Confessions of a Dog Trainer: I Have a Reactive Dog (Part 2)
In part one of this blog series, I talked about my reactive dog, what reactivity is, and why it happens. While attending a behavior seminar last year, I heard a very clever metaphor to explain the importance of management in a behavior modification program: allowing a dog to practice a behavior that you are trying to change is just like pouring water into a bucket with holes. Management is important because it helps to create an environment in which the dog has little or no opportunity to practice the behavior you want to change. Otherwise it's like taking three steps forward and two steps back.
Many of you read my last blog about my dog Charlotte and her behavior of barking and lunging at other dogs when we lived in New York City, a behavior I wanted to change. By allowing Charlotte to practice the behavior of barking and lunging, she was only getting better at barking and lunging. Management in this case means doing my best to avoid or minimize situations where Charlotte was able to practice barking and lunging. I have a human example as well. Many years ago, I had a friend who wanted to quit smoking but was struggling to do so. This was during the time when people could still smoke in bars and restaurants had smoking sections. After a few failed attempts, he realized why he was having such a hard time--he kept hanging out around people who were smoking. For three months, he avoided public areas, including parties, to better support him in quitting smoking.
I remember many occasions while living in New York City where I had to weave in and out of kids coming out of school, dogs pulling across the sidewalk with retractable leashes stretched out like trip wire, scooters zooming by, and people stopping abruptly to text on their phones. All of this while walking my dogs! A lot to think about! I was reminded of a defensive driving class I took in my early twenties. The instructor lectured us on how to be careful driving and avoid getting into accidents. Isn't that exactly what I was doing that day when I was walking Charlotte and Tricky around the neighborhood? I was maneuvering my dogs through the sidewalks keeping aware of the environment and avoiding situations that could trigger a reaction out of Charlotte. Defensive Driving on the sidewalks of the city.
It's simple but not easy to be skilled at managing a reactive dog. It takes lots of practice to sharpen your own mechanics while teaching the dog various exercises to help the dog stay focused on you. These skills--both human and dog--have to be practiced regularly, away from the things that trigger the dog. My sister is a professional in the stunt industry. Yup! My sister is a stunt woman. So cool! Not only does she fall out of buildings and kick the you-know-what out of men, she also drives a stunt car! One of the reasons she is successful in the stunt industry is because she practices...a lot. Talk about defensive driving!
I started with a series of games that involved Charlotte moving with me while focusing on me. Foundation handling exercises helped Charlotte move with me like a dance partner. These skills helped me weave Charlotte through foot traffic and re-position her to avoid dogs as best as possible on the streets of New York City. We practiced these games all of the time in the park and on walks, even if there wasn’t another dog present. That way, Charlotte and I were skilled at executing the maneuver when we needed it. Practice makes perfect! Here are two of the Defensive Driving skills I taught Charlotte.
This is a great maneuver to help you get out of dodge, so to speak! If the trigger (another dog, for example), was in front of us, I used this to get Charlotte to turn around and move away from the trigger. It was a game for her and she enjoyed chasing me away from the ‘scary dog’.
- Find a quiet area where there isn't much going on. You can even start indoors so you can practice without a leash initially. Once you and your dog are fluid with the technique, you can add a leash to the picture.
- Arm yourself with high-value treats—something your dog will go ga-ga over. You want small, bite-sized treats in your hand.
- Keep your treats handy by holding one in your hand and walk with your dog. Let him know you have a treat in your hand. In this case, let's imagine your dog is on your right side. After taking a few steps forward with your dog, you would turn to your left, while keeping the treat in your left hand. Lure your dog, encouraging him to follow you as you turn. When he catches up with you, tell him “good boy!” and give the treat when your dog is next to you again on your right side.
- You can add a verbal cue once your dog understands the game. You can say something like “This way!” or “Let’s go!” and then turn. After a few steps in the opposite direction of where you and your dog were headed, reward him at your side.
- Practice, practice, practice. You want to do this often, make it fun, and try to do it in different locations with different distractions.
I used this maneuver if I couldn’t turn around on the sidewalk but needed to create some distance between Charlotte and the other dog, while keeping her focus on me. Charlotte was the kind of dog that did better when she wasn’t watching the other dog approaching. As soon as the other dog passed, we continued on our way.
- Makes sure to have a couple of yummy treats in your hand, at the ready.
- Walk forward several steps, and then say your dog’s name and shuffle back 4-5 steps.
- Lure your dog with treat in your hand so that your dog follows it, coming into your space and sitting in front of you.
- Feed several treats, one after another, while praising.
In my next couple of blogs, I am going to share more Defensive Driving games with you as well as the other work I did to help Charlotte feel more comfortable around dogs when on walks.
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