Updated: Oct 8
I want to start this out by saying no one is perfect, not even me! We can do our absolute best with our dogs and things can sometimes go wrong. Well, you know what? That’s okay! The thing about reactive dogs is that you can’t control every aspect of their environment. This poses a unique challenge as owners start to venture out to train in the real world. One of our biggest goals in working with reactive dogs is to ensure that their reactive episodes are few and far between. In the beginning of a training program, whenever possible, we seek to avoid those environments where there may be a lot of triggers that cause your dog to feel stress. We want to prevent them from rehearsing the reactive behavior and for them to stay under threshold. Let’s take a closer look at what we mean by non-rehearsal and threshold.
Every time a dog practices an undesirable behavior the more normal that behavior becomes. It can become part of their normal repertoire of things that your dog does. We want to break that cycle, and make it easier for your dog to make better choices. Also, we don’t want your dog feeling the emotions that come with a reactive outburst. That type of stress and emotional overwhelm doesn’t feel good for you, and it doesn’t feel good for your dog. Seeking to avoid situations that will cause your dog to be reactive at first provides a mini vacation from stress. A vacation that we all need sometimes.
Threshold is something we can all relate to. There is only so much stress one can handle before they blow a gasket. For our dogs, there is a bit more to consider. Now, we’ve all been there. Tell me if this sounds familiar. Your dog is screaming, lunging, or just staring intently at something and they won’t listen, they won’t take food, they won’t do anything. This is because they CANNOT hear you. They are actively involved in a fight or flight response to help them determine if they are in a dangerous scenario. When in this state they also cannot learn things. Keeping them under their threshold means that they will be avoiding the stressors that they do not like. This means they will be less likely to have a reactive episode, and even better, they’ll be able to learn! It’s a win for everyone. Watch the following video for more information.
So what happens when your dog reacts, even with the best laid plan? Here I’ll outline four tactics to take with you when you and your dog find yourself experiencing a reactive episode. Keep in mind that these should just be one part of your training program for your reactive dog, and they alone will not change your dog’s behavior.
Distance is your best friend
Sniff on Cue
Wait it out
Distance is your best friend: The water is rising, let’s get to higher ground!
Some things are scary. Some things we just cannot handle up close. Jake is afraid of snakes. Now imagine that I hand Jake a snake and say, “here you go, get used to the snake.” Jake will probably scream and throw the poor snake at me. Now, imagine I set a snake on the ground and point it out to Jake while he is 15 feet away. He’d likely be able to tolerate that level of stress around what triggers his fear. That is because when it is further away, it is less intense.
Triggers further away are less intense!
So when you encounter your dog’s trigger, your first instinct should be to put distance between your dog and their trigger. It could be to completely avoid the trigger or to get to a safe, comfortable distance to train. This may look like you walking to the side of the trail with your dog. Or it may look like you bushwhacking into the woods to find a safe distance to allow whatever it is to pass by.
U-Turn: “I promise if you choose to turn away we will run into the sunset together!”
All dogs have the option when presented with a conflict to fight, freeze, or flee. Unfortunately, when your dog is attached to you on leash, it is hard for them to make good choices. If we spend time teaching them that avoiding conflict is a good choice to make, then it will be easier for them when presented with the decision: Fight, Freeze, or Flee?
Teaching your dog to turn away on cue should be practiced first when no dogs are present. That way this cue will not become “poisoned.”
Imagine that you only say “Let's Go!” and turn your dog around when you see a dog/jogger/pack of children etc. What will that cue be a predictor of? You guessed it! Let's Go will be the very cue to prompt your dog to become reactive. Let’s agree to avoid that!
Watch our video and practice this one with your dog at home, on walks, and all the time. Just remember to practice it when you don’t need it!
Sniff on Cue: I see that you’re stressed, can we handle this in a different way?
Sniffing the ground is something dogs love to do anyway. I don’t need to tell you that! What you may not know though, is that sniffing the ground is also a displacement behavior. Displacement behaviors are normal behaviors displayed out of their normal contexts that can be indicators of stress and anxiety- all things our reactive dogs are feeling. Dogs will show displacement behaviors when faced with conflict, or choices they are uncomfortable with.
Ask your dog to say hello to someone- they sniff the ground instead. Ask your dog to run an agility course and they spend their ring time sniffing the ground. This is not disobedience or a stubborn dog. This is your dog suppressing his urge to do one thing by doing another- sniffing the ground. And, in the right context it's an excellent choice!!! I would SO much rather Manzo sniff the ground than scream at another dog.
Toss a few treats on the ground throughout your day with your dog and say, “Go sniff!” Do this a lot. Make it a super fun game for them. Sniffing also relieves tension for your dog so it’s a win win! Then, next time you find yourself faced with a situation where your dog may react and you can’t turn around or walk away, toss some treats on the ground and say, “Go sniff,” offering your dog the option to avoid conflict.
Wait it out: Sometimes you’re up the creek without a paddle.
Like I mentioned initially, our first goal should be to prevent our dogs from reacting. Our number one goal should be to avoid scenarios where you and your dog have no options. That being said, it is going to happen. One day you will find yourself walking your dog and facing your dog’s worst nightmare. It’s okay. You cannot control everything. You cannot provide a perfect world for your dog every time you go out to train. All you can do is plan, prepare, and aim to do better next time.
In the event that the above options are not working for your dog and all you can do is stand there and wait it out, I give you permission to do so. Is it perfect? No! Is it training? No! It is the reality of the situation though.
Be sure you have the proper equipment to physically control your dog in this situation. Hold onto your leash, grin and bear it. Once your dog’s trigger is far enough away that you can step out of the shadows of self doubt, I want you to pause. Do not run away! Take a moment to help you and your dog recover from that stress. Take a deep breath. Sprinkle some treats on the ground. Pat your dog, remind them that you care about them. Remind yourself that you are doing your best. When you are ready, move on. Do your best to leave those bad feelings behind you.
Reactive dogs react. No one is perfect and no one can prevent everything all of the time. My challenge to you is this. Get your dog a journal and take notes after every walk or training session. Answer these questions:
How did my dog do today?
Did they react?
If so how intensely?
Did they recover quickly or slowly?
How do I feel after this session?
How can we do better next time?
You will never know if your dog is doing better if you don’t have the data! Trust me, I’ve been there. Tracking your progress in this way will allow you to look back and answer this question; Are we trending toward the positive, or the negative? If your dog has more good days than bad ones, then you are on the right path! If your dog has more bad days than good, all that means is we need an adjustment. Something needs to change so you can help your dog feel better and do better.
Join our free Facebook group and tell us what you need help with so we can point you in the right direction and help you and your dog trend toward the positive!