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Fixing The Reactive Dog

Does your dog bark, growl or lunge when he or she catches sight of another dog?  Do you walk your dog at odd hours to avoid running into other dog walkers?

If any of this sounds familiar you might have a REACTIVE dog.

Dogs that are termed reactive will commonly show aggressive type behaviours when they see their particular poison.  This can be other dogs, humans or in some cases both. We see a lot of reactive dogs in our practice.  You could even go so far as to say it is our bread and butter.

The world of dog training is full of many theories and supposed experts on this topic.  A quick google search will yield numerous articles and write-ups on this subject that claim to have the panacea to this common issue.  

With all these experts and readily available information one would assume dog reactivity would be an easily solvable issue that any half decent trainer or motivated owner could fix.  Why then is this problem so rampant?  Why do we see frustrated owners going so far as to completely isolate their dog, using psychotropic medications or even euthanasia?

The answer is simple, most mainstream dog training and the supposed experts who tout it are not equipped with skills, mindset or experience to handle this issue.  It is one thing to read about what should happen and then regurgitate it on your blog or website and its quite another to actually go out and achieve tangible results with reactive / aggressive dogs.

Enough with the preamble let’s get to the meat of the issue.  Below you will find my recipe to addressing the reactive dog.

Before we get into the how let us briefly explore the why. In 99% of dog reactivity cases the dog’s behaviour is based in fear.  The reactive dog is generally an insecure dog regardless of how ferocious a display she exhibits. 

The goal of the aggressive display is to dissuade the target from any kind of social interaction.  Essentially, your dog wants the target to GO AWAY.  Reactive aggressive displays are how he or she has learned to achieve this goal.

Stop forcing social interaction!

Keeping the above information in mind, this makes sense.  We see this all the time with reactive dog owners.  They try to drag their dog through as many social interactions with the dog’s target as possible.  The dog will not “get used to it”.  If anything this will actually feed into your dog’s belief that other dogs or people are bad news regardless how many treats you give him or her.

Set reasonable goals.

Understandably, most owners want their dog to be like the easygoing dog they had growing up or the neighbor’s social happy go lucky Golden Doodle.  The first thing I say to all prospective clients is my goal is not to make antisocial dogs social. 

My goal is for you to be able to take your dog out in public and be able to do all the things a normal dog gets to do like hikes, car rides, fetch etc.  Your dog should be able to behave himself in close proximity to other human beings and dogs.  Meeting and playing with strange humans or dogs is not a necessity. 

That being said many dog reactive dogs that come through my program do become accepting of social interactions with other dogs.

Forget the past, focus on the present!

Many owners have a story that they tell themselves and others about why their dog is reactive. Harrowing tales of abuse before he was rescued or that time she was attacked by another dog when she was a puppy. 

The truth is reactivity can be a function of experience OR genetics and is often a result of both.  I have seen many dogs that were reactive from 8 weeks old.  The why no longer matters, focus on the now.  Your dog has a problem now, so fix it and stop making excuses!

Obedience, obedience and more obedience.

Is your dog obedient?  Not some of the time. Not only when you have treats or he is wearing his halti, but all of the time? Will he come, heel, sit and down reliably on and off leash?  I have yet to see a reactive dog that was what I would term reliably obedient.  The most important step to addressing the reactive dog is making completely reliable obedience.

Most reactive dogs are scanning for targets the second they step out the door.  A reliably obedient dog is focused on his handler’s next command or the behaviour he is preforming in the moment. For example, if your dog is in a correct heel how can he be barking and lunging at other dogs?  The answer is he cannot, it is one or the other. 

Reliable obedience is achieved through a balanced training approach.  That means the dog experiences both good consequences and bad consequences for the choices he or she makes. The reliably obedient dog follows the handler’s instructions regardless of the distractions present.  Remember, your dog does not need to be social in order to be obedient.

So your dog is obedient, now what?

Now it’s time to start bringing the target of your dog’s reactivity into the picture and having your dog remain in obedience while the target is present.  This is done in incremental stages. 

In the beginning we start at a distance from the target and ask the dog to preform obedience behaviours such as heeling or a down.  If the dog reacts to the target he will no longer be in obedience and should then receive a consequence for failure to remain in the desired behaviour. 

For example, if your dog is in a heel at your side and he spots another dog he has two choices.  Remain in the heel at your side, or react to the other dog’s presence.  There is a positive consequence for the first choice and a negative one for the second.

The consequence your dog receives if he chooses option two is not for displaying aggression to the target.  It is for leaving the heel or whatever behaviour you asked him to perform at the time. 

This is where your dog starts to learn that he must listen and be reliable in his obedience regardless of whether or not the target is present. More importantly, he is learning that attention to the handler is his primary focus on the walk not scanning for targets.  Once your dog is doing this reasonably well it is time to begin closing the distance to the target.

Contingent punishment.

In this stage you begin to punish the dog anytime he or she makes the choice to react to the target. Through repetition, the dog quickly learns what behaviour causes the punishment and what does not.

The common mistake made here, is often the handler or trainer does not know how to effectively and productively deliver punishment to remove an undesirable behaviour.  This can create confusion in the dog and create unnecessary conflict, stress or even exacerbate the reactivity.  Seeking help from proven professionals is strongly recommended.

As mentioned above in the obedience section, I prefer to initially punish the dog for failure to remain in a known obedience pattern as opposed to just waiting for the dog to react to the target and then punishing him.  A dog that is reactive needs something to occupy their brain.  When I punish the dog for his or her reactivity to the target I want to also provide the dog with an alternate behaviour to fall back to.  That is always controlled obedience.

Avoid bribery!

This is a common mistake made by many trainers and dog owners.  The common assumption is that if you feed the dog every time another dog or stranger comes into sight this will somehow make your dog start to associate other dogs and people with positive experiences vs fear and insecurity. Sadly, this is not the case.  

Do not get me wrong, the delivery of positive reinforcement can be productive if used when the dog is offering desirable behaviours.  Examples of this would be a dog that holds a Heel or Sit while the target passes by.  However, do not fall into the trap of requiring bribery in order to get the dog to behave. 

With proper training, your dog should be quickly offering correct obedience behaviours in the presence of the target with or without the presence of food rewards.

Repetition and consistency.

Now that you have all the pieces in place in place it’s time to rinse and repeat this process until the reactive behaviour is completely eradicated.  This means maintenance of obedience and structure while on outings. 

Consistent application of contingent punishment for reactive behaviour as well as failure to comply with obedience commands.  In other words hold the dog accountable for the choices he or she makes.  There is always a consequence for everything. 

Variable application of positive reinforcement is also recommended. That means continuously praising your dog for a job well done and by all means still bring food or toy rewards back into the picture from time to time.  This will keep your dog happy and motivated.

Do not fall prey to the emotional blackmail

This is prevalent among dog trainers, rescues and fur parents. I see this over and over again.  Reactive dog owners attempting to resolve their dogs issue with incomplete training systems based on Utopian philosophy and emotional ideals vs reality.  The concept that if you apply any form of punishment to your dog that you are somehow abusive.

Punishment has been scientifically proven over and over to be the most effective way to remove behaviours.  It is an essential part of any training system.  Any trainer that tells you differently is either lying to you, incompetent or misinformed. 

Remember, effective training is fast because the dog understands the consequences to his or her choices.  Both the good and the bad.  Without a down how can there be an up?

Summary

Dog reactivity is best resolved by a multi pronged approach. Reliable obedience, contingent punishment, reinforcement, consistency and repetition are all necessary components to addressing the reactive dog. 

Remember, the actual process of training the obedience and removing the reactivity should be complete in a matter of months if not less.  Effective training and behaviour adjustment should not take long because it’s clear to the dog.

Haz Othman,
Head Trainer – Shield K9