“Listen a hundred times; ponder a thousand times; speak once.”
“Listen a hundred times; ponder a thousand times; speak once.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
“Life is an awful, ugly place to not have a best friend.”
- Sarah Dessen
It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.
When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.
I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.
It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.
Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.
Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.
If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.
Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.
Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.
When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.
We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.
Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!
“Let’s have a revolution and let our dogs be dogs. Let them be our faithful companions, acknowledge and welcome the fact they have thoughts, feelings and express themselves, just as we do.” – The Truth about Wolves and Dogs
“We have a choice in how we communicate with all beings. We can choose to be on the defensive, or we can choose to proactively find things we CAN reinforce, and do so enthusiastically.”
- Debi Davis
Training is best when dogs are working towards positives rather than away from aversives.
- Denise Fenzi
“The whole “animal rights” movement with its theme that “dogs are just the same as people” has potentially broad destructive effects. Dogs are not the same as people. Dogs are dogs, and we have to teach people how to relate to them as
- Morgan Spector