All scary things deserve a reactive response.
All [insert stimulus here] are scary.
Therefore, all [insert stimulus here] deserve a reactive response.
Ahhh…the joys of syllogisms. What does classical logic have to do with training your dog? Well, dogs are calculating this precise formula every day. Whether the reasoning has truth to it means nothing – in the dog’s mind, it’s a pretty valid argument.
Anyone who knows me, knows my dog B and her reactivity. She sees a dog, she goes in to a barking frenzy. She sees a leaf blowing across the street, she shoots off like a torpedo. She's reactive, it's just who she is. But that doesn't mean that we are going to lay down and accept that and never work on training again. I work with her on a daily basis to get through her fears but I do it in such a way that it's always helping and never hurting. If your dog reacts to anything with barking or fearful aggression, it's your job to find the most positive and productive way to help them through it.
So what can I do?
Decide when the behavior begins and how bad it gets. This is called determining your dog’s threshold. When your dog sees the stimulus and begins reacting, is it within 20 feet? 50 feet? Sometimes, the stimulus isn’t even within view. As a matter of fact, sometimes there are cues that notify your dog of what’s to come. If every time you vacuum, you first move the furniture then walk to the hall closet, chances are good your dog already knows to get ready for action before you’ve even brought out the vacuum.
If your dog doesn’t fixate on the vacuum when it’s down the hall and stationary, then this may be where you have to start. With your dog on a leash, move a bit closer. If he starts reacting, then move back to where he was comfortable.
Choose your weapon. Nooooo! Not a weapon for your dog, silly! Choose what you’re going to use as reinforcement. Make a wise decision: is your dog just not that excited about his kibble but goes wild over boiled chicken? Then this is the time to bring out the chicken! You want to bring out the big guns when you’re working on conditioning your dog’s response to something. Is she spastic about a certain toy? So much so that the toy gets chosen over boiled chicken? Then this is the reinforcement you want to use!
Begin working with your dog before they reach their threshold. If every day at noon, the mailman rings the doorbell and then shoves the mail through the mail slot, begin getting your dog’s attention before noon. Start at, say, 1155. You can begin this training session by asking for behaviors your dog is good at, like “sit”, and reward with the “boring” treats: kibble, etc. Something they still find tasty, just not over-the-top delicious. Then, when the mailman arrives, keep your dogs attention by rewarding when they focus on you when you call their name. If they don’t respond, don’t wear their name out. Simply take their leash and walk them farther from the door. (Please note: this isn’t read pull them from the door…)Remember your dog’s threshold – if he no longer listens to cues when he’s right in front of the door while the mailman is putting the mail in, move back to where you can get his focus.
Decide what you’re looking for. You want focus on you and not the stimulus. You want your dog to know that the stimulus is there, but there’s no reason for a reaction. Be very careful to tune in to your dog’s body language. Just because your dog is looking at you doesn’t mean that they aren’t still approaching threshold. Listen for whining and watch for uneasiness. Does your dog look a bit spastic and jumpy as if to say “Hurry! Hurry! Give me the treat so I can get back to barking at the vacuum!” If so, rewarding your dog now could teach him that acting that way is what you want. Calmly walk with your dog further away and begin the training again by asking for a desirable behavior, such as sit.
K.I.S.S. Keep it short, silly. ;) Working with a reactive dog is stressful – for you and your dog. Keep sessions very short, no longer than 10 minutes, to avoid overstressing the two of you. If you feel frazzled or out of control at any time, STOP! The session will go nowhere if you aren’t focused, patient and willing to help them through this. Don’t blame yourself and don’t get discouraged. Pick back up again in 30 minutes if you feel you’ve had enough time to recuperate.
So let’s review.
- Know your dog’s threshold, work at a level that they can focus on you
- If necessary, remove the stimulus (or remove the dog from the stimulus)
- Use high-value reinforcers (treats, toys, etc)
- Reward your dog’s focus on you and not the stimulus – ask for a behavior they know well, even call their name (remember: only once!)
- Progress at a level that you and your dog feel comfortable – sometimes it’s “two steps forward, three steps back” – that’s okay! As long as you’re making steady progress overall!