12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
The Environment and Logistics
In setting up a class for reactive dogs, considerations of where you teach are as important as what you teach. The best program in the world won’t help reactive dogs if you don’t have control over the environment. Certainly your assistants are critical in managing traffic flow to keep everyone safe, but the workspace itself requires careful selection and preparation. Here are some factors to keep in mind as you create your reactive dog class.
Will you have the class inside or out? If you have it indoors, you will need to be sure that you have enough room for the number of dogs that will be attending. You also have to consider whether there is any other activity being held in the room concurrently with your class. For example, when I began teaching at MasterPeace, though we had one side of the facility to ourselves, there were beginner obedience classes being held on the other side. This meant that not only did we have to carefully monitor the classroom situation, but also the parking lot. We could not have aggressive/reactive dogs meeting beginner dogs on the way into or out of the building.
The room has to be large enough to accommodate barriers with enough space for the dog/handler teams to move in and around them. At least 30 to 40 feet is helpful. Barriers can be anything from wooden slabs on wheels to ring gates or X-pens with pieces of opaque cloth thrown over them. The main purpose of the barrier is to give the student a place to shield her dog from the intensity of the environment. The barrier also serves as a station for the student to store her treats and take a break. Although we know that the dogs can smell and hear all of the other people and dogs in the room, taking away the visual stimulation helps to keep the turmoil to a minimum—and that also goes for the commotion of another class going on in the same room. In fact, I’ve often been surprised that my reactive dog classes have been quieter than the basic obedience classes on the other side of the barriers.
Although you can hold a class in a building with one entrance, it’s definitely preferable to have two entrances: one for people and one for both dogs and people. This is especially important for traffic control. People enter and exit through one door; people and dogs pass through the other. Never allow students to pass in and out of the same door, some with dogs and others without. This is a recipe for disaster, so avoid it at all costs!
One disadvantage of holding a class indoors is that if one or more of the dogs start to react, there literally is no place to go. As an instructor, you have to adjust the student’s time in the building to your ability to open up space. Maintaining that balance requires that you carefully monitor the exposure levels of the dogs and have the dogs leave the building before they go over threshold. In my class, I observe the dogs meticulously and ask any student who feels that her dog is about to melt to raise her hand.
If you are working in an inside environment, you will need to use barriers to break up the space. At MasterPeace we have beautiful heavy wooden barriers on wheels so that the students have the ability to control the dog’s exposure. Though these barriers work great, you do not need barriers as fancy and costly as these. Ring gates or X-pens with blankets hanging over them will work fine as well. Covered agility obstacles can work, too. Just be sure that the barrier is taller than the dogs that you are teaching. Years ago, when I was teaching a Click to Calm seminar in Alaska, one of my students was working a Great Dane that towered over the barriers they were using. Fortunately, the student was an experienced clicker trainer and was able to keep his dog subthreshold, but you will want to ensure that your barriers will fit the height of the dogs in the class.
The wooden barriers at MasterPeace Dog Training are 8’ long and 4.5’ high, which gives adequate height so dogs cannot see over the barriers. Their mobility makes it easy to adjust a dog’s visual access to the rest of the room as well as to set up different barrier arrangements and even to divide a large indoor space. A student has enough room behind her barrier to set up a chair and a crate, if she wants to.
If you work in an outside environment, you will need to be sure that the space is private and will not be frequented by unwelcome guests such as curious, talkative people or off-leash dogs. Depending on which town or city you live in, you may have to secure a permit of some kind in order to hold your class.
One advantage of working in an outside space is that students can spread farther apart if they need more space to calm a stressed dog. It is a good idea to have the class in a safe space that has natural barriers of some kind, like trees or parked cars. Covered agility obstacles can serve this purpose as well.
Draping agility obstacles or tall X-pens with blankets or sheets creates practical barriers. Make sure to have a good supply of spring clips or clothespins to hold drapes in place. In an outdoor workspace, creative parking can help shield dogs from each other.
A disadvantage of teaching a class outside is that students often have had their share of bad experiences in an outside environment. For some dogs, simply stepping outdoors can be a cue that something bad is about to happen. If you hold your class outside, you’ll have to battle that preconceived notion.
Whichever working environment you choose, indoors or out, it is your responsibility to keep your students safe so that they can learn as much information from you as possible within the intended timeframe. If they do not feel safe, they will not be able to relax and absorb what you teach them.
The parking lot at MasterPeace Dog Training is just that: an empty parking lot. It would be great if we had parking spaces that were separated by objects of some kind like buildings or trees, but we do the best that we can. It works if students follow the advice below:
•We ask each student to put her dog in a crate (in the car) and cover him up, if possible.
oIf this is not possible, then we ask the student to bring an assistant who clicks and feeds the dog for all activity happening outside the car.
oIf the dog is comfortable wearing a Calming Cap, then that works fine as well.
•If the dog cannot stay calm under any of these circumstances, then I ask the student to park her car at a distance away from the building.
•I ask that the assistants park their vehicles about every other space so that we can fit the students’ cars in between these empty vehicles, which act as visual shields.
You will need to establish protocols for moving students into and out of your facility with safety in mind. At MasterPeace Dog Training, our entryway leads into a retail area offering all sorts of doggy goodies from treats to toys to leashes and harnesses. Students walk through this area and enter another doorway that leads into the main training area. Our training hall features two huge rings, and the reactive dog class uses the ring farthest from this entry point.
On arrival, students leave their dogs in the car and come for a quick debriefing to the ring where we teach classes. This is the time for human coaching; for me, it is a time to ask my students how things are going, whether they are encountering any challenges, and if any of them have “brags” to share about their dog’s performance in the last week. It’s a great time for team-building and creates a sense of community among the students, thereby alleviating some of the loneliness and social isolation all-too-familiar to many reactive dog owners.
I like to conclude the debriefing session by giving my students the theme and criteria of the week’s class. In Week Three, for example, I tell them, “Tonight, you will click and treat your dog for doing absolutely anything that is not a reactive or aggressive behavior.” I explain that this technique is called Differential Reinforcement for Other Behavior (DRO), so that they can begin learning about the language of dogs and reactivity.
Giving the students one specific task or criterion for each evening helps to avoid confusion. You may find that as you are teaching a class, your criterion, for whatever reason, shifts. Be sure to advise your students of such changes, and when you make them, it’s a good idea to jot down a note to yourself and follow up with a quick e-mail to the class, since you may be covering information not related to the handouts you developed for that night’s class.
Once everyone has been prepped for the class, it is time to orchestrate entries to the classroom carefully. Ask each student to go to her station and stand behind the barrier while waiting for a training assistant to escort her to her car to retrieve her dog. In the summer, we send the students out to their cars and ask them to wait there for their assistant escort, so the dogs don’t have to wait as long.
The students exit through the main door of the facility, a “people-only” entrance. One by one, a training assistant escorts each student from the facility to her car where she can retrieve her dog and her secondary handler. The training assistant then escorts the student, her dog, and the secondary handler directly into the classroom through the side door. Assistants function as traffic monitors at each entryway to ensure that there is never a backflow or traffic jam that might create a dangerous situation.
When teaching this class indoors, always escort students and their dogs through the door nearest the class location; it is simply too dangerous to have students with reactive dogs walking through common areas of the building to arrive at their working space.
The students work for approximately half an hour in the room and then the process of escorting each of them individually back to their vehicles begins. The assistant that is accompanying each student will also take a copy of that evening’s homework to give to the student once she has returned her dog to her vehicle safely.
Traffic flow to and from MasterPeace Dog Training
Once you feel you have a workspace you are comfortable in, assistants trained, and students signed up, you are ready to take a deep breath and start teaching. Part III guides you through the program with detailed descriptions of each week’s class and includes all the handouts I give my students. You’re on your way!