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Have a Reactive Dog? 3 Concepts They May Be Lacking

Updated: May 1, 2020

If you have a dog who reacts to its environment, whether that’s people, other dogs, or cars whizzing by, life can be difficult. Seeing other people walk along with their well-behaved dog at their side who appears to not have a care in the world, while watching yours bark, lunge and pull on its lead can leave you wondering, “Why can’t MY dog behave like THAT dog? What am I doing wrong?”. You may even find yourself thinking that the situation is hopeless and that there is nothing you can do to change your dog’s behaviour.

This is a very bleak place to be in…feeling hopeless and not knowing where to turn for help. Most of us want the very best for our dogs and it’s not unusual to fall into the trap of believing others when they tell us, “That’s just how your dog is...he/she’s a terrier and terriers bark.” (insert whatever breed and struggle in there that you like!).

I know what this feels like. I had a very dog-reactive little cockapoo for 14.5 years (sweet Bailey) and did everything I could at the time to help him. Unfortunately, I ended up receiving some not-so-great training advice all those years ago that actually made things worse for my young dog. The methods I was instructed by trainers and behaviour professionals to use dealt only with suppressing the barking and lunging behaviour, and were largely punishment based (methods that are still often used today in training classes…), but did nothing to deal with the cause behind it. I often wish I could go back in time and start over with Bailey knowing now that there is a better way to help him get over his struggle with other dogs.

The guilt I felt over not being able to help Bailey drove me to research, learn more and find better ways of helping reactive and fearful dogs. I discovered Games-Based Concept Training shortly before adopting a young potcake rescue, and what I learned about how to shape a dog’s brain through games has been eye-opening and transformational for me and my dog. When we can identify the reason behind our dog’s behaviour, a reason that goes deeper than ‘they’re just stubborn’ or ‘that’s just the way they are’, we can pinpoint concepts that need working on and build these concepts through play.

Games teach our dogs:

· That novelty is a good thing

· How to deal with things in the environment that worry them

· Problem-solving skills

· How to ‘look on the bright side’…being an optimist

· Self-control

· Confidence

Reactive Dogs are usually lacking the following 3 concepts:

1) Calmness

Reactive dogs are dogs who have very full stress buckets that frequently overflow, or dogs who have tiny stress buckets and so just can’t handle the same amount of stress as other, more relaxed dogs. They have difficulty switching off their brains and seem to be constantly on alert. This is a very exhausting way to live! Teaching calmness can help your dog to empty their bucket and lower arousal levels so that they can better deal with the things that stress them out.

Scatter-feeding in the yard, feeding through stuffed and frozen kongs, having time to chill out and relax with a long-lasting chew, getting adequate rest (this might mean putting your dog in their crate even when you’re home for an hour or 2 a few times a day to ensure they have ‘down time’) and rewarding them for making calm choices (such as going to lay on their bed rather than eagerly staring out the window) are all ways to help promote a calm mental state.

2) Self-Control/Disengagement

For reactive dogs, the environment is a scary place. They are not barking and lunging at that dog across the street because they are trying to make us upset…they are afraid, and barking is a strategy that works to make the scary thing go away. Nobody approaches a barking dog, and we usually rush our dog away quickly when they begin to act out. Dogs who bark at the mailman from inside the house are rewarded when the mailman leaves (and the mailman ALWAYS leaves!). Our dogs see that their strategy has worked and so repeat it in the future. Punishing our dogs when they do behave in a way we don’t like only serves to pair the scary thing with the negativity of the punishment…they’re already scared and we just made it worse by adding punishment. Scared dogs have brains that go into survival mode and rational thinking at that time is just not possible. This is where self-control and disengagement games come into play and can help our dogs willingly move away from the things that bother and excite them.

Disengagement games teach our dogs that good things happen if they exercise self control and make good choices. This does not come naturally to most dogs, let alone dogs who struggle with reactivity, but we can help by actively teaching them what a good deal disengagement and self control is.

Play the Mouse Game at home to help build up this concept: pile a few treats on the floor and ‘cage’ (cover) it with your hand. Your dog will naturally try to get at the treats, maybe by pawing, nudging or biting at your hand. Keep the food covered and the moment they show any sign of backing off (this could be taking a step back, glancing away, glancing at you, removing their paw etc.) reward them with a piece of food from the pile. Reset your hand and begin again. How will this help reactivity? Think of the food pile representing the dog your dog barks at or the cat your dog wants to chase…if they back off and give you their attention rather than doing any other behaviour, they get rewarded. That’s a good deal!

3) Optimism

Optimism is a key concept that helps our dogs see novelty as a good thing and overall helps them approach life in a positive way. Dogs struggling with reactivity are pessimists. They are in a head space where anything new, slightly different or challenging triggers feelings of fear and uncertainty. When feeling this way, and nothing is done to help them in that moment, we see the reactive behaviour that we so want to disappear.

Just as people can change their outlook on life, so can our dogs…they just need our help. Playing Noise Box has greatly helped my young, and previously very timid, dog gain confidence with new and novel items. Take a box and fill it with things that make noise – cardboard boxes, tinfoil, plastic bottles – be creative! Scatter some of your dog’s daily food allowance into the box and allow them to scavenge around the items for it. This game teaches our dogs that things that move and make noise are not so bad, and that actually, they get rewarded when in the presence of them. If your dog is too timid to dive into the box right away, simply place the items on the floor at first and scatter the food around them. As your dog’s optimism increases, you’ll see them attempting to get closer and closer to the items and they will eventually give the box a go.

Life with a dog struggling with reactivity can be tough. It’s distressing to see our dogs so unhappy and afraid, and can greatly impact our relationship with them. Know that there are things you can do! Games-based concept training works in training *for* the situation and builds up concepts in our dog’s brain so that that they can better cope when *in* the situation.

If you’d like access to 200+ concept building games to help you tackle any struggle you may be experiencing with your dog, consider joining the online Training Academy. 200+ games to start, a new game added weekly, weekly lives with dog trainers and vet-behaviourist Tom Mitchell and Crufts Agility Champion Lauren Langman, the CALM workshop (promote a calm state of mind as a calm dog makes better choices), Leash off Game On program (to increase off leash reliability) and more. These games have transformed my way of being with my dogs and I know that they can help you as well.

Join the Training Academy today – Registration closes April 26th, 2020.

Photo courtesy of Absolute Dogs

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