student’s car to get the dog out, she needs to step back and let the student do the work. Assistants know not to lean toward the dog or make direct eye contact. They encourage and instruct the student verbally but their bodies always remain quiet and unobtrusive.
Being able to explain the body language that correlates with aggression and reactivity to owners is a critical assistant skill that will help keep everyone in class safe. Practical experience handling reactive dogs will allow your assistants to coach your students about how to handle potentially problematic situations with appropriate skill and technique, both in the classroom and out in the “real” world.
Assistants’ attention to detail pays big dividends, whether they are training details, body-language details, or simply information. Your assistants should be able to discern a well-timed from a poorly timed click and to tell when treats are delivered in a prompt and effective manner. You want your assistants to notice when a dog requires a break from a training session, when a student needs to use reinforcement of higher value, or when human body language indicates a frustrated student who needs extra assistance. When a handler briefly mentions “Wow, it’s been a tough week with Fido,” or “I don’t know how well he’s going to do in class today after last night’s walk,” you rely on your assistants to follow up on such remarks with appropriate questions to collect the information you need to help that team succeed in class.
Escorting a handler and her dog to and from the workspace requires vigilance (Are there any triggers present?), empathy (Is the handler so nervous she can’t think?), sensitivity (How far does the assistant need to stay from the dog?), and avoiding eye contact with the dog. Here, the handler is “feeding the floor” to help her dog keep calm and moving forward in a potentially stressful situation.
What personal qualities should assistants have?
•Empathy: Showing a student empathy is the best way to establish a connection and trust with a dog owner struggling with a stressed and reactive canine. It is so reassuring for a student to have someone at her side who has been there and can share her fears, frustrations, and hopes. Having compassion for the students and their dogs will make your assistants keener observers of human and dog behavior in class, which will make them better coaches.
•Patience: Reactive dog class only works for a student if she progresses at a pace her dog dictates, not at the pace she might like to go. It’s crucial for assistants to practice and model patience with humans and dogs alike. Both students and their dogs are learning, and students need the breathing room to develop, especially, the observational skills they need to assess their dog’s behavior proactively. Assistants can help by slowing down students who tend to rush through exercises (often because they’re stressed and want it over with). For those who get flustered with mechanical skills they haven’t yet mastered or by foreign concepts, the critical message is, “Take your time.” Assisting in a reactive dog class is not for impatient people!
•Selfless team spirit: The assistants need to function as a unit for the benefit of the students; they are your eyes and ears—in the classroom, at the building’s entrances and exits, and in the parking lot. While most assistants view coaching as the plum job and monitoring the traffic flow in and out of the building and the classroom as “removed from the action,” it’s your job to convey that traffic monitoring is not only essential to running the class but to your being able to continue teaching reactive dog classes in that facility at all. It pays to go out of your way to thank your traffic monitors and make sure you include them in any after-class debriefings. I make it a point to rotate my trained assistants through various jobs from week to week and to make sure they get coaching time as well as traffic-monitoring assignments.
•Commitment: It takes commitment to build a community of support for your students. Assistants need to not only show up on time for every class and work their assigned roles, they also need to follow your instructions. Slacking off as a traffic monitor, for instance, can have disastrous results.
•Focus: To help a student most effectively, an assistant needs to be able to laser-focus on the student and dog she is working with. That kind of concentration enables her to tease apart the dynamics of the relationship and how the dog and student are interacting in the moment. Detailed observations are critical to giving the student valuable feedback and to recognizing and communicating problems to you before they get out of hand.
•Sense of Humor: Laughing is the best antidote to stress, anxiety, and frustration and helps build the bond between assistants and students. Students feel understood; humor diffuses negative emotions so that students can take a step back, gain perspective on a situation, and learn from it. We do a lot of joking in my classes.
What do class assistants do?
•Set-up crew: You should designate one of your assistants to take attendance for each week of class. The assistants will set up the ring each week with barriers and other equipment you need. During the class, as the group transitions through various exercises, assistants also set up, move, or break down different equipment and, after class, clear away equipment, vacuum the floor to clean up treats, and file the class roster and paperwork appropriately. At the orientation session the first week of class, the assistants make copies of the roster and registration forms, set up the ring with chairs, and assemble any items you need for the orientation session (clickers, examples of appropriate walking equipment or treats, and so on). You may also ask one or more assistants to bring one of their nonreactive, trained dogs to use as a demo dog in order to allow the students to practice their developing clicker skills with a clicker-savvy dog.
•Escorts: One of the critical roles your assistants perform is escorting students from their cars into the building and back out after (or during) class. To do so safely and efficiently, they need to coordinate with the traffic monitors, posted to direct traffic flow. After the pre-class briefing, an assistant accompanies each student to her car to get her dog. The first step in escorting the student into the building with her dog is conducting an equipment check: Does the dog have two leashes, each attached to a different and appropriate piece of equipment? Acceptable collars and harnesses include flat-buckle collars, appropriately fitting martingale collars, front-clip or traditional harnesses, or a well-fitted and acclimated head halter. Choke, prong, or shock collars and retractable leashes are unacceptable. If a student shows up for class with her dog on prohibited equipment, the assistant can loan (or sell) appropriate equipment for the class.
The assistant needs to scan the environment to ensure there are no other teams in the area, help the student prevent her dog from rehearsing unwanted behaviors during entry, coach her all the way to the door of the building, and announce the dog’s arrival. This allows you to prepare the students who are already in the classroom for the environmental change of the new addition and then to turn your full attention to the entering dog and guide the student to her assigned station behind a barrier. At the end of class, the process is reversed as your assistants escort the students back to their vehicles.
Throughout the entire class, the assistants are in contact with each other, deciding as a group the order in which dogs will be brought into or out of the classroom once students have picked (or been assigned to) their barriers. They base these decisions on a number of factors, such as how long each individual dog/handler team can work before needing a break, which dogs tend to become stressed more quickly than others, and the reactivity thresholds of attending dogs.
•Traffic Monitors: At each entry to the facility, you post assistants to manage the flow of dogs into and out of the facility from the various classes that may be taking place, assuring everyone’s safety. Traffic monitors may have to ask students who are leaving other classes to wait briefly inside the facility while reactive dogs are escorted into or out of the building. Traffic monitors are critical to preventing the reactive dogs (and their owners!) from rehearsing unwanted behaviors. If there are two entrances to the area where you will be teaching the reactive dog class, designating one entry as “human only” and the other for working dog/handler teams can help facilitate traffic flow.
•In-class coaches: Assistants coach students not only on their way into and out of the workspace but also provide additional coaching throughout the class. For instance, they may instruct a student how or when to click and treat her dog or explain why a dog may behave in a particular way. During class, you will rely on your assistants to watch your students and ensure that they are performing the mechanics of clicker training and any particular exercise correctly, so you can focus attention on the big picture and keep the class running smoothly.
If a dog refuses to eat the treats his owner has brought, or if she runs out of treats before the class ends (a frequent occurrence in the first weeks of class!), assistants can step in and offer a variety of treats they have prepared to see if the dog will work for those treats. Because the students are typically and appropriately devoting their full attention to their dogs throughout the class, frequently they miss critical information. Your assistants can fill in that communication gap.
While you may have encouraged your students to bring a secondary handler to class to help them with the exercises, there may be some nights when your students are alone and will need an extra set of hands for class exercises. Unless the dog is people-aggressive, your assistants are perfect stand-ins for these types of situations.
•Observers/reporters: Throughout the class, as escorts and in the classroom, assistants watch and analyze the working dogs for body language and continued ability to eat, learn, and focus. If any dogs—or students—seem particularly stressed, an assistant can let you know so you can address the situation by giving the dog a break, more space, a shorter working session, a higher-value reinforcer, and so on. In effect, your assistants function as liaisons between the students and you, communicating critical information, such as any major reactive incidents that have occurred during the past week, or a handler or dog not feeling well, which may impede class performance, and so on.
•Cheerleaders: Finally, your assistants also serve a vital role as your students’ supporters. Because most of my assistants have attended reactive dog classes with their own dogs and are able to see the longterm benefits of building foundation skills, they are well equipped to provide crucial support to the handler teams. Former students, by and large, do make the best assistants. By sharing the story of her own journey in rehabilitating a reactive dog successfully, an assistant shows empathy for the student. She also offers hope that building on small victories will pay off, which reinforces the student for her hard work. Because students feel they are part of a supportive community, they start trusting the assistants, feel more confident in themselves, and escape the isolation that frequently plagues reactive dog owners.
In Their Own Words
Virtually all of my assistants are former students who have taken my reactive dog classes, occasionally multiple times with multiple dogs. The experience of taking the class, Rebecca says, “was transformational for me—it was very healing.”
Assistants share their perspective on their critical role in the class.
1.Why do you continue coming back to assist?
•“We change lives; it’s so rewarding. We see incredible progress in just six weeks.”
•“We love seeing the changes in dogs and the people. We watch relationships and skills develop. You didn’t see it, but I did a little victory dance outside after taking Sierra and her owner back to the car. Sierra had exploded in the parking lot coming in, but once in, she calmed down and even ate some treats.”
•“I love seeing reactive-dog class graduates in classes like nosework that I’m now taking with my own dogs.”
•“I learn so much. You can absorb so much more of what Emma says when you’re assisting than when you’re a student, nervous, struggling, and focused on your own dog.”
•“As I work with my own dogs, I hear Emma’s voice in my head all the time.”
•“It’s addictive, and the students get hooked.”
2.What’s hardest for the assistants?
•“Staying focused and alert throughout the class when it’s overwhelming. Also, keeping straight the particulars of each dog, especially which dogs are reactive to people.”
•“Taking to heart that you’re actually teaching part of the class in the parking lot as you escort students and their dogs to and from the building.”
•“Not cuddling the dogs.”
3.What advice would you offer would-be assistants?
•“Listen, watch, learn, share what you learn with the students, and shadow more experienced assistants.”
•“Take care of yourself, because if you’re stressed it won’t help the students or their dogs.”
•“Be a student of behavior.”
4.What’s hardest for the students to learn?
•“Breathing when they’re stressed (for instance, when their dog starts barking or has an outburst).”
•“Letting go of the shame and embarrassment they feel over having a ‘bad’ dog and changing their mindset to one of being an advocate for their dog so they can decide, for example, ‘I’m going to remove my dog from this situation’ instead of waiting and hoping the dog won’t escalate into an outburst.”
Finding, Recruiting, and Training Assistants
For a group of eight students, I usually have about five assistants. Two I “mildly” compensate; the others are strictly volunteers. They are passionate about helping teach the class because they can see the progress that students are making each week. Each time that I get an e-mail from a student saying that she can’t believe how her dog has improved, I copy it and send it to all of my assistants. They love it! I think this is what keeps them going!
The best class assistants for a reactive dog class are empathetic, patient “dog people” who have been through a reactive dog class and rehabilitated their problem child successfully. They’ve experienced the frustration, fear, and heartbreak of owning a reactive dog, have bought into the program, and have reaped its benefits.
If you’re just starting out teaching a reactive dog program, however, you don’t have former students. So what can you do?
If you have the luxury of determining class size, the best solution is to start small, with one or two students. Then you won’t need assistants, and, if you’re successful, you may be able to slowly build a cadre of reliable assistants as your classes grow in size. If, on the other hand, finances or other factors dictate that you must start with a full class of six to eight students, you can: a) “pad” the enrollment with some “normal” dogs your friends own (so you may need fewer assistants), or b) enlist dog-savvy friends of yours to serve as assistants. It helps, of course, if any of those friends have had experience with reactive dogs, are well versed in reading dog (and human) body language, and have some knowledge of the concepts and mechanics of clicker training.
At one point, we recruited more assistants to train from various sources: some simply had the interest and had trained several dogs previously, others were students from some of the canine colleges, and so on. None of them worked out. They could not conduct themselves around this population of dogs! Either they couldn’t help staring at the dogs or they could not follow the more experienced assistants’ instructions. One recruit even tried to go to the car with a student and just get her dog without an experienced assistant as backup! Fired!
An obvious step in training prospective assistants is asking them to observe a current reactive dog class (if you have started teaching). Depending on how comfortable the students are, it may help a recruit to “shadow” a trained assistant during the class. Include recruits in pre-class debriefings and after-class discussions and encourage them to share what they saw and to ask questions.
One of the best ways of training your “help” is through role-playing. Try playing a student and asking recruits common questions like the ones that follow, questions they can expect students to ask:
Annoyed Student: “Can’t I just take my dog out of the car and into the building myself? Why do you have to come with me? My dog hates it when people are near the car! He’s just going to bark and lunge at you!”
Assistant: “I need to come with you so that I can protect you and your dog from any other students that might be visiting the facility. I know how much you want to help your dog by attending this class. The last thing that you want to have happen is for your dog to react to someone walking her dog into the building. If that happens, his brain’s chemistry will be off, and it might be impossible for him to function and make progress in class. Also, my body is going to be very calming to your dog. I’m not going to look at him and won’t turn toward him. I won’t intimidate him in any way.”
I’ve found it helpful to stage mock classes that include current assistants and their dogs or, if you are just starting out, two or more recruits and their dogs. There are a variety of options, but whatever you choose to do, it helps if recruits switch off being “the student” with being “the assistant” as well as try on the different hats that assistants wear.
Try “dry runs” of escorts into and out of the building with real (nonreactive) dogs and all the equipment students should have. It helps a recruit understand the student’s frame of mind if she assumes that role as well and has another trainee escort her into the building. If you have several dogs to use for dry-run practice and you feel it safe to do so, you could switch dogs off among the recruits so each is managing an unfamiliar dog. Have the recruit perform the equipment check. Does she notice that the dog’s harness is on backwards—or that the “student” left her treats in the car? Does the recruit approach the dog in a nonthreatening manner and avoid making eye contact with him?
Continue the mock class inside, so that recruits can observe and report correct or incorrect clicker mechanics or misunderstanding of the exercise. Ask recruits how they’d respond if a student tells them, “My dog’s stopped eating. What do I do?” or “Yikes! My dog just slipped out of his head halter!” Discuss and monitor recruits’ reactions to the “students.” Can they remain empathetic and patient even when a “student” is getting scared or frustrated and not listening well to instructions?
Don’t forget to practice managing traffic flow as well. Mock classes are lots of fun (being a “student” can teach tons of empathy), provide essential hands-on experience, and promote bonding of the team. The more hands-on experience your recruits get before they actually assist in a class, the more confident and effective they’ll be.
For the reactive dog class to be successful, students must be in a carefully controlled environment. You and your assistants are essential components in creating that workspace, but you can’t do it alone. The students, too, need to abide by certain rules. The next chapter discusses these requirements.