Thinking Outside of the Block: Why Your Reactive Dog Needs to be Walked
It has been something of a thing recently in some corners of the dog training world to suggest that keeping an easily over-stimulated and/or reactive dog in his own home environment for a bit, with enrichment toys is a better idea than taking said dog out into the world to be walked. I strongly disagree. However, my disagreement is not with the prevention of over-stimulation or reactivity. I am all for that. But you cannot effectively teach a dog to feel calmer out and about in the world by keeping that dog in the home 24/7. Enrichment toys in the home should be a part of every day life for dogs but so should calm outings. However, those outings can and should be directed to an area that is quiet and has a lot of space so than some mental enrichment takes place outside.
Let’s address the staying in part of this equation first. Humans have inside enrichment activities that we participate in as well. But typically, we also leave the house on most days. To replicate what is being suggested for dogs, stay in your house for several days in a row. Read, watch TV or both. Spend some time playing board games with loved ones when they are home with you. Maybe hang around in your yard puttering in the garden. Do stuff that you enjoy but only within the confines of your own property.
How many days will it take before you want out? If you are anything like me, not many. It will be especially agonizing if you live with others who exit and you can’t. Then why would you expect just playing mental enrichment games would be sufficient for your dog to remain mentally stable? You have a choice to leave daily. You are their gate to the outside world though. Don’t close that gate. Your dog’s sanity may depend on it.
Of course I do not suggest that you leash your dog up and head straight into trigger territory. That would be pure folly. The battlefield walks should be eliminated, in favor of a much calmer environment. There are many options for you and for dogs. If you drive, then simply drive them somewhere much quieter in order that they might learn that the outdoors is not full of drama and challenges to their central nervous system. They will never learn to be calmer in an environmental chock full of triggers. Cemeteries are a favorite of mine for this purpose. Many of them not only allow leashed dogs, they encourage this. It cuts down on vandalism. They are typically wide open spaces that allow for a great view of anything in the distance that might be problematic. You have plenty of time to get your dog back to your car, should you need to. Teach your dog that your car is a safe space and that getting into it, is always a wonderful experience. High value food (and otherwise) rewards are your friends on these outings.
The purpose of these outings is not physical exercise, it is mental enrichment all the way. Bring a variety of super high value real meat rewards and play Find It in the grass. Verbally encourage all sniffing, whether as the result of a Find It on your part or information gathering on their part, directed at trees, bushes and other types of natural environmental enrichment. THIS is what tires your dog out. Sniffing has been studied in dogs with the resulting knowledge that it lowers their heart rate and therefore lowers cortisol levels. View here. Cortisol levels in easily over-stimulated dogs are what you need to address in order that they might not always be at the 0-60 level of readiness of response. Indoor mental enrichment is not going to achieve the same results that will generalize to an outdoor experience. Novel smells are what are needed and those are not in your living room, I assure you, unless of course you have a very different life from most of us!
So what if you don’t drive? Driving somewhere much quieter is always going to be the best option so truly, try and enlist relatives and friends for this. But failing that, there are other options to teach your dog not to exit your house looking for drama. I often advise clients to sit in front of or behind their house at no to low activity time frames with high value food rewards for very short increments of time, simply capturing calmer choices. Where you sit in relation to distance from anything is a very individual thing that with each dog. This also involves being very low key yourself and taking a deep breath and relaxing. The second your dog looks even remotely in your direction or offers a more relaxed position rather than standing and scanning the environment, offer a soft “yes” and reward with meat. (real meat, not commercial treats, not something crunchy, use the real thing, whether it is chicken or another protein source).
You can do the same thing just outside of an apartment door in most cases, when your building is quieter. If you literally cannot get your dog out of your apartment door without said dog having a meltdown, you should be working with a quality behavior consultant and a veterinary behaviorist, as quality of life with elimination needs at the forefront, are lacking in this situation, so this article is not going to help you.
Another way to kick start this process is to create an auto head turn response in your house, making it the best thing ever to check in with you. You are your dog’s safety and provide answers to any questions they have. Start in the same room, using your best happy voice and then work at distances in your home. You then move on to the most boring part of your property outside and create that same auto response out there. Each step must be complete before moving on to the next step. This is called proofing. This is your emergency plan, should something suddenly appear in the environment on your calm outings. Nothing is 100% guaranteed so plan for when you need this.
Outings need not be long. The goal is to leave any outing before there are concerns. Ten minutes of quality sniffing in a novel environment is huge for a dog that lives in a state of raised cortisol. Stagger time frames so that each one is not longer. That can create anxiety. Your goal with these outings is that your dog learns that the outside is not that scary when that is the issue. With simple over-stimulation and an inability to self-sooth, regular outings lower the stimulation level and create the realization that sniffing IS self-soothing.
It goes without saying that if your dog has an issue like this, you should be working with a quality modern rewards-based professional. But if that professional wants you to keep your dog inside rather than to help teach you how to help your dog make better choices outside, it’s time to choose a new professional. It also goes without saying that you should be using modern management equipment on your dog such as the Victoria Stilwell harness, the Freedom harness or other similar options in order that you both be safe and comfortable when out and about. Be your dog’s voice. He needs more than just your own property can offer.
Happy enrichment walks to you!
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