12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Class Requirements for Students
As a prerequisite to joining a class, you may want to require a prospective student to fill out a behavior evaluation profile.
Questionnaire or Personal Interview?
When I see clients, I ask them to fill out a simple questionnaire. I do not believe in giving them a 20-page form to fill out. I want to know the basics, and I want them to tell me what the issues are. I receive so much more information by giving potential students the opportunity to explain who their dog is to me in detail, what the issues are, and what training methods they have tried in the past. It is critical for me to know how the clients feel about their dogs’ behavior issues. I once met with a family about their cocker spaniel puppy. The father thought it was funny that the dog was actually tearing the clothes off his children and chided them for being sissies. The mother was horrified, and the children were terrified of their human-aggressive puppy. Meeting with this family in person not only made the dog’s issues clear but exposed the family dynamics that made the situation worse in a way that a questionnaire (biased by the adult who filled it out) might not have.
Sample Behavioral Questionnaire
Phone: E-mail Address:
Name of Dog:
Where did you get the dog?
Date of Last Medical Visit:
Blood Work and Urinalysis:
Dog’s Behavior Issues:
Most Frightening/Serious Incident:
It also is a good idea to have your students sign a liability waiver just in case there is injury. I am happy and proud to say that in seven years of teaching this class, there has never been an incident, but this is because we are meticulous in our execution of the class, and that does not happen by accident! I carefully planned out everything from the parking situation to the traffic flow to the exercises taught in the class.
Coaching your students during the first class about what to expect and how to prepare for class will alleviate much of the anxiety they may have regarding attending class with their dogs. In order for the reactive dog class to run smoothly and safely, students must follow these specific rules:
1.Request that students make a commitment—at least during six weeks of the class—to adopt the positive reinforcement methods of the class and avoid all positive punishment techniques so they don’t confuse their dogs and make matters worse.
2.Advise each student to bring a secondary handler with her to help manage the dog, ideally someone the dog and student are comfortable and familiar with. After having spent years or months feeling ridiculed or judged in foreign environments with their dogs, most of the students entering this class have significant levels of anxiety when they consider bringing their reactive dog into a new space with unfamiliar dogs and people. These students may equate entering this class with walking into the lion’s den. Having the emotional support of a secondary handler with whom they feel comfortable helps give them the confidence they need to feel relaxed about learning new skills. Much as reactive dogs benefit from a “confidence coach,” so do their owners.
a.The secondary handler is helpful for a variety of reasons. He can stay in the car with the dog while the student is receiving class instruction. If the dog is reactive in the car, he can also click and treat the dog as other students are entering the workspace. He can help form a “doggy sandwich,” where the student clicks and treats the dog while the secondary handler stands on the other side of the dog to provide a body block and safety net by holding the secondary collar/leash system (see #6 below). The “doggy sandwich” is an important safety procedure in crisis situations, and while you may have your own training assistants who could offer such assistance for dogs that are reactive to other dogs only, for dogs that are reactive to humans, this technique is only possible when someone with whom the dog is comfortable can handle the second leash. For human-reactive dogs, having one of your own training assistants perform this task would put your assistant and the rest of the class (two- and four-legged participants alike) in a potentially dangerous situation.
b.The secondary handler can also help prep and replenish treats for the primary handler as she works her dog through the exercises in class.
3.Although it is my preference that two people attend class with the dog, I advise my students before the class starts to designate a primary handler. The primary handler is the only individual who will be clicking and treating the dog during class, with the secondary handler there specifically to perform support functions.
If the primary handler is having difficulty mastering the mechanical skills necessary for training success, the temporary support of a secondary handler may help: one person clicks and the other treats until the primary handler is confident and comfortable handling both the clicker and treats, at which time the secondary handler is phased out. Make sure that you give your students as much time as they need to feel comfortable with these techniques. Secondary handlers serve a vital function in helping the class continue to run smoothly when individual primary handlers may need more time or attention in developing a new skill.
4.For liability reasons, my policy is that only the primary and secondary handlers are required in the training hall for reactive dog class. Our general policy is that children under the age of 16 are not permitted in the facility during reactive dog class. While you may have your own policies regarding children in your training hall, remember that reactive dog class is a special kind of class where the risks are increased. If you would like to make exceptions, consider what the benefit of having children in the hall might be and what special policies and procedures must be established to ensure their safety.
A secondary handler can help form a “doggie sandwich” with the dog in between the two handlers and each holding one leash. This is especially helpful for dogs that react to human strangers.
5.All dogs must remain in the car until they are escorted into the facility. Because we have limited outside space, we do not want either the handlers or the dogs to be placed in stressful, over-threshold situations prior to entering the classroom. It is always easier to start out with focus and calm and maintain it than it is to get it back once a dog and/or handler have been pushed over their respective thresholds.
Remember that the primary goals of this class are twofold: safety and success. Your students and their dogs cannot be successful in learning new skills unless they feel safe. Dogs get better at anything and everything they practice—from over-threshold, socially inappropriate, and potentially dangerous responses to calm, desirable, and well-mannered behaviors. The last thing you want is for your students and your dogs to be rehearsing the very behaviors we’re trying to change as they enter your class!
You may encounter a challenging student who refuses to comply with this policy. One of my own clients, on arrival at the facility, immediately released her lovely Saint Bernard from the car so that the dog could go potty before class. She explained to one of our assistants that she was afraid to stop the car off -site because her dog was aggressive toward dogs and people and she did not want bad incidents to occur in an environment over which she had no control. We were able to find a compromise and instructed her to contact us prior to her arrival so that one of the training assistants could “stand guard” while she allowed her dog a pre-class potty break.
When situations like this arise and a student is having a problem with a particular policy, it’s always a good idea to ask, “Why?” This particular student was not trying to be disruptive or obstinate, and it is my job as a trainer to identify and solve problems. This easy fix allowed us to keep the student and dog in the class where they could get the help they needed, and the special accommodations required were easy for us to provide. It is critical that each of your students feels comfortable with the protocols of class. You may need to make occasional adjustments to help make that happen.
6.All dogs must be on a double-leash system. This means each dog will be wearing two separate pieces of equipment (collar, harness, or head halter) attached to two separate leashes. Any positive training tools are permitted, but we do have a policy that prohibits the use of tools developed to implement punishment, like choke, prong, or electronic collars. Muzzles are permitted but not required as long as the type selected allows the dog to eat and drink and the dog is already comfortable wearing it before starting class.
This is another policy where you may encounter student resistance, but if you turn away students who are currently using aversive training tools, you are unable to help them. You also are increasing the risk that they will seek out a trainer who approves of and uses the tools they are already familiar with.
Have some empathy for your students. Remember that many positive trainers self-identify as “crossover trainers” and once used techniques that would not be qualified as “dog-friendly” today. Often, the people using these tools don’t love to use them but rely on them because they feel safe. Students often tell me how comfortable their dog is wearing the prong collar, and how much safer they feel when they take their dog out wearing it, even though on previous occasions the dog may have popped the collar open by lunging and landed a bite or attack.
Many students will be extremely relieved to know that less painful, safer, and more positive alternatives are available. To get to this point, however, these students may need individualized coaching and instruction in an empathetic learning environment so that they can feel comfortable with the use of nonaversive equipment. If you shape these students’ behavior as you would a dog’s, you will find that they are often more than happy to transfer to less aversive equipment.
The students will require the following items for each class, in addition to the already mentioned double-leash system for their dogs: clicker, treat bag, and a large number and variety of treats (more than they suspect they will need!).
A clicker is a device that makes a sharp, unique sound. Clickers come in many shapes, colors, and sizes. Allow the students to select for themselves the type of clicker they would prefer to use. The box clicker tends to produce a louder sound while the ergonomic clicker (with the button) produces a softer sound and is often better for clients with arthritis or for clients training in gloves! Do not assume that shyer dogs prefer a softer click. Some of the most sensitive dogs benefit from hearing a loud click well above the distractions in the environment. You may want to have a variety of types of clickers at your orientation session to allow students to choose for themselves the type of clicker that feels and works best for them.
The Treat Bag
A treat bag is a pouch that the student will use to put her treats in for easy access. Any bait bag will do as long as it is easy to get the treats out of it quickly. In this class, we always encourage the students to maintain an extremely high rate of reinforcement—a process made nearly impossible if one has to dig deep into pockets to retrieve treats. Students must deliver treats cleanly and quickly, and to make that happen the treats must be readily accessible.
Each student will have to select a variety of treats to use in class. I recommend treats that are soft (so that they can be swallowed easily with minimal chewing), smelly, and perceived by the dog as highly desirable. Ideally, these treats should be something the dog does not receive on a regular basis: bits of hot dogs; small chunks of cheese, turkey, or chicken; chopped bits of tortellini; leftover steak or roast beef—something that makes a dog’s eyes glaze over with happiness when he eats it. Generally we use hard treats like doggy biscuits sparingly, but they may be helpful in keeping your dog’s head lowered as he chews (a body posture that is incompatible with reacting).
Avoid treats that contain ingredients that are dangerous for dogs like grapes, raisins, chocolate, or artificial sweeteners like xylitol. To help your students determine which treats may be most effective for use in class, ask them to make a list of treats and assign a number from 1 through 10 to each. Number 10 treats are the ones that the dog would do nearly anything to obtain for himself, while the number 1 treat is simply “OK.” I encourage my students to be creative and open-minded; a dog may not necessarily prefer roast beef over a seemingly more mundane treat, like a bit of pretzel.
I met one dog that would do nearly anything for Kix cereal. Cali chose Kix over hot dogs, sirloin, or liverwurst. When I asked the owner why this might be, she said breakfast was her favorite time in the morning. Each day she shared her bowl of cereal with Cali while Cali sat happily at her side. In this case, the palatability of the Kix was less important than the classically conditioned joy Cali associated with it; the dog had learned that Kix signaled the happiest of times with his owner.
Advise students to select treats equal to the level of distractions in the environment in which they are training. They need to use highly palatable treats for extremely challenging environments, while level 1 treats will generally suffice for in-home training when little else is going on. To make their treat choices easier, students can rank training environments from 1 to 10 in terms of difficulty, so they can select appropriate treats when beginning a session in a new environment.
Students need to wear shoes that are comfortable and sturdy enough to provide safety and stability in dangerous situations. Shoes with traction may mean the difference between a dog fight or attack and the continued safety for all attendees should a dog attempt to pull his handler off her feet. I do not permit flip flops, sandals, open-toed shoes, or heels of any type while in class.
The most popular combination of equipment for my reactive dog classes (top) is a collar and a no-pull harness (with the clip in the front). Students often clip the collar and harness together. Head halters and collars (middle) are also a common equipment combo and work well as long as the dog is acclimated to the head halter before the class starts. Some students use rear-clip harnesses and collars (bottom).
Each dog must wear two leashes, each attached to a separate collar, head halter, or harness. I have no preference for what type of leash-gear combination a student uses as long as the tools are positive and the dog is comfortable wearing them: a martingale with a front clip harness, a buckle collar with a head halter, a front clip harness plus a head halter, and so on. We do not permit the use of prong, choke, or electronic collars attached to any sort of lead. I coach handlers to experiment to find the combo that offers them the comfort and performance they need to thrive.
For my own dogs, I prefer a buckle collar plus a front clip harness. A head halter is fine as long as the dog feels comfortable in it and the fit is appropriate.
I recommend a six-foot leather or nylon web leash. The leash should feel comfortable in the student’s hands and not burn if the dog lunges forward unexpectedly. I do not allow retractable leashes or leashes made of chain in the workspace.
The dual collar/leash combo has always worked very effectively, but I do allow students to use muzzles if it makes them feel more comfortable and confident. In such situations, the dog must be desensitized to wearing the muzzle before he can start class, so the student may need additional preparatory training or private lessons to jump-start the process. Muzzles may be constructed primarily of nylon, leather, rubber, or, sometimes, metal. There are basket muzzles (which generally form a “cage” around the mouth), or groomer’s muzzles, which are fabric and form a loop around the mouth. Any of these types, when fitted properly, may be appropriate for use in class. The muzzle should fit over the dog’s nose so that it is snug and prevents him from biting but not fit so tightly that he is unable to open his mouth to pant, drink, or accept offered treats.
After deciding how you will recruit students and what class rules you will set, you need to consider what sort of space will work best for your reactive dog class.