Category Archives: Reactivity

Fearful Dogs

Last week we discussed brittle dogs, those dogs who have a hard time coping with stress despite the best start in life. The dogs we discussed were born that way, and couldn’t deal with scary or uncomfortable situations even with their golden-spoon upbringing. But brittle dogs can also be created in spite of a solid genetic basis. Today, let’s discuss those dogs who don’t have the best start in life.

Some dogs lose the socialization lottery. Maybe your dog was born or raised in a puppy mill or kept in someone’s barn or garage. Maybe your dog was a stray. Maybe your dog grew up in a no kill shelter that didn’t have enough volunteers to get all of the dogs out and about or which kept puppies sequestered due to concerns about disease. Maybe you just didn’t know about the importance of socialization and so didn’t get your dog to puppy class before his socialization window closed between twelve and sixteen weeks.

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Whatever the reason, if your dog missed out on critical socialization he may still be okay. Or he might not be. If you have a brittle dog whose early experiences were less-than-ideal, studies show that you could have a long haul ahead of you.

Ongoing studies on Romanian orphans have shown us just how crucial early development can be. The “socialization window” during which the majority of social brain development outside of the womb seems to take place appears to be about two years in people compared to the shorter three to four months for puppy development. However, many of the developmental processes are identical.

So, here’s what we know: children with neglectful upbringings do not develop the same way as children with supportive and enriched environments. Their brains are physically different. They develop less white matter, or myelin tract, which leads to deficits in their abilities to form neural connections. The neural pathways in their brain are weaker and the electrical activity of their brains is significantly reduced from children who grew up in supportive environments.

In addition to this alarming physical deficit, many of the children from neglectful environments also appear to suffer from adrenal impairment. Their bodies produce significantly less (or in fewer cases, significantly more) cortisol, a stress hormone, than other children’s bodies, and this causes them to show altered stress responses.

The parallels to our dogs who come from neglectful, unenriched environments are obvious. Many of the dogs with the very worst behavioral issues that I work with have low heart rates even in situations that obviously cause them a good deal of stress. These dogs sometimes appear to suffer learning disabilities and to have issues with impulse control. Their owners report that the dogs develop new fears at the drop of a hat, but that it takes months or years to get over any fear even with appropriate behavioral interventions.

Taking all of this in can be overwhelming to the owner of a brittle dog. If your dog’s history suggests developmental disabilities, it’s important to realize that your dog is not a normal dog. He has special needs. Asking your dog to suck it up and go to the dog park or to stop cowering behind the couch every time visitors come over dismisses the very real disability your dog lives with every day. It’s as insensitive as calling someone in a wheelchair lazy or laughing at the retired combat veteran next door when he asks you to please give him a head’s up before you light off firecrackers. We wouldn’t ask a dog who was missing a limb or an eye to engage in behaviors which were potentially dangerous to him, but because we cannot see the damage to the brain of our previously-neglected dog with our naked eyes we oftentimes forget to give him the same respect. It’s unconscionable to ignore a disability just because it’s not instantly visible.

So, how can you help your brittle dog? Once you acknowledge that your dog needs some special help, the research is very promising! There’s a lot we can do to help these dogs become more confident, happy, and behaviorally healthy with some simple interventions.

First of all, the five suggestions for brittle dogs with positive socialization histories apply here. Go review them now. We’ll wait.

Finished? Great! In addition to supporting your dog in all of the ways mentioned last week, research also suggests that you work to create new neural pathways for your pet. The brain is remarkably plastic, and new neural pathways develop anytime we learn a new skill or experience a new sensation. The trick is to do this without putting more pressure on your dog. Introducing your dog to TTouch obstacle work, agility (with a skilled instructor who will free-shape your dog to interact with the obstacles on his or her own terms), trick training, or canine nose work can allow them to interact with their environment in new and interesting ways. Feeding from puzzle toys or using other search and find games can also be helpful. Anything that engages your dog’s curiosity is good! Be patient and let him or her progress at the pace that makes sense for them. Encourage exploration and applaud small efforts.

The progress many of my clients see in their previously fearful dogs when we create safe places, actively teach coping skills, socialize appropriately, utilize classical conditioning, consider medication, and promote the development of new neural pathways through nose work or trick training is absolutely astounding. These dogs flourish in ways that they’ve never done before. They grow and they learn and they surprise the hell out of us at every turn. They impress us to tears. There’s nothing quite like the first moment when a fearful dog completes a successful search in nose work class or works up the courage to eat in the presence of a stranger. These magical moments of bravery show us how hard these special dogs try and how very much they can overcome with patience and a plan.

If you have a brittle dog, one of those special dogs who lost the socialization lottery, I hope this blog post has given you a better understanding of your dog’s very unique needs and a sense of hope at all that you can achieve together. I’d love to hear your stories, tips, and tricks about your own special dogs, so please share them in the comments section below!

Brittle Dogs

Raven is a petite little mix of a dog. Dainty and precise, her movements are as graceful as a dance and she never seems to put a paw out of place. Her long legs and tail, sleek, short coat, and sharp muzzle remind me a bit of a canine supermodel. She learns new tricks at the drop of a hat (or a clicker, as the case may be), and is highly obedient.

Raven is beautiful and intelligent. She’s also alarmingly unstable.

Photo by Chris Suderman

Photo by Chris Suderman

The problem doesn’t lie in Raven’s owners. They’re lovely people, experienced in dog care and training. When they brought Raven home at 10 weeks of age, they started her in puppy classes right away and socialized her diligently. She became very friendly, playful, and polite with unfamiliar people and dogs, and enjoyed going to new places.

Then Raven had a scary thing happen to her. Late at night while her owners were walking her, a neighbor set off a firework. Just as the firework boomed, Raven noticed another neighbor walking past in the dark. She panicked, fighting and pulling to get home. Her owners were unable to calm her, and in her frenzy she was like a wild animal. By the time they got home, all three were exhausted, and Raven’s owners were very confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

After that scary night, Raven became highly reactive towards strangers after dark. She would lunge and bark at them, eyes huge. She was constantly on alert. Her owners started working on basic counterconditioning exercises with her and tried to get her walk in before dark each night. They were relieved that Raven was still friendly towards everyone she met during the day, and continued her socialization.

Then something else happened – this time, a painful procedure at the vet. Suddenly, Raven became afraid of new indoor environments. Taking her to new buildings became nearly impossible because she would refuse to go through the doors. She was on alert all the time in new places. She wouldn’t take treats or toys.

This pattern continued. Every time something even a little bit scary or uncomfortable happened, Raven’s behavior would shift dramatically. Her owners had never encountered fear reactions as intense as Raven’s before, and were at a loss about what to do. They had used the same socialization and training program successfully with multiple previous dogs. Nothing truly terrifying had ever happened to Raven. Yet within a year of the first incident, Raven’s owners found themselves living in a bubble.

Everything frightened their previously social and charming dog. Her owners no longer had company in their house because she barked at visitors. They no longer went on walks or took her with them to eat at outdoor restaurants. They brought a trainer into their home, but fired her after Raven’s behavior vastly deteriorated with the use of an electronic collar and some “hard love.” They talked to their vet about anxiety medication, and Raven started on Prozac.

So, what was going wrong?

Dogs are an amazingly adaptive species. They’ve evolved and been selected by us to live in every climate, every living situation, and with every species. Dogs guard vast herds of sheep in mountainous regions, trot down the busy Manhattan sidewalk amidst throngs of people, and work as a team to pull sleds in the frozen north. Dogs are kept as companions to adolescent Cheetahs in zoos. They guide the blind, sniff out explosives, and provide companionship.

Most dogs are every bit as adaptive as the history of their species would lead us to expect. With appropriate socialization, they can handle new problems with aplomb. Yet occasionally, I encounter a dog like Raven. These dogs do great as long as nothing bad ever happens, but fall apart at the seams when they encounter something frightening or uncomfortable. Once something has caused this general breakdown once, they seem to spiral even further down the rabbit hole, never recovering to their previous level of confidence. These are what I call “brittle” dogs, and if you’ve never lived with one, you can count yourself lucky.

Think of most dogs like a rubber band. If you pull on them a bit by exposing them to a situation that they were not socialized to as little pups, they may stretch out slightly, but will eventually return to their usual shape once the situation has returned to normal. They get stressed, but they have the coping skills to recover. They’re stretchy and flexible.

Other dogs, like Raven or like my dog Trout, are more like old rubber bands that have dried out. They look just like other dogs from the outside, but their core strength and elasticity is missing. If these dogs get stretched too far, they break. They shatter like glass, and no matter how hard their owners work to put the pieces back together, they’ll never be able to be used like a regular rubber band. They can only handle a little bit of stretch, and then they snap apart instead of snapping back together.

If you have a brittle dog and you know that your dog’s puppyhood and socialization were solid, there’s very likely to be a genetic component. These dogs are just wired differently. Nature provides lots of variety in the way it mixes the genetic cocktail of each dog who’s born. Variety is the stuff of survival, and desirable traits help their host live on to pass on the superior genetic advantage, while undesirable traits cause the host to die out. Except that our undesirable dogs are lucky enough to live in an environment where very little to no natural culling takes place. They don’t die out. They come to live with exceptional people like Raven’s owners, people who do their very best to help their dog become a normal rubber band.

Raven was four years old when I met her, but the truth is that she could have been any age. Had she not been startled by the stranger at the exact moment fireworks went off, or had she not had to have a painful veterinary procedure shortly after that, or had any of the other perfect storm of bad experiences not happened to her, she would probably be a happy, outgoing dog to this day. Bad luck and bad genetics ganged up on her and her owners in a very unpleasant way, and so instead of a bright and charming dog I met a stressed and fearful one who was absolutely not equipped to deal with my presence in her home.

So, what can you do if you suspect that you have a brittle dog?

1. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Remember that socialization refers to giving your dog positive experiences. Use treats, toys, and play to make new experiences fun and rewarding. Since brittle dogs put so much more weight on negative experiences than on positive ones, you need to make sure that the vast weight of your dog’s positive experiences can override the potential fear of one bad experience. Consider a dog who’s had thousands of good experiences with other dogs, meeting polite dogs and having a blast playing with them. This dog is much more likely to recover from being attacked by an unfamiliar dog than one who has only had five, ten, or even one hundred positive experiences with members of her own species.

2. On that same note, classically condition everything. Anytime your dog hears thunder or fireworks, meets a new person, goes to the vet, or encounters something new, turn the experience into a fun game using treats, toys, and play. Brittle dogs need extra feedback to know that novelty is not something to be feared, but rather an occasion to engage their curiousity. Since we know that brittle dogs develop fears and phobias more easily than most members of their species, the best thing we can do is to change their emotional response to new situations to one of joy and excitement.

3. Protect your dog. Brittle dogs are more fragile than most, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Since one bad experience could cause a dramatic shift in your dog’s ability to cope, take extra care to only expose your brittle dog to situations that you know he or she can handle. Understand that I’m not telling you to wrap your dog in bubble wrap – it’s still important to let him be a dog and to encourage him to explore new opportunities. But do be sure that you’re not setting him up to fail. Brittle dogs, for example, should not be dog park dogs, because you don’t know whether the other dogs at the park are always going to be friendly. A stable dog would be able to deal with the occasional snarky or possessive dog encounter at the dog park, but your brittle dog can’t. Instead, set up safer doggy play sessions by walking and enjoying off-leash time with known stable and friendly dogs.

4. Proactively teach your dog coping skills. Don’t just assume that your brittle dog can handle new situations. Instead, prepare him for each situation he’ll need to handle ahead of time. Teach him general relaxation skills using the Protocol for Relaxation, for example, or do some pretend blood draws while feeding peanut butter by gently restraining him, splashing cool water or alcohol on his leg, and poking his vein with a capped pen to prepare him for an upcoming vet visit. If you wait to work with your dog until he shows you where the problem areas in his socialization lie, it may be too late. Instead, assume that everything requires some proactive involvement on your part and avoid those issues altogether. Remember, an ounce of prevention will save you from a pound of cure!

5. Consider medications. Like Raven’s owners, you may find that your dog has a true chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected by medical intervention. Just as some dogs need insulin or thyroid supplementation, some brittle dogs need daily medication to increase the available serotonin in their system. Medications can also assist your brittle dog in overcoming new fears. A veterinary behaviorist is the best person to work with as you figure out which meds will be the most helpful.

So, do you have a dog who was given all of the proper socialization and early training but who just can’t cope with stress, or is your dog flexible and stable? And what about those “brittle” dogs who didn’t get the right socialization – how are they different? We’ll explore that topic next week! In the meantime, please share your experiences, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below.

“Needs Training”

The phrase is everywhere. It’s in adoptable pet bios on Petfinder: “Great with kids but doesn’t like to share his food, so he needs an owner who will take him to training classes.” It’s in newspaper ads: “10-month-old purebred needs new home with room to run. I don’t have the time to train him.” It’s in my email inbox: “What training class should we take to make our dog stop growling at our toddler?”

We see the phrase “needs training” everywhere, and you may be surprised to learn that it makes my skin crawl. There seems to be a widely-held belief that with a little obedience training, most behavioral issues will cease to exist. Sadly, this is not the case.

This dog doesn't need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

This dog doesn’t need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

Trying to solve behavioral concerns with basic training misses a very important point: behavior modification and obedience training are not the same thing. While it’s true that basic manners training can help to manage and control some behavioral problems, it often doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Basic obedience training is important for all dogs, including those with behavior problems, but it’s not a magic cure-all, and treating it as such does a disservice to the dogs and people who are left dealing with a larger issue that hasn’t been addressed.

So, what’s the difference? Training teaches behaviors. Training will solve problems that result from a lack of understanding. If your friendly dog jumps up on people in greeting, teaching her to sit when people approach will solve that problem. In that case, your dog just didn’t understand that putting her butt on the ground was the best way to meet people. In the same vein, if your dog pulls on the leash, teaching him to walk nicely by your side will solve your leash pulling issues. Your dog just needs to learn that walking next to you is the fastest way of getting where he wants to go. In both cases, training solves the problem by explaining to your dog which behaviors are the most effective at getting what he or she wants.

Sometimes, however, problem behaviors are not simply caused by a lack of understanding. If your dog’s behavior problem is driven by emotions, then behavior modification is needed. Behavior modification changes the emotional response your dog has to a trigger. If, for example, your dog jumps up on people in a forceful way, then squirrels to the side when they try to pet her, simple training will not fix her jumping problem. Because the jumping is driven by an underlying discomfort with people in her space, the jumping is simply a symptom of her anxiety. Until the anxiety is addressed, the jumping (which in this case is a distance-increasing behavior) will continue, because your dog is very worried about the people. Similarly, if your dog lunges and barks at other dogs on leash due to fear, aggression, or overarousal, focusing on teaching loose-leash walking is putting the cart before the horse. Until your dog’s reactivity is addressed, he may be unable to walk nicely on leash in the presence of other dogs – not due to a lack of understanding, but simply because he’s too worked up to function.

Of course, obedience training is an important part of any good behavior modification plan. It’s easier to work with a reactive dog who had good leash manners in the absence of triggers than to work with one who pulls like a freight train 100% of the time. It’s easier to work with an anxious greeter who has a good sit-stay when there are no strangers present than to work with one who doesn’t know what sit means. But focusing purely on training basic manners when your dog needs behavior modification will be inadequate at best. At worst, it may make the problem behavior worse if your dog is forced to cope with scary or upsetting situations (such as the close proximity of new people or dogs for a dog who has social anxiety) in a training class.

If your dog’s problem behavior is driven by emotions, we need to address those emotions in order to permanently change the behavior. Failing to do so is likely to cause other behavior problems to develop. If we teach the anxious greeter to hold a sit-stay so that people can pet her but do not address her anxiety about strangers, for example, that anxiety will still manifest somehow. She may show conflicted body language such as lip licks and whale eyes. She may tap out and urinate on herself. She may growl or bite. All of these behaviors are symptoms of the underlying problem, just as the original jumping and squirrelly behavior were.

If, however, we address her anxiety from the start, teaching her that she does not need to interact with people who worry her and that her owner will protect her, we will likely see the jumping and squirreling around disappear over time. In this case, jumping and acting silly were simply symptoms of a bigger issue, and when the bigger issue is addressed the symptoms disappear on their own. Once the dog understands that her owner won’t let people touch her if she’s not comfortable, we can then switch to obedience training in order to show her ways to interact with strangers that don’t cause her discomfort, such as targeting their hands or shoes, or perhaps playing the “look at that” game.

For a leash-reactive dog, the same sort of emotion-driven approach works. The lunging and barking is a symptom that tells us that the dog is experiencing strong emotions of some sort. Reactive dogs may act this way due to a variety of emotions (frustration, excitement, fear, etc.). That’s okay – we don’t necessarily need to know exactly why the dog is acting this way, as long as we can acknowledge that the presence of other dogs causes a problem. Knowing that, we can play the Watch the World game. Over time, this game will change the dog’s emotional response to other dogs to one of happy anticipation, which will result in him turning towards his owner when he spies another dog. The lunging and barking will go away on their own as the emotions that used to drive them are replaced.

If your dog is experiencing a behavior problem, it’s important to understand that obedience training alone may not be enough. Training your dog in basic manners is important, but it’s even more important to address the root cause of any behavior problem: the emotions that drive it. A skilled trainer can help you figure out why your dog is acting the way that he is. Even more importantly, we can help you put together a plan to change the core emotions that are driving your dog’s behavior. When we change the way your dog feels about things, he will change the way he behaves accordingly.

Some (many!) dogs legitimately need obedience training. However, many more dogs also need something more. They need behavior modification to help them deal with the very real emotions of fear, insecurity, excitement, frustration, or anger. Giving these dogs the help they need to cope with the world they find themselves in is the kindest and most effective thing we can do as their guardians and caretakers.

How do you think we can address the common misperception that obedience training can solve all behavioral problems? Please help me brainstorm… I’d love to hear your ideas!

Myth: Anxiety Medication Should Only be used as a Last Resort

I’ve written about medicating anxious dogs before, and it’s such an important topic that I want to touch on it again. There are so many misconceptions surrounding this subject.The idea that anxiety medication should only be used after everything else has been tried is so sad and harmful, and is a myth I encounter on a regular basis. Let’s clear up some of the fog surrounding this common misconception.

Photo by Heather

Photo by Heather

Before we get any further, please remember that I am not a veterinarian and I don’t play one on the internet. The information contained in this blog is not meant to diagnose or prescribe, and is only provided for your information. I’m drawing from my experience as a certified veterinary technician, canine behavior consultant, and the owner of an anxious dog to educate you, but your best resource is always going to be a licensed veterinarian.

So, let’s start with what we know. Advances in neuroscience and imaging technology have shown us that anxious or depressed people and animals often display significant physical changes to certain areas of their brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and executing activities) and hippocampus (responsible for memory). We know that fear and anxiety are processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and that emotional pain actually shares some of the same neural pathways with physical pain. That’s why we talk about profound grief or panic “hurting” – it physically impacts our bodies.

This is huge. We know that panic and worry “hurt.” Why the hell would you not treat this pain? If your dog were bleeding every day, wouldn’t you treat the wound? Would you wait to splint a broken bone because you wanted to “try everything else first”? Would you wait to give a dog pain meds after surgery until you saw that he “really needed it”? The truth is that these medications can provide very real relief for dogs who need them, and doing so can be the greatest kindness you can offer to a dog who’s hurting in a very real way.

Q: But aren’t anxiety medications dangerous?

A: Yes, sometimes. Any meds can have dangerous side effects. However, I think we need to be very honest about the risk here. Anxiety medications can have negative effects, but so can pain medication, herbal supplements, heartworm preventative, flea and tick medications, and the diet you choose to feed your dog. Furthermore, if you are considering anxiety medication for your dog, you have to take into consideration the impact of prolonged, excessive levels of stress hormones on your dog’s body. I can guarantee that if your dog’s issues are such that you’re considering anxiety medication for your dog, your dog is already experiencing physical problems from their anxiety. In many cases, elevated stress hormones could be more harmful to your dog long-term than anxiety medication. This is a case where doing nothing is not necessarily any safer than trying medication for your dog.

Q: I’d prefer to stick to natural remedies…

A: Let’s settle this once and for all: natural does not mean safe. I see a lot of dogs who are on multiple herbs, oils, and other “natural” remedies with no concern for their safety ramifications. We have very little knowledge about toxicity, possible drug interactions (either additive or counteractive), side effects, or species-appropriateness for most of these remedies, and frankly, there is very little oversight regarding their safety for us, much less for non-human animals. Most modern medications have roots in herbal or other natural remedies. While the digitalis from a foxglove plant may be very helpful when used therapeutically for a patient with congestive heart failure, it can be deadly to a small child or dog. Arsenic and cyanide are “natural” compounds as well – that doesn’t make them safe. While melatonin, 5-HTP, or valerian root may help some dogs, the truth is that we don’t know that they’re any safer than a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor or Tri-Cyclic Antidepressant, and any compound can cause issues.

Q: But, can’t training solve this problem?

A: Probably. I want to be very clear: medication alone will not solve most behavioral issues. However, repeated studies have shown that combining medication and training results in the fastest progress, and I would argue that this fact in and of itself is a good reason to consider medication for fearful, anxious, and aggressive dogs. There’s an underlying humane issue here. Medication can improve your dog’s quality of life while training is taking place and can make that training work more quickly and effectively. Just as using appropriate pain medication can decrease the amount of time it takes animals to heal after surgery, anxiety medication promotes emotional healing. This is a pretty big deal.

Q: Does my dog need to stay on meds forever?

A: Maybe, and maybe not. By far the majority of the dogs I work with are on anxiety medication for a short period of time. The medication helps to cut through the static of anxiety so that the dog is in a better place to learn. Once the dog is no longer fearful, anxious, or aggressive in the formerly triggering context, they are weaned off the medication and go on with their lives, happier and more balanced. That said, some dogs have a true neurochemical imbalance that needs to be treated. Just as a dog with hypothyroidism needs to be given thyroid supplementation, these dogs oftentimes need chemical help to regulate and maintain the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, or other neurochemicals in their brain. For these dogs, anxiety medication may be a lifelong need.

Look, I’m not saying that every anxious dog needs medication. I’m not even saying that it should always be the first thing that we reach for or consider. However, it also shouldn’t be the last. After we’ve looked at environment and put together a training plan, we owe it to our best friends to be very honest about their current quality of life. If your dog is suffering, medication could give him some very real and very quick relief. Personally, I don’t want my dogs to be in pain, and I think we need to be aware that it is okay to consider medication as part of a balanced plan right from the start. It should not be the only thing that changes – medication is not a magic potion that will fix all of your dog’s ills. But it can be one important ingredient in your dog’s customized plan, right alongside management and training.

How do you feel about the use of anxiety medication as part of a behavioral plan to improve a dog’s quality of life? Have you ever used medication for a dog, or are you considering it for your current dog? Please share your questions, stories, and experiences in the comments section below!

Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs

There are many reasons why your dog may not like being rushed by an off-leash dog when he’s on leash. Off-leash dogs are, obviously, the bane of many of my reactive clients’ existence, but senior dogs; those recovering from surgery, illness, or injuries; shy pups and fearful dogs may also find the attention of off-leash dogs upsetting or overwhelming. Even friendly dogs may not appreciate interacting with another dog in such a socially unequal situation – leashes can cause a lot of issues.

Photo by Chriss

Photo by Chriss

So, what can you do if you get rushed by an off-leash dog? First of all, know that it is always okay to protect your dog. Most urban and suburban environments have leash laws, and if your dog is on a leash you are right in keeping your dog safe. You are also completely within your rights to report off-leash dogs to your local authorities. Not only can an off-leash dog pose a threat to you or your dog, but they are also at personal risk from vehicles and other dangers. Even those who live in the country should control their dogs, and if a neighbor’s dog or unknown stray shows up on your property and harasses you or your dog you can and should take measures to discourage him.

The first thing to do if you notice an off-leash dog coming towards you is to evaluate the situation to see if the owner is nearby. If they are, tell them to call their dog. Many people will respond by telling you that their dog is “friendly,” but regardless of their dog’s behavior, if their dog is not under their control and is upsetting you or your dog, it is a problem. Some people have found success in these situations by responding that their leashed dog is not friendly, is shy, is in training, or just doesn’t want to say “hi,” but the most effective phrase I’ve heard of if you want to inspire the owner to collect their dog immediately is to loudly yell “my dog is contagious!”. While I don’t generally condone lying, if it will keep the situation from escalating further you may find that this is a case where it’s worthwhile.

If the owner is unable or unwilling to collect their dog or if there’s no owner in sight, you can choose whether to let that dog meet your dog. Some people only intervene if the loose dog appears to be aggressive and allow friendly-appearing dogs to approach, while others of us do not let any unknown loose dog meet our on-leash pups. Dogs who may appear friendly at first can sometimes become aggressive during the greeting sniff, or may injure your dog by bowling into them or jumping on them. Even my very dog social, friendly pup is not exposed to loose dogs, because I don’t think it’s a fair situation to put her in. Instead, I always intervene and teach my dogs that I will deal with loose dogs so that they do not have to.

So, how can you stop a dog that’s charging you? There are several different strategies, and I choose the method I think will work best for each individual situation. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The gentlest way to discourage visiting is to give the loose dog something better to do. Dogs who seem happy and bubbly are often easily stopped by asking them to “sit.” If the dog complies, you can toss a handful of treats to him and make your escape while he’s vacuuming them up. Even if he doesn’t listen, a handful of treats can be tossed at his face (with the intent to startle, not hurt). When he stops to see what hit him, he’ll realize that there’s food on the ground and devote his attention to eating instead of rushing your dog. This method has worked really well for a few overly-exuberant Labs and Pit Bulls in my neighborhood. It doesn’t stop them from approaching in the future, but it’s the kindest way to give your dog space without the potential fallout that more forceful methods may cause.

If the above ideas don’t work or aren’t possible (perhaps you are out of treats, have a dog who guards food, or feel fairly confident that the oncoming dog won’t be dissuaded), try to startle the loose dog. Step in between your dog and the oncoming dog and use a body block. Square your shoulders and hips, and hold your hand out like a cop stopping traffic while saying “No,” “Stop,” or “Stay” in a firm, low voice. Alternatively, you could carry an umbrella with you and open it in the direction of the rushing dog, which will both startle him and provide a physical and visual barrier. One of my clients painted large eyes on her umbrella, which would pop open explosively at the push of a button. This so startled an aggressive Puggle in her neighborhood that he never again went after her dog.

One easy way to keep loose dogs away is to use a spray product if they come close. Spray Shield is a citronella product manufactured by Premier/PetSafe. It is aversive to most dogs without actually harming them, and can be sprayed directly at an oncoming dog. I carry this product with on walks and use it to keep especially determined dogs (including those who mean to attack my dog) back. Some people have also reported success using compressed air in this same way. Spray Shield has the added benefit of working to stop some dog fights, so if things do get out of hand you have a safer way to break up a fight than trying to forcibly remove one of the combatants.

In addition to having a plan dealing for loose dogs, it’s important to know what not to do. Whatever you do, don’t use pepper spray. Not only can pain make some dogs more aggressive, but if the wind gusts the wrong way the spray could end up getting into your or your dog’s face and eyes, leaving you incapacitated with an unknown dog rushing you. Not a good situation to be in! Running away is also generally not advised, as it will just encourage most dogs to chase you. Picking your dog up is usually not a good idea, although in some situations you may decide it’s a calculated risk you’re willing to take. Doing so may put you at greater risk and can intensify the off-leash dog’s interest in your pup.

While cases of truly aggressive dogs intent on bodily harm are rare, they do happen. If your small dog is rushed by an aggressive off-leash dog, you may be able to pick him up and toss him somewhere safer, such as in a nearby garbage can, inside a fenced yard, in the bed of a truck, or on the roof of a car. You can also take advantage of some of these safety options for yourself. If you have a bigger dog or if no other options are available, you may need to assess whether your dog would be safer if you dropped the leash so that he can try to get away from the other dog or defend himself. If the loose dog redirects on you (which is rare, but does happen), protect your head and neck. Spray Shield will stop all but the most aggressive dogs, and generally these dogs are only stopped by physically separating them from their victim. One of my clients carries a walking stick on outings after one of her small dogs was killed by a much larger dog who jumped his fence. While the stick may not have saved her dog, it makes her feel more comfortable to have something that she could use to keep an aggressive dog back.

While no single method will work in every case, the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better able you’ll be to protect your dog. Remember that it is always okay to stand up for your dog. After I sprayed an aggressive Shepherd who was charging Layla off-leash, Layla’s reactivity towards other dogs on walks actually decreased significantly. Instead of snarling and lunging at other dogs, she began to put herself behind me when she was charged by an off-leash dog, trusting me to deal with the situation.

If you have a dog who is usually trustworthy off-leash, make sure that your dog’s freedom does not negatively impact others. If your dog is likely to rush other dogs, please keep him on a leash or behind a secure fence. Not only could your dog be bitten if he rushes the wrong dog, but he could also be hurt by traffic or by a frightened owner defending their dog. It’s just not worth the risk.

Have you or your dog ever been rushed by an off-leash dog? How do you handle this situation? Please share your stories, tips, and questions in the comments below!

Squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks, oh my!

It was the wee hours of the morning before I got a chance to walk my dogs. I had finally finished a couple of large writing projects whose deadlines had been breathing down my neck and was enjoying the warm night. The moon was nearly full, and the sky was sprinkled with stars. My dogs snuffled about in the grass and wandered about together on long, loose leashes as we walked through the park, and I took a deep breath and enjoyed the perfection of the moment.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

The stillness was shattered by Mischief’s yodeling “BAROOOOO” as a young rabbit bolted right in front of her. Layla immediately swung into heel position, staring lasers at me in the hopes that I would give her permission to chase after the little bunny. Dobby yipped twice, then remembered himself and offered a sit.

Mischief, however, did not look at me, or swing into heel position, or even sit. Instead, she strained at the end of her leash, baying like a Bloodhound. Her cries echoed in the park, and I cringed, feeling guilty that my dog was being so noisy when the neighbors were trying to sleep.

Heedless to anything but the quickly disappearing rabbit, Mischief continued to yodel until I picked her up, thirty pounds of squirmy adolescent pup determined to escape the confines of her leash and give chase. Holding her firmly, I praised the other dogs and asked them to “leave it” as we walked in the opposite direction the bunny had run. Layla gave the departing rabbit one last wistful look, then huffed and bumped my pocket with her nose, hinting that good dogs should be rewarded. I handed treats to her and Dobby, and after several steps was able to set Mischief down again without her resuming her cacophonous protest. The entire incident took less than 10 seconds, and I hoped that my quick action had prevented my puppy from disturbing anyone’s slumber.

Photo by ap. on flickr

Photo by ap. on flickr

Squirrels and rabbits are one of the most difficult distractions many people deal with on walks. Dogs love to chase, and there’s something about that quickly-departing fluffy tail that makes many dogs completely out of control. The more predatory the dog, the more difficult this can be to deal with. When Layla was younger, she broke through collars and climbed me like a tree in her attempts to catch small critters, and to this day she regularly kills and consumes birds, chipmunks, and other small animals in my little fenced backyard. My clients have been pulled over and injured when their dogs decided to give chase, and many have expressed frustration that their dog doesn’t even care about food or toys when a squirrel is in sight. Some people turn to electronic collars to control their dog’s prey drive, but many others (myself included) do not believe in the use of these tools due to the potential for fallout and lack of proof that they are any more effective than reward-based training.

So, what can we do to control our dogs around rabbits, squirrels, and other small critters?

Enter Premack. The Premack Principle states that a less likely behavior can be reinforced with a more likely behavior. In plain English, that means that we can use something our dog is already likely to do (such as chasing squirrels) as a reward for something that they’re less likely to do in that same situation (such as looking at us). Here’s how it works.

In the beginning stages, we need to make sure that you can control your dog so that he only gets a chance to chase squirrels when you give him permission to do so. Keeping your dog on leash is a great way to manage this, and you can add in a front-attach harness (I use the Freedom harness for Mischief) or a head halter (such as the Gentle Leader) for more control if your dog is especially quick or powerful.

Now we need to figure out what your dog can actually offer at this stage of training. With Mischief, she has a great whiplash turn where she turns her head as soon as I say her name, so I used this. In the case of a more predatory dog, such as Layla, I had to start with accepting even a tiny head turn, sometimes just an inch in my direction. Start with what you can get.

The training is simple. Walk your dog somewhere where you will see squirrels or bunnies. When your dog sees one, stand still and wait for them to offer a behavior you like, or cue them to do whichever behavior you’ve decided on. In Mischief’s case, I say her name as soon as she sees a small critter she wants to chase.

As soon as your dog offers the behavior you’ve decided on, reward them with the opportunity to chase. In Layla’s case, turning her head an inch in my direction caused me to click my clicker and take several steps in the direction of the bunny or squirrel. For Mischief, who is still a fairly predatory dog but who is not as tightly wound as Layla, I say her name, click when she turns towards me, then run after the squirrel or bunny with her. In both dogs’ cases, I keep them on leash and allow them to chase with me holding onto the leash for safety. This may not be as satisfying to them as chasing off-leash would be, but it’s safer in an urban environment with cars and other hazards and still satisfies them enough that they are willing to work for the opportunity.

In the beginning stages, it can be very difficult for a dog to switch from their instinctive predatory behaviors to more operant learned behaviors, like looking at you. It would often take Layla several minutes to turn her head even the tiniest bit away from the critter, so I had to be very still and quiet as she worked through the problem. Be patient and wait for a behavior you like, then click and move towards the critter. If your dog is absolutely out of control, you can either back away and try this from a greater distance (such as a block or two away), or you can wait for a tiny break in their frenzy (such as when they take a breath) and click that. I prefer to back away because I don’t want my dogs practicing such over-the-top behavior, but know other trainers who have had a lot of success with the latter method as well. Do what makes the most sense for you and your dog.

With Mischief, I started taking her on walks separate from the other dogs so we could work through this problem. As soon as she saw a critter, I would stop moving and wait for her to look at me. If she looked like she was getting more wound up and was going to start yodeling, I would say her name once, which always caused her to swing her head in my direction. Regardless of whether she remembered to look at me or I had to remind her, as soon as she looked in my direction I would click and tell her “get it!,” running in the direction of the critter.

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Like most dogs, Mischief loves this game! She understands that by working together with me she can earn the chance to do what she wants. She began offering to look at me when she saw a small critter, clearly testing the premise to see whether the rules applied in all sorts of different situations. They usually did, although in unsafe situations or with animals I didn’t want her to chase I would tell her to “leave it” and reward her for her cooperation by letting her play a chase game as I ran in the opposite direction. She didn’t like this quite as much, but was willing to work with me.

Mischief’s training just started last week, so it’s still a work in progress. That said, I can report that walks are already much more peaceful, and there hasn’t been any yodeling since the one late night incident at the park. Even better, she’s learning that paying attention to me pays off, even in really distracting situations. Instead of fighting her, I’m teaching her to cooperate and become a better partner. All of this is happening without electric shocks, verbal reprimands, or any sort of force. It’s also mostly happening without the use of food rewards (although I do give her little pieces of food after a chase game when I ask her to “leave it,” since that’s still tough for her).

At this point, I plan to continue walking Mischief separately from the other dogs until she’s a pro at the Premack game. Once she reliably chooses to look at me after spying a squirrel or rabbit, I’ll start walking her with one of my other dogs, and eventually begin walking the entire pack together again. Dobby and Layla already understand the rules of the game, so on future walks I will be able to play it with all three of them, waiting until all three dogs have offered a behavior (Layla offers to swing into heel position and hold eye contact, and Dobby offers a sit) before initiating a chase.

If I want to transfer these behaviors to off-leash hikes, I can do so by walking Mischief on a long leash for awhile. I’ll keep working on her recall, and reward recalls with the chance to chase small critters. This will eventually pay off as I’ll be able to call her off a chase if I need to, and once she’s reliable I can ditch the long leash and let her be completely free.

I’ve used this same technique to return sanity to walks for countless dogs and their people. Have you used the Premack principle in this way? How does your dog respond to little critters? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Moving with Minnie

[Note from Sara: recently my friend and fellow Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Katie Kelly, moved with her Shih Tzu, Minnie. I was so impressed by the way that Katie supported Minnie and problem-solved to help her adjust to apartment living that I asked her to write a guest blog post about her experiences. Enjoy!]

Minnie is my little sidekick. She goes with me absolutely everywhere: to the pet store, to the park, and to visit with family and friends. She has also moved with me countless times. We’ve lived in a couple different homes in Rochester, multiple places in Winona, and at one point, maintained residence in Zumbrota as well. However, the two of us had grown accustomed to the private life of living in a house. Neither of us had ever truly experienced apartment living until recently.

Minnie and Katie

Minnie and Katie

In the first couple days of living in our new apartment, I could tell Minnie wasn’t truly comfortable. She would find her hiding places and shut down: she didn’t seek out attention, she didn’t play with her toys, and she didn’t chew on her bones. She needed some time to adjust, and then she’d return to being normal happy–go-lucky Minnie. At least that is what I thought.

Technically, dogs are not allowed at my apartment complex, but the landlord did me a favor and allowed us to take residence regardless. Because of this, I figured Minnie might be the window of opportunity: that she might provide a positive image for responsible dog owners who were looking to rent. As the only dog in the apartment building, I felt that it was important to make a good impression on the other residents as well as the landlord.

A week or so after moving, she was coming around little by little. But instead of turning into the superstar I had hoped for, she started to become the stereotypical little yappy dog. I actually set up a video camera to see how she did when I wasn’t around, and I found she would bark incessantly, finding it difficult to calm herself. Then it hit me. I had just moved this five-year-old dog, accustomed to household living, into an apartment building. While it wasn’t too much of a change for me, I soon realized that it was a drastic change for Minnie. In her mind, there were loud scary noises coming from every direction. She had no idea who was making these noises, nor what they predicted. I started to truly hear it. There was door banging, knocking, stomping feet, and conversation in the hallways. Minnie didn’t have the capability to seek out or make sense of any of these things.

We started counter conditioning. I wore my treat pouch every moment we were in the apartment. Every time there was a slight noise, I would press the clicker before Minnie had the chance to react to it and treat her with high rewards. If Minnie did react, I’d call her or lure her (depending on the severity) away from the door and started treating her until I could see her physically calming down. However, this wasn’t enough. What happened when I was gone? Surely, all our hard work would go down the drain as those loud noises would stir her up without me there to help her cope.

We tried the Thundershirt, the DAP collar, the DAP diffuser, stuffed Kongs, puzzle toys, rawhides, bully sticks, and Through a Dog’s Ear classical music. I tried in every possible way I could think of to keep her busy, and to keep her feeling secure and calm. I thought of taking her to daycare, but she is fearful of other dogs. I figured the stress of daycare would just carry over to our home environment and make things worse.

I decided to shoot around for ideas. An idol of mine, who has an incredible amount of knowledge in canine behavior, was very helpful. She had mentioned everything above, and when I told her I had exhausted those efforts, she recommended the Manners Minder. Genius!

The Manners Minder is a treat-dispensing machine. I created a colorful note outside my door that let my neighbors know that I was working on Minnie’s issues and also invited them to be a part of the solution! Alongside the note, I taped the remote control that directly dispensed the treats from the Manners Minder. Inside my apartment, on a table next to the door, was the almighty, praise-worthy, treat dispenser (as Minnie saw it). While I was at home, I could see people were already willing to send Minnie magical treats. They’d walk by (with the associated stomping, talking, and slamming doors) and press the button on the remote taped outside my door. The machine would beep letting Minnie know that treats were on the way, before dispensing them before her very eyes! This machine allowed me to go to school, and while at home, Minnie could be counter conditioned by others who made those scary noises outside the door!

People = treats! My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie's Manners Minder.

My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie’s Manners Minder.

I had to laugh because there were times where I’d check the video camera and watch her progress when I’d get home from school. Many used the remote, but there were also instances where people walked by without using it, and to my surprise Minnie still wiggled her way over to the door expecting goodies. Those loud scary noises finally started to predict good things, and she no longer felt the need to bark.

Finally, Minnie was truly able to relax and feel comfortable in her new home.

Should I get an Invisible Fence?

I want you to imagine that you’re hanging out in your front yard on a pleasant summer day. It’s a lovely day, and you’re feeling pretty content as you lounge on your lawn, relaxing. You notice your neighbor approaching, and as they walk towards your house you smile and get up to greet them, extending your hand to shake theirs. Just as you’re about to meet one another, you’re interrupted by a sharp pinch, like a bee or wasp stinging you. The sensation is unpleasant, and your thoughts of a pleasant interaction with your neighbor are derailed by the mild pain you’re experiencing. Your neighbor continues on their way, and you go back to relaxing.

A few minutes later, a friend walks by your house, and when you attempt to say hello to them the same thing happens. As you move towards them, a sharp sting interrupts you. Over the course of the day, this happens each time you attempt to greet someone.

How would you feel? If I walk by your home at the end of the day, are you likely to act very social towards me?

Even worse, how would you feel if this kept happening all week, month, or year? What would you do if you got stung every time someone approached your property? Would you start warning them away? Avoid them? What emotions would you experience when a stranger approached you in your yard? I know that, personally, I really hate being stung. I would dread visitors, and would feel anxious about what was going to happen when people approached me, even if I didn’t always get stung.

Sadly, this exact situation happens to many dogs every day. I work with dogs who have been living this nightmare every week, and get calls from families of dogs who have been dealing with this on a regular basis.

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

I’m talking, of course, about dogs who are confined using an Invisible Fence or other electronic containment system. While these systems can provide the benefit of more freedom and a sightline unspoiled by physical fences, they aren’t without risks. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think every dog who uses an electronic containment system will demonstrate behavior problems. However, as someone who frequently deals with the fallout when these fences do cause issues, I think we need to be thoughtful about their use. I will not personally ever use an electronic fence for any of my dogs, and strongly encourage my clients not to use them either. Much like getting surgery in a third world country, electronic fences may save you some money – but they’re also much riskier than other options.

So, what can go wrong? Here are the most common issues caused by electronic fences, in order of the frequency with which my clients report them:

  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards visitors on the property. This is by far the most common problem owners of invisibly fenced dogs encounter. This is also absolutely predictable from a behavioral standpoint. In our human example at the start of this article, you saw how this problem could develop over time.Even dogs who have a very clear understanding of how these collars work and who know the boundaries of their yard will make mistakes from time to time. Remember that dogs have the cognitive capabilities of a 2-4 year old child. Would you expect a young child to always remember exactly how far they were allowed to venture?Dogs are most likely to make mistakes when they are excited, such as when people or other dogs walk past. At this point, classical conditioning (the Pavlov stuff) takes hold: the dog experiences a sting from the collar when he happens to be looking at that dog or person, and associates the unpleasant sensation with that dog or person. If this happens multiple times, dogs will naturally begin to react negatively when they are in their yard and they see a person or another dog. They do this not because they’re a bad dog, but because they have made negative associations with similar situations in the past. Some dogs will become fearful and tremble, hide, or shut down, but most respond aggressively in these situations, warning the person or dog away by barking. If that doesn’t work, they may escalate to lunging, snapping, or biting in their attempts to drive away the thing that they believe to be responsible for their pain.
  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards people or animals off the property. Closely following the problem of unwanted behaviors on the home turf is the likelihood of these behaviors bleeding into all social interactions. The connection between a dog’s sudden behavioral change towards people on walks and his owner’s use of an electronic containment system isn’t always readily apparent, but some detailed history taking will usually reveal the relationship between the two. In fact, one of the questions on my intake questionnaire for every behavioral case includes which tools an owner has used for their dog. It’s so common for fear or aggression issues to develop 4-8 months after the installation of one of these systems that I find it necessary to screen for it.
  • Noise phobias. Just as a dog may associate the approach of people with being shocked, many dogs will become sensitive to the beeping sound that predicts this sensation. This becomes a problem when dogs generalize this connection to similar sounds. Think of all the beeping noises in your everyday environment: your microwave, your computer, your phone, your alarm… we live in a world of beeps. Now imagine that you expected to get stung every time you heard one of these noises. What a terrifying existence! This fear can cause dogs to become generally anxious, where they are always on edge, or can cause less obvious problems. If the dog associates a beeping sound with a certain behavior, he will often become reluctant to do that behavior again out of fear. If he associates it with a person, he may act nervous around that person in the future. Likewise, he may begin avoiding areas of the house in which he frequently hears beeping sounds because he doesn’t know where the boundaries in that area are, or he may freeze in fear upon hearing a beep, afraid to move lest he cross a boundary and receive a shock.
  • Fence darting. Some dogs may not ever display fearful or aggressive behaviors as a result of their confinement with an underground fencing system, but will push the boundaries of that confinement. Many predatory or excitable dogs are quite willing to take the shock in order to chase a bunny or squirrel or to rush a dog being walked past. Unfortunately, they’re usually not as willing to take a second shock in order to come back into their yard. Other tricksy dogs will test the fence, waiting until the collar no longer beeps. Once the battery dies (and there is no more beep at the edge of the property), the dog is free to roam at will. Speaking from experience (I worked at an open admission shelter that took in stray dogs picked up by animal control), electronic fences aren’t a reliable way to keep a determined dog in one place. Shelters and impound facilities are full of dogs wearing invisible fence collars.
  • Generalized fear issues. Young or sensitive dogs may react very badly to the introduction of an underground fence system. These dogs sometimes become fearful of their yard and are unwilling to go outside. Many of these fearful dogs will lose or backslide on their housetraining as they would rather soil the house than risk going outside, which they have associated with pain.
  • Safety concerns. Even if your dog doesn’t ever leave the yard and never experiences any unwanted behavioral fallout, it’s important to remember that the use of an electronic containment system doesn’t protect him from outside dangers.  Aggressive dogs, coyotes, or other dangerous wildlife can still enter your yard and attack your dog, whose ability to maneuver and avoid them is limited when he’s wearing his collar. People can also enter your property, either to willfully molest your dog (which is rare, but does happen, especially with groups of children) or not knowing that your dog is there. If your dog injures someone who has come onto your property, you could be liable. Unattended dogs may be stolen from their properties by people who remove the dog’s collar, then resell the stolen dog or use them as “bait” dogs.

If you do plan to use an invisible fence, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk. First of all, if your dog already shows fearful or aggressive behavior in any context, know that these behaviors may be exacerbated by the use of an invisible fence and seriously rethink your plan. Avoid using any sort of electronic containment for young dogs (under three years of age), and have the system introduced to your pet by a professional. Don’t cheap out on the system, either: the last thing you want is a faulty product malfunctioning and burning a hole in your dog’s neck (it’s happened) or shocking your dog every time you pull your car into the driveway over the wire (yes, it’s happened). Finally, if you start to see any of the behaviors detailed above, discontinue use of the fence and call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer immediately. The sooner you contact us, the better the chance that we can reverse or at least minimize the harm.

Sadly, cases caused by electronic containment systems continue to make up a sizeable chunk of my business. While I’m grateful for the income (hey, dog trainers have to eat too, and this isn’t exactly a lucrative profession!), it makes me incredibly sad when people and their dogs have to live with the fallout caused by these tools. It’s absolutely possible for dogs to live their whole lives with these fences and never experience a problem. However, the risk is there, and the use of these containment systems is significantly riskier than simply toileting your dog on leash or putting up a physical fence. Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict how any dog will react to electronic confinement. Your dog may be fine… but do you really want to bet his well-being on it?

[Edited to add: Great minds think alike, and when I saw this wonderful post on Notes from a Dog Walker that was eerily similar to this piece, I almost decided to pull this post lest people think I was copying it (I promise I wasn't, as I write most of the posts you see here several weeks before they actually show up on the blog). If you're still on the fence (ha!) about electronic containment systems, please go read her post as well. Experts agree: electronic containment is oftentimes bad news.]

Helping People Enjoy Their Dogs

It was clear to anyone watching them that the little dog and his owner loved each other. Despite all her frustration and her ineptitude, the little dog’s owner was trying her very hardest to help him. And despite all of his anxiety and stress, the little dog was trying to work with her.

And they were failing miserably.

Photo by Rosa Money

Photo by Rosa Money

They had been failing together for five years. The owner would take her little dog to classes and agility trials and seminars. She went from one trainer to another, collecting a plethora of habits and ideas along the way. A patchwork of training methodologies and theories clung to her. She tried and tried and tried, and her dog tried his hardest too. And they failed, and they failed, and they failed again.

The little dog was on edge all the time. He tried to listen to his handler, worked his heart out for her really, and yet when it all got to be too much he couldn’t help lunging and barking. He truly couldn’t control it. The stress would spill over and he would crash and burn yet again. His owner would drag him away, raging and out of control.

When I took the dog’s leash in class and began working with him, his eyes cleared. His movements slowed and he started taking treats less frantically. He took a deep breath and shook off. I demonstrated the exercise for his owner, and when I went to hand the leash back to her, her little dog didn’t want to go. He tried to follow me away from his owner, and I saw the embarrassment and frustration and guilt cross her face in a raw and naked moment that broke my heart.

The owner had the best of intentions. The dog adored her. But the pure relief of working with someone who was clear with him, who listened to and respected him and his limits, and who was not themself on edge, was more important to him in that moment than those five years of pain and hard work that his owner had put in.

This is the challenge that professional dog trainers face.

Any trainer worth his or her salt can take a dog’s leash and help that dog. We can read your dog and adjust the exercise to perfectly suit his needs in the moment. If we’re any good, we can do this so quickly and make such minute adjustments that you won’t even realize that we’ve just split our criteria in half and upped the rate of reinforcement by 50%. You may not even be able to see the tiny changes in the amount of pressure we place on your dog, turning our body slightly to the side or moving a few steps away from a stressor. This stuff is automatic for us, because we’ve been doing it for years and we understand the dance that true training entails.

It looks like magic. And it’s meaningless, unless we can help you do it too.

The little dog’s owner was on edge and jumpy herself. She automatically tightened up on the leash and administered constant tiny little jerks on her dog’s collar (a technique she’d learned years ago) whenever she got nervous. The more she tried to control her dog in these situations, the worse he got. She took him to classes and trials constantly in the belief that if she didn’t continuously expose him, the little dog would backslide. She delivered treats quickly and imprecisely, not to mention far, far too infrequently to provide the amount of information her dog required to feel comfortable. Her dog was miserable. She was miserable. And they both loved each other, through all the misery and frustration.

This is the challenge of a professional dog trainer, then.  Not to make myself look good, but to give you the skills you need so that you can do that too. Paws Abilities’ motto is “helping people enjoy their dogs,” and that is my primary mission as a professional trainer.

So what could I do for the woman and her little dog? Frankly, I could be kind. I could be as patient with the owner as I was with her dog. I could help her change her behavior in tiny little bits. Just as a rehomed dog with a patchwork history may take months to trust a new owner, I would never expect a client who has worked with so many other trainers to change her ways all at once, or even to trust that changing her ways was the right thing to do. Instead, I could show her the possibilities and help her set manageable and realistic goals.

Professional trainers sometimes forget that human behavior can be shaped in the same way that we shape animal behavior. If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your dog, you owe it to yourself to find a trainer who will respect you every bit as much as they wish you to respect your pet. And if you’re working as a professional trainer and cannot remember to be as kind to your human clients as you are to their dogs, frankly, you need to find another profession. The principles that shape solid animal training: shaping new behaviors through successive approximations, building solid foundational skills, adjusting our criteria based on the individual in front of us, and using a high rate of reinforcement to cement understanding, are all equally important when teaching people.

I first worked with the woman and her dog two years ago. I did not forbid her from taking her dog to classes or trials, although I gently recommended against it and commended her when she chose not to put her dog into these stressful situations. I did not yell at her when she jerked on the leash or forgot to treat her dog, but instead gave her easy suggestions to follow that were incompatible with these training mistakes. I was empathetic when she admitted that she found training frustrating and disheartening, and adjusted the exercises in the class she was in so that she would leave each class feeling joyful at the success her dog had made.  And she still failed, but less often, and her dog still blew up sometimes, but less than he used to, and he recovered from these situations much more quickly. And they both learned to relax just a little bit more, and to trust one another just a little bit more.

This woman has floated in and out of our classes several times in the last couple years. She’s done some private training with me too. Recently she contacted me with a success story, and we celebrated her achievements. She still pushes her dog too far sometimes, and sometimes she forgets how to give him the information he needs. But she tries, and her dog tries, and they love each other. They’re much further along than they were two years ago, and they’ll be further still next year.

Training a dog is easy for those of us who have done it for any length of time. Professional dog training is difficult. Finding the compassion and patience to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which novice handlers can learn takes real skill, empathy, and ongoing education.

Training Your Reactive Dog

We’ve discussed what reactivity is and how to manage your reactive dog. Now let’s get to the meat of the problem: what can be accomplished with training? Quite a bit, actually! Consider Layla, who used to lunge and bark at dogs, people, bikes, and even lawn ornaments. She recently earned her ARCHX title in rally obedience, which required her to walk past many unfamiliar dogs and people in a crowded, charged environment, then work off-leash and sometimes at a distance from me with focus and precision. She was able to ignore barking dogs, chattering people, and the judge following us around with a clipboard. Outside of obedience, Layla also works as a neutral dog for shelter dog evaluations and Growl classes.

This transformation didn’t take place overnight, and it required diligent training and management. However, the rewards of watching my formerly anxious and reactive dog handle situations that previously sent her into a frenzy with confidence and aplomb are well worth all the work. Learning to communicate with one another has deepened our relationship and turned our training from a dictatorship to a partnership.

Photo by Gus.

Photo by Gus.

Every reactive dog is different, but the general principles of working with a reactive dog are very similar. Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind as you work with your dog:

1) Work with a professional. Okay, this may seem a little self-serving coming from a trainer who spends the majority of my time working with reactivity. But in all seriousness, you need to find a kind and experienced trainer who can either work with you in person or remotely (many trainers now offer Skype appointments or telephone consults). Not only will you benefit from having an extra pair of eyes devoted to your training, but working with someone who is not emotionally involved will keep you and your dog on track.

Still not convinced? Consider this: when one of my dogs started to display reactive behaviors, I hired another trainer to work with us even though this is my career. I could reel off the steps to solving a reactive behavior problem such as my dog was experiencing in my sleep, but I knew I was too close to the problem to be objective.

2) Manage stress carefully. Whether your dog becomes anxious or experiences “good stress” from over-the-top joy, stress hormones are hard on the body and may impact your dog’s ability to learn. If you know that chronic stress is influencing your dog’s behavior, consider taking a cortisol vacation.

3) Learn a new language. Dogs have a complex, nuanced vocabulary, but they don’t use verbal language like us.  The more we can learn about what their body language is saying, the less frustrated they’ll be and the easier it will become to prevent reactions. Do you know what a wagging tail, lip lick, or turn away mean?

4) Teach impulse control. Most reactive dogs have a very difficult time controlling themselves. Teaching your dog to control himself (as opposed to you physically controlling him) will give him the tools to turn his own emotional thermostat down if he starts running too hot. Games such as “it’s your choice,” off-switch games, doggy zen, and leave it are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s self control.

5) Make relaxation rewarding. Mat work, the Protocol for Relaxation, and bodywork (such as TTouch and other massage) are great for reactive dogs. Think of them as canine biofeedback. Many reactive dogs have a hard time relaxing, so help your dog learn to let go.

6) Change the association. In many cases, reactive dogs have been corrected or punished in some way for their behavior. Even if you haven’t ever scolded your dog for reactivity, this step never hurts. Changing the association deals with emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the trigger. Done correctly, this quickly results in a dog who turns and looks expectantly and happily at his handler upon spying the person or thing that used to provoke a reactive outburst. The Watch the World game is a great place to start with this.

7) Finally, teach your dog what to do instead. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t want your dog to react like he used to, make sure you teach him some alternate behaviors that he can use in those situations. Whether you use hand targeting, a Whiplash Turn, the Look at That game, Emergency U-Turns, or attentive heeling, having an easy behavior or two that your dog can perform to earn a reward can make the difference between success or failure in a tough situation.

If you live in Minnesota, consider contacting us for private training or signing up for an Agility Unleashed, Focus & Control, or Growl class to address your dog’s reactive behavior. Too far away to work with us? Look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area.

If you’ve worked with a reactive dog, which of these principles did you find the most helpful? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share your experiences in the comments below!