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So you have a reactive dog!

Reactive dogs can come in all forms. It doesn't matter what size or breed they are. Dogs can also be reactive for a number of different reasons. For example some dogs are reactive when they see other dogs, whilst others are reactive towards people or a certain type of person. Then you have the dogs that are reactive towards the lawn mower, or vacuum. because the dog sees this stimuli they become overly aroused and may bark, lunge, growl, and can become fixated on the stimuli. This behaviour can leave it difficult for owners to control, or get any focus from the dog whilst they are in this state. More often than not, a reactive dog is often a fearful dog.

Reactive dogs are not always aggressive dogs, however, if you don't do any training with your dog it can manifest into aggression. This is why it is so important you seek out a professional, positive reinforcement dog trainer, before the situation escalates.

With reactive dogs it is critical you work at their own pace. Just like humans each dog is different, and what has worked for one dog won't necessarily work for the next dog. You need to work with your dog whilst they are under their threshold, and comfortable. An anxious, or highly aroused dog just won't work, and you don't want to make the dog more fearful. You need to build up your dogs trust. This is why I always tell clients, you need to work on your relationship with your dog. If your dog doesn't trust you, you will have many issues. You need your dog to understand that you will protect them at all times.

Identifying Triggers

The first thing you need to do is identify the specific trigger or triggers that set your dog off, and the environment. For example some dogs may be fine with other dogs whilst they are off lead with other off lead dogs. However, when they are put on lead they can become what is known as lead reactive. This often happens because they dog in scared on the lead, and feels as though they are trapped and can't escape from 'danger' (other dogs) if needed.

Once you have identified your dogs' trigger/triggers a lot of people then purely avoid the triggers at all cost. I have seen dog owners walk at 1am to ensure they don't come across any of their dogs triggers. What this does is reinforce the dogs fear of the trigger.

What you want to do is give your dog the coping mechanisms and ability for them to calmly be around their triggers.

Working with your dog under their threshold at their critical distance.

Once you have identified your dogs' trigger you need to workout the critical distance and work from a further 1m from there. For example you have a dog that is reactive towards other dogs. How far away does your dog have to be before they start to excessively pant, growl, lunge or bark? They might spot the dog and be ok with it until it is 15m away from them. Therefore your critical distance that you would start working with your dog around other dogs would be a minimum of 16m. Over time you slowly get closer and closer to other dogs, remembering to only go as fast as your dog is ready. You don't want to push them too fast, as it can do more damage.

Games to play at home to prepare your dog for triggers.

At home where they are most relaxed and comfortable is where you want to teach your dog some new skills and games which you will use when out and around their triggers. These new games, and skills will help your dog cope around triggers.

  • Engage Disengage- this is one of my favourite dog training games, and it can be implemented for a variety of different behavioural issues. The game teaches your dog how to notice someone (or something) in their environment and then disengage on their own, without any verbal cue from you. It's an exercise of self-interruption and impulse control. The benefits of playing this game engage-disengage with your dog you're helping them feel something positive and do something desirable, and this is priceless.

  • Hand targeting- I always teach the dogs to target my hand, that way when out and if I need to redirect their focus I will say touch and they will look for my hand and touch it with their nose. Apart from redirecting your dogs focus to you, you are also giving them something else to do, and boosting their confidence.

  • Find it- Dogs love to play this game. You scatter some high value treats in the direction you wish to go and say 'find it'. This is a great game to play when you need to change direction quickly. Sniffing out the treats is also a great way for the dogs to relax, is a natural form of enrichment for them, and makes them feel optimistic about their own choices. An extension of this is Nosework and it fantastic for dogs, but particularly anxious and fearful dogs.

  • The look game- you have treats in each hand and place your hands either side of your face close to your eyes initially to make it easier for the dog to win and understand. Your dog then has 3 options. To look at the treat in your left hand, to look at your eyes, or to look at the treat in his right hand. The moment the dog looks into your eyes mark it, and reward it. As they get better at winning with this game you put on cue. For example "look" and then every time you say "look" no matter what they are doing they will stop and look at your directly in the eyes.,

  • With me/get behind- this is critical for you to teach every dog. You train and get your dog to come back to a heel position (to your side), and then instruct the dog to go behind. I often teach and use this for when you come across dogs off lead where they shouldn't be, or if no owner is insight. It straight away tells your dog that you are in front to protect them, and often takes away your dogs anxiety. Some people will even walk with an umbrella so if this situation was to happen they would open up the umbrella and use it as a shield for more protection.

Timing like in everything is so important. You need to get it right and mark it and that very moment to make it clear to the dog that YES that right there is what I am after, and you are doing so well. I know it is not always possible to get the exact timing right, but when you do, it makes it so much easier on the dog. Practice makes perfect as the old saying goes. I used to go to a park without any dog and practice with both my clicker and just verbal marker of yes that would I wouldn't confuse my own dog if I didn't get the timing right, This also helps with your own confidence, which in turn helps with your dog. Your dog feeds of your own confidence, and in contrast also your own stress and anxiety. Hence this is why it is so important that when you are out with your reactive dog you are carefree and confident. This comes with practice.

Ways to build up your dogs confidence.

  • play games that they know how to win

  • praise them for trying

  • don't get mad or angry at them

  • If they are not understanding, or doing a certain behaviour go back to the basics, and show them how to win

  • Don't expose them to things that they aren't ready for, or can't handle.

  • Teach them new tricks/skills

NEVER, EVER PUNISH YOUR DOG FOR GROWLING, SHOWING TEETH, LUNGING etc as these are your dogs warning signs. If you start to punish your dog for giving you these warning signs to stay away, what will happen is the dog will no longer give a warning sign and just bite.

Finally, remember each dog is different, and you need to take things slow to build up your dogs confidence and trust.

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