Tips For Decreasing Reactivity in a Competition Dog
A good behavior modification program includes good management while working to change a dog’s behavior—this involves controlling your environment as much as possible to prevent your dog from feeling triggered, thereby reacting as a result of that change in his emotional state. Management is important because it creates an environment in which your dog has little or no opportunity to practice the behaviors you are seeking to change. Management will help reduce stress in situations your dog would normally become reactive, therefore stop your dog from continuing to practice unfavorable behaviors. If your dog does not continue to practice these undesired behaviors, progress is more likely, and can occur at a faster pace, otherwise you might as well be spinning your wheels in the mud. I'm teaching an online course providing help for people with fearful and reactive competition dogs - in this article you'll get a little bit of insight into what I'll be teaching in the course.
In the competition sport of agility, there are many variables to manage. When I created a behavior modification program for Marvel, here were some of the things I considered to help set him up for success:
- Keep your sessions short and sweet! Training your dog for a few minutes (or less!) at a time, with a high rate of reinforcement, will help keep your dog focused on you. You will also be building value for your dog working with you instead of thinking about what’s going on around him.
- Quit while you’re ahead! If the session is going well—and that means your dog is working with you and not worrying about the environment—then stop! Maybe you’re trying to working through a handling move and it’s not going as planned…maybe the session is going really well and your dog is rocking the sequence…the point is your dog is NOT reacting to the environment or whatever it is that normally triggers him.
- Brain Breaks- It is important to give the dog a break from the mental work that comes with training. You can play tug, let him hang out and sniff, or go for a run—it depends on what works for your dog. If you continue to train without giving the dog breaks, he might be less enthusiastic to play over time, shut down, quit on the game, or fatigue mentally. For a dog who is dealing with stress and anxiety, you will have to be more creative with your brain breaks because it’s not just about giving your dog a break from training, he will also need a break from the pressures of the environment. Here are a few examples of how I incorporate management into Marvel’s training:
- I would bring Marvel into the training building only a couple of minutes before his turn so that he didn’t have too much time to notice what was going on around him.
- When I would first bring Marvel into the training building for our turn, I warmed him up with a few relationship-building and focus games away from the people and other dogs. I set us up in a quiet corner until it was our turn to run.
- After our turn in class or a seminar, I used to cool Marvel down outside and put him right back into his crate in the car. By removing him from the environment, he doesn’t have time to start worrying about a barking dog racing past him in the weaves or people walking past him as they walk the course. Today, Marvel can hang out for a bit in the training building watching other dogs run, but it took a long time for him to not be worried about it.
- Stop trialing- This can be a hard pill to swallow but if you can commit to this for a few weeks or even months, it can make all the difference in your dog’s agility career for the long term. It is important to address your dog’s anxieties in situations where you can better control the environment, thereby minimizing the likelihood of your dog being triggered. Until you can predict that your dog will not become reactive, you should hold off on trialing. Acceptance vs. Resistance on the handler’s part; find peace in that this decision is just for now, and not forever.
- Let go of sexy agility behaviors for now- With all of the challenges in European-influenced courses and the “fancy” handling moves available to meet those challenges; it can be tempting to want to focus on sexy agility behaviors. Running full courses or setting up weave challenges should not be the focus for now. All of that will come once your dog feels more comfortable and secure. I once spent an entire handling seminar focusing on Marvel’s anxiety about people and dogs in close proximity. I was frustrated I couldn’t play with everyone else and practice “fancy” handling moves, but I had to think about the big picture. In addition, Marvel clearly wasn’t having fun so my focus was helping him have fun again.
- Look at the other 23 hours per day- When working to change a dog’s behavior, you actually have to address the issue across the board. For example, I had a behavior client whose dog was barking and lunging at other dogs when on leash. So in looking at how to modify the behavior, the client and I also looked at where else in the dog’s world was she barking at other dogs. Turned out she was spending the entire day while her owners were at work scanning the neighborhood through their giant picture window and barking at every dog that walked by the house. We couldn’t be as effective in modifying the leash behavior if we didn’t also address her behavior in the house. The way we managed the behavior (meaning, decreased the dog’s ability to rehearse barking at dogs) was by closing the curtains when they were at work. Another example involves my dog, Marvel. Because I wanted compete with Marvel in agility, I also had to reduce to his anxiety about other dogs walking around our neighborhood—not just in agility class.
Correct No More
Say goodbye to corrections; this includes verbal corrections, not just physical ones. Science today has proof that using punishment to address behavior problems can have potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals. Even relatively mild corrections can increase stress in your dog. Dog trainers and behaviorists today have the tools to reduce stress and anxiety in dogs in ways that promote learning and increase confidence, while facilitating trust in people and dogs. Let’s just do that.
Threshold refers to the distance your dog can notice a trigger and be alert to it, but not upset (stressed or reactive) by that trigger. Think of the threshold as your dog’s protective bubble. Any person or dog, for example, on the outside of that bubble is tolerable or not even an issue. Any person or dog, for example, on the inside of that bubble is too close and therefore a concern for your dog. The distance could be 10 feet for some dogs. It could even be one hundred feet for some dogs. It varies based on your dog’s past experiences.
Threshold can also include duration, meaning the amount of time your dog is exposed to the trigger. For example, perhaps seeing another dog ten feet away isn’t such a big deal. But standing there and having a ten-minute conversation with your neighbor who has a dog would put your dog over threshold.
The most effective behavior modification programs create an environment where your dog is exposed to his trigger without over-reacting; this is called sub-threshold. In this course, this is where we will look to be while working with your dog.
I learned about this as a trainer but I experienced it at a whole other level with Marvel in January of 2015 when Marvel was two years old. It was the afternoon on day three of a series of agility seminars and I had just brought him into the training building and put him on a camping chair to wait while we talked about the course. His chair was placed near a heater so folks were hovering around him trying to keep warm. Marvel was barking and barking at everyone and I had no idea why. That was the beginning of when I took a serious look at Marvel’s anxieties and their manifestation into reactivity. In retrospect, I realized Marvel had hit his limit. He was managing being in a new space, people walking all around him, and other dogs in close proximity for two and half days straight. And I was crating him in the building next to the heater so he didn’t really get a break from what I later realized were triggers for him.
Trigger stacking is exactly what it sounds like; it’s stressor after stressor building until they collapse like Jenga blocks. Imagine this: you wake up in the morning to immediately learn your alarm clock didn’t go off because the power died so you’re now late to work; as soon as you jump out of bed you stub your toe rushing to the bathroom; you get to work fifteen minutes late to a meeting with a new client; after the meeting, your boss gets upset with you because you were late; at lunch, you spill your drink onto your white shirt; as you try cleaning it up in the bathroom, you remember you forgot to bring your jacket with you so you can’t cover up the stain during an afternoon meeting with another client; you now spend the rest of your lunchbreak rushing to a store to buy a new shirt; on the way home you get a flat tire; when the tow truck shows up and tells you how much the tow will cost, you scream at him—that’s called trigger stacking. I think we’ve all had those days where mild stressors build up to the point of an emotional explosion. This is what it can be like for your dog every day you take a walk outside; one stressor after another presenting itself until your dog can’t take anymore.
In this course, we will not only identify your dog’s triggers, we will examine the different situations you find yourself in with your dog and work on how to prevent trigger stacking from occurring.
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