Living with a reactive dog can be challenging, but don’t despair. Understanding more about the motivation and emotions involved will make it easier to begin the process of re-training. There are lots of techniques used with reactive dogs, all with different titles, but the key to them all is management and controlled exposures. ‘How can I control exposures when I need to walk my dog twice a day?’ I hear you shout. Don’t be disheartened, if you can practise a few simple exercises you will be giving your dog tools to cope in the presence of the trigger, be that another dog, a stranger or something in the environment. If, during your training, your dog does react don’t be upset; think of it as an opportunity to work out why and learn from it.
Reactive dogs have learned that lunging and barking sends scary things away. Either the handler backs away and creates distance when their dog reacts (due to embarrassment and wishing to stop the dog from rehearsing unwanted behaviours), or the scary thing (the other dog/owner, for example), leaves because they are afraid of the lunging dog.
- Scary Dog is approaching
- Behaviour = bark, lunge, growl
- Consequence = Scary Dog goes away
We need to change this sequence to:
- Scary Dog is approaching
- Behaviour = any displacement behaviour or distance-increasing body language – look away, sniff the ground, turn away, scratch
- Consequence = Scary Dog goes away
There is another element in this sequence which we need to address. Very often the owner will try to placate or chastise their reactive dog; however, by doing so they can be inadvertently further reinforcing their dog’s reactive behaviour. A reactive dog is aiming to avoid or terminate a signal that predicts an unpleasant event. Lunging and barking creates distance from the unpleasant trigger, and then the reactions of the owner (which indicate to the dog the successful completion of this avoidance response) will have secondary rewarding properties.
There may be several reasons why a dog barks at strangers or other dogs when out walking with his owner in the park, and it is essential that owners seek advice from a pet behaviourist who will be able to carry out an assessment of their dog and provide appropriate rehabilitation training. The key to success is ensuring that both the dog and the owner can learn new behaviours and to identify what is reinforcing the behaviour, i.e. what the benefit to the dog is.
The first benefit is that the lunging/barking “makes” the other dog or stranger retreat or the owner to walk the dog in another direction. Either way, the result for the dog is that his fear is turned into relief as the distance between him and the stranger/dog is increased.
The second benefit is the owner’s response, which might be tightening/jerking the lead, trying to soothe the dog, shouting etc. These actions will be perceived by the dog as a reward and the problem behaviour will become resistant to extinction.
All these reinforcers need be identified and systematically removed if the behaviour problem is going to be satisfactorily resolved. Let’s have a look at how a dog may learn to become reactive.
Otto is an eight-month-old flat coat retriever and is owned by Sheila who has had dogs all her life. Sheila took Otto to the vets for a check-up following a bout of vomiting. Otto had previously been examined and vaccinated without any problems.
On arrival at the surgery the waiting room was empty, but there was a lot of commotion in the consulting room, where a very aggressive German Shepherd Dog was being examined. Otto became agitated and when the veterinary nurse came to say hello to him (as she had done previously) he was startled and barked. Sheila was shocked and comforted him while she waited to be called in to see the vet.
When Sheila took Otto into the consulting room the vet approached him and Otto barked and lunged forward, Sheila was naturally taken aback at Otto’s uncharacteristic behaviour and as the vet backed away, she pulled him back on the lead and stroked him to calm him down.
On leaving the vets Sheila decided to take Otto for his favourite walk to try and relax him. She was relieved to see one of her friends and went over to join her so that they could walk together. As Sheila and Otto approached, the friend went to give Otto a biscuit (just as she had always done) and Otto lunged forward barking. Sheila was furious with Otto, pulled him back on the lead and shouted at him. Unfortunately, Otto’s behaviour deteriorated over the next few weeks and he would bark and lunge at anyone walking past Sheila despite her efforts to chastise him.
Let’s look at how this behaviour was so quick to develop.
- Otto has learnt that by barking and lunging, he can keep the threat of being approached away, the person backs off and/or he is pulled away, therefore increasing distance between them – Otto’s intention.
- If what happens next is rewarding, the behaviour will be resistant to extinction. Sheila’s responses are in fact rewarding Otto.
So, what can we do? The first stages of training are to give the dog choices: options of how to respond. These will be new behaviours which he can use and can be practised at home, away from the trigger. Also, the owner needs to learn new behaviours to replace the previous ones. Very often the owner becomes tense and resorts to a default reaction.
In the absence of any triggers, begin practicing quick turns and throwing some tasty treats onto the ground. Once both the owner and dog are proficient in this then it is time to present the trigger at a distance from which the dog can disengage. As the dog acknowledges the trigger without exhibiting a stress response, quick turn and throw the treats. If the dog is unable to disengage from the trigger and his response intensifies you should move further away. Repeat this sequence at least 3 times. It is worth mentioning here that the use of a clicker in the process will have huge advantages but it some cases owners are unable to hold the lead, a clicker and throw treats at the same time!!
The next step is to present the trigger and wait a couple of seconds before turning and throwing treats, allowing the dog to voluntarily disengage. Once you have three good voluntary responses then it is time to take a couple of steps closer to the trigger and repeat the process. You should only continue the training for a couple of minutes to ensure that the dog remains relaxed and doesn’t become overwhelmed … everything you do should be to keep the dog comfortable and relaxed.
It may seem tedious and time consuming but you are providing an alternative, another choice other than barking and lunging, and with perseverance you will both be able to enjoy your walks.