We finished our second Dog Reactivity Workshop (well, four sessions total, if you want to be technical, since each was broken up into two small groups). I want to give a big round of applause to the students (both human and canine) who completed the workshops.
For those who did not attend, here are some tips to managing dog reactivity in your dog. First, try to determine why your dog is reacting to other dogs (in a way you disapprove of, we assume). Is the dog excited, wanting to play? Anxious? Fearful? Dominant? Acting out of prey drive?
If your dog is fearful, avoid harsh corrections whenever possible. Imagine that you have a phobia. Say it’s spiders or snakes or bees or enclosed spaces. Then imagine that you’re confronted with that thing you’re afraid of. The spider is crawling toward you. It’s big. It’s black. You can see its eyes and hairy ickiness. Then imagine that while you’re about to freak out, someone starts slapping and yelling at you.
Obviously, they won’t be helping your situation. The better way to deal with fear is through prolonged, slow desensization. You see a photo of a spider. Then you look at a spider from across the room. Etc. All the time, you’re working on relaxation techniques or getting positive reinforcement (dollar bills, chocolate, whatever your particular lust is). If you got a five dollar bill just for looking at a spider across the room, you might not mind looking at one so much.
That’s not to say correction isn’t appropriate at times. Let’s say your dog isn’t particularly fearful but is prey driven. The dog is acting on instinct wanting to go after an animal. It could be a squirrel or a cat or whatever. In those situations, your dog may or may not want to take a reinforcer (like a treat or even a toy). It’s focused on the smaller thing. That squirrel consumes its vision. You want to combine some desensitization work (seeing squirrels in the distance) with correction and reinforcement…but the key is to make sure the correction is approrpriate for your dog. A verbal correction such as “eh-eh” may often do for softer dogs. Once you get your dog out of the “zone” and looking at you, reward it. Give it a very tasty treat. Its favorite toy. A butt scratch. Whatever your dog really likes. Rinse and repeat.
Then work toward reinforcing your dog for choosing to look at you (rather than being prompted). Maybe you see the squirrel across the street. You’ve already practiced getting your dog out of the zone. Now see how your dog does on his or her own. Don’t say or do anything, just be a pole. Wait your dog out. At some point, your dog is probably going to get over it and look at you. The moment he or she does! Bingo! Reward! And make sure you’ve got a super duper special reward. No, I don’t mean kibble. No, not a dog biscuit. I’m talking about cooked steak or chicken. Something smelly and tasty and yummy (this assumes your dog is motivated by food or treats, and make sure he’s hungry). Even “jackpot” the dog for choosing to look at you (that means give him a handful). Bestow verbal praise. Then end on that positive note.
It takes work. It takes repetition. But soon you will likely have a dog that, when it sees another dog or a squirrel, automatically looks at you and asks, “Where’s the treat?” (or ball or…whatever).
Use correction to remind a dog that behavior isn’t tolerated and as a consequence for a dog that blows you off after it knows what is expected (and, yes, they do). Dogs are creatures of consequence. They learn that behavior equals consequences, so you want to give positive consequences for desired behavior and negative consequences for undesired behavior. A negative consequence can be as simple as not getting a treat, being ignored, or not moving forward–if that is appropriately “unpleasant” for your dog. I won’t go into correction too much in a blog, because it’s really the most misused form of dog training and benefits more from demonstrations. Otherwise, you risk doing more harm than good.
However, if you focus on trying to reward desired behavior, you can’t do a whole lot of harm, even if you mess up and reinforce the wrong behavior. It’s a lot easier to recover from wrongly reinforcing a dog than wrongly correcting a dog, especially with sensitive or soft dogs.