"Properly trained, man can be a dog's best friend" ~ Corey Ford
You are driving down the street with your dog on the seat next to you. You see a dog and it's handler walking on the sidewalk and you automatically tense up , waiting for your dog's reaction. You know what is about to happen. Half a second later, your dog sees the other dog as you drive by and goes into a frantic barking mode, jumping all over you while spitting drool and scratching at the window with only one thought in mind: Need to get out and harm the other dog. In a split second your sweet calm Lassie turned into Cujo!! You instantly react with yelling, pulling, pushing or even slapping your dog. Your reaction gives you a small sense of control and to be truthful, a small amount of pleasure in this otherwise embarrassing situation- you feel justified to react harshly and at least it shows the other handler that you are working on the problem...or are you? Your correction used to work - well at least it would after you had passed the other dog, but you have noticed the behavior has escalated in intensity. And even more unfortunately, your dog seems to now cover when you raise your hand.
You are walking your dog around the neighborhood, as you have done everyday for the two months after you rescued your dog. You know that exercise is important and you enjoy your daily walks with your dog. Except for one thing: Every time you walk past number 2454 on your street, your dog starts to frantically pull on the leash and soon starts to lunge and bark at the Boxer, that always comes charging at the fence. You feel embarrassed and try to hurry past this house, but you have noticed that it's getting harder and harder to pull your dog away. It is almost like he doesn't even sense, that you are on the other end of the leash anymore. What is even worse, you have noticed that your dog has started to initiate this out-of-control behavior two houses prior to house number 2454. And after passing the house, your dogs now seems to be agitated for a longer period of time. It now can take up to 10 minutes before he even is able to calm down and walk nicely on the leash again. You are at your wits end. You don't want to stop walking your dog. You have heard too many stories about dogs that are just stuck in the back yard with no real exercise or interaction with the world outside. And how dogs are being surrendered everyday stating behavioral issues or lack of time and commitment. So when you decided to adopt your dog, you swore that you would commit to make sure your dog would get his daily walks. So you keep walking, hoping things to get better.
In both scenarios, the handler is being reactive, meaning: " acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it". This is what most of us do, right? React when our dogs displays an unwanted behavior. This reaction is often just a quick band aid..nothing more. In a way it gives us some sense of control in the moment we yank/pull/yell/slap, but the truth is, we often realize that our response doesn't help prevent the same scenario from happening again.
Albert Einstein is broadly credited with exclaiming “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.
I like that quote! It really applies well to dog training and especially, when we talk about being re-active versus pro-active. If we keep doing the same thing over and over again, putting our dogs in the same situation over and over again, knowing that based on past experiences, the probability of our dogs reacting with an unwanted behavior, why do we keep on doing it? Do we truly expect a different result ? Or is it just because we simply have no idea what to do, besides a correction as a reaction?
It is an interesting humane behavior, but unfortunately in these scenarios (as in many other scenarios), it only causes more tension and often an accelerated intensity in your dog's response.
Working with reactive dog and trying to change their unwanted response (barking, lunging, whining, and so on) to stimulus in the environment to a more appropriate response (such as staying calm, ignoring other dogs ) is a great learning experience for most owners. It gives me a chance to teach them about body language (see a great video here) and more importantly about behavioral threshold. A dog's behavioral threshold is when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another. I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about it here, but please read this excellent article "Across a Threshold" to help explain this concept. An article I consider a must read for all dog owners. Which brings me to the next step: how to be pro-active instead of re-active.
Consider scenario 1 again. You know your dog is reactive to all dogs he sees when driving. But when walking on a leash, he only occasionally will react. So that is where your training will start: where the probability of your dog being successful (as in not barking) is most likely.
Take him for a walk. Everytime he sees another dog, give him a nice piece of boiled chicken or hotdog. Something really yummy. Keep your distance (under threshold) so your dog can stay connected and focused on you. Repeat this behavior until your dog voluntarily looks at you expecting a reward when another dog approaches. Slowly see if you can get closer and closer to other dogs.
Next step. Now sit in your parked car and practice the same thing: Your dog sees a dog, he gets a yummy reward. We are trying to change your dog's emotional response - instead of feeling the need to react based on arousal, insecurity, worry or whatever might cause his initial reaction, his reaction is now looking at you and staying calm. BINGO. When your dog is a rockstar and can keep calm in your parked car, it is time to start driving. In this case I would highly recommend that a friend is driving, so you can focus on your dog. Driving makes any stimulus appear faster and therefore we often see an increase in the emotional response from our dogs. Just start slow, if possible. Repeat repeat. IF you get too close to what your dog can handle (over threshold) and he reacts with the unwanted behavior, just add distance as fast as possible and get your dog to calm down before proceeding. This is you being PRO-ACTIVE: Controlling the situation and environment, so your dog does not feel the need to change his emotional state while teaching him the behavior you would like to see instead. Such as looking at you and staying calm. Is this a quick fix? Nope, it takes time and repetition. But the reward is a dog that feels safe and that can better handle dog in his environment. That is a win-win situation for both you and your dog.
Scenario 2: Same thing. Walk your dog the same route until he tenses up. This is your cue that your dog is starting to anticipate the charging boxer two houses up and he is beginning to change his emotions, from feeling safe to worried. Stop there and work on rewarding him for staying calm. You can even toss a few treats in the grass for him to find and help redirect his focus from worrying about boxer to "yum, where is the treat?". Slowly work your way a bit closer, but constantly check in with your tension (take some deep breaths to relax) and your dog's stress and arousal levels. As long as your dog can stay connected with you and take treats from you, you are still under threshold. Only work a few steps closer towards the "issue" house and then walk away. Look at is as "pressure on, pressure on, pressure on, pressure off!" Walk away with your dog feeling safe and you will be able to build up on this experience next time, where you can get a bit closer. Repeat, repeat. Your dog will let you know when he is ready to go closer, which is why learning to read your dog's body language is so important.
Being proactive means take charge of the situation, prepare a plan and look at it as a training exercise. You are your dog's teacher in life, so help him, guide him and teach him.
And never ever underestimate the power of "just hanging out" with your dog to help calm him down. Letting him acclimate to new surroundings or in settings, which usually creates a tense reaction in your dog and then pairing it up with yummy treats, will give your dog the skills to handle himself better.
Watch this great video by Suzanne Clothier where she explains this very concept " Threshold, threshold and doing nothing".
Be pro-active and be a teacher for your dog. The process will make you a better handler!
As a dog trainer and animal lover, my wish is to help educate the owners, so they can have a harmonious relationship with the animal(s) in their lives. A relationship based on knowledge, trust and respect.