Category Archives: Awards

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!

APDT Rally Trial Brags

Congratulations to every one of the Paws Abilities teams who competed in APDT rally this weekend! We had a great weekend for titles and awards, but more importantly, I was so proud of how supportive and helpful everyone was with one another. Experienced competitors were so helpful with mentoring new participants in the sport, from walking courses together to videotaping runs to answering questions. Each of the Paws Abilities family cheered on and encouraged one another, and I couldn’t be happier to be part of such a great group.

Below are some of the accomplishments from this weekend:

  • Mitchell, a mixed breed, earned his Level 1 title under Amy’s guidance. This was their first rally trial ever.
  • Evan had two picture-perfect runs in the Junior class with his two mixed breeds, Charlotte and Jordi. All of the adult handlers could learn something from watching his kind and patient handling style, and it was clear that both of the dogs absolutely adore him.
  • Shelly earned two legs in Level 1 with both Charlotte and Jordi. Charlotte also earned High Scoring Mixed Breed under her guidance as well as the Sophie Award, which is given to the Level 1A team exhibiting the best positive working relationship built on trust and respect.
  • Tank the Schnauzer mix earned his Level 1 title with Linda.
  • Willow the Australian Shepherd earned multiple legs in Level 1B, and is halfway to earning her Level 1 excellent title. She also had her very first experience in Level 2, and her focus on Carrie was amazing.
  • LeRoy, a mixed breed, earned multiple legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Julia.
  • Ruler the Basenji earned his second Level 2 leg with Laura.
  • Laura also helped her Chihuahua cross, Cruiser, earn his second Level 1 leg. This may very well have been the cutest rally run ever.
  • Jade the Australian Shepherd earned her Level 1 title with Denise in an incredibly flashy performance.
  • Dalton the mixed breed earned his first Level 1 leg with Sarala and enjoyed every minute of it.
  • Mischief the 6-month-old puppy earned her Puppy Title with an Award of Excellence and also completed her first leg towards her puppy excellent title. She earned first place in every one of her classes. Sara entered Mischief in the trial as a “North American Yodelhound” since her actual breed mix is unknown.
  • Dobby the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog earned two legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Sara.
  • Layla the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog completed her Level 2 Excellent title and also earned a leg towards her Level 3 excellent title. She was the High Scoring MMBC Member Dog.