Managing a reactive dog

Dogs can be reactive for a number of reasons. It could be past experiences, genetics, low amounts of socialization, age, health, and even a combination of these factors. Some dogs will never be 100% non-reactive. Just like people, we all have our own traits and personality and that's ok!

Some owners become discouraged with a reactive dog and feel as though there is nothing they can do. But there are some ways you can work with your dog through these issues to keep them happy, healthy, and lead a less stressed life.


What is a reactive dog?

Simply put, a reactive dog is a dog that reacts to things in its environment. This could be barking and pulling frantically towards other dogs on the street, being scared of other people, stressed around outside noises, or even a combination of those things.


What will I need to get started?

  • Clicker (or a voice marker command)

  • High value treats (think hotdogs, roast chicken, or soft training treats-something your dog is obsessed with!)

  • Sturdy harness or collar

  • Standard lead-NO RETRACTABLE LEADS



Patience is key

Working with a reactive dog and seeing results is not going to happen overnight. This can take months to accomplish and see results. Working on reactions is all about the long game. Rushing a dog to learn how to react in new situations will discourage you both. This will make you both feel pretty bad. Training walks should be 15 minutes or less in the beginning. As confidence builds, you can add onto this. Dog owners must keep calm and not become frustrated. Take a deep breath and enjoy this journey together as a team.



Practice keeping your dog's attention


This can be accomplished through luring with a treat. Remember, you are 'competing' with some crazy distractions outside. You want to be more exciting and fun! Be what your dog wants to see and be with. Practice u-turns in your house first by asking your pup to follow your hand with a treat in it and walking in different directions. When they follow, give them praise and treat them. This reinforces that staying with you will be rewarded.



Keep a progress and triggers log


Tracking progress and triggers is important to you and your dog. Making a list of triggers can prepare you for future training walks. Not only can you see the progress your dog has made in a log, but you can also boost your confidence by being able to physically see that progress in a journal. This keeps you motivated to keep going and to love the process.



Use the Engage-Disengage method


This method is effective at allowing your dog to become more comfortable with being around their triggers over time. Engage steps should be used first, then move on to the disengage steps. I will explain the steps below.




Engage


1. Begin at a distance that is safe and far away enough from the trigger that your dog is alert, but not stressed. Your dog should be at your side and not reacting, just looking. Make sure you stay calm too as this can also stress your dog if you are feeling stressed. Allow your dog to look at the trigger in their own time.


2. Once your dog 'engages' and looks at that trigger, click or give your verbal cue. Timing is everything so you need to be one step ahead. Praise and treat as soon as your dog looks at the trigger. This enforces that they are being good by not reacting to the stimuli.


3. Wait for your dog to turn their head towards you to look at you. As soon as they do this, click (or word cue) and treat. This encourages your dog to look at you and check in with you.


4. If the trigger moves closer or your dog is not reacting to your commands, move away from the trigger until you are back at a step 1 safe distance.


You will need to repeat these engage steps frequently to keep your dog's training in tip top shape. In a 15 minute session, you will need to repeat these steps 4-5 times in a row before you can move on to the disengage steps. Always pay attention to your dog's behaviour during these sessions to assess their stress levels and if your dog needs a break.





Disengage


1. Allow your dog to look at the trigger. This time, you need to wait about 5 seconds to see if your dog will look back and check in with you.


2. When your dog looks back at you, click (or word cue) and reward. Remember to do this immediately as they look at you to reinforce that good behaviour.


3. Just like the engage steps, you will need to repeat these steps 4-5 times successfully. This means no reactions from your dog at all. If they do not react, you can move a little closer to the trigger. But only small steps! Do not push it too far, or all your hard work could be undone. Keep those distances to only a few feet at a time.


If you dog does react, remain calm and move a bit further back from the trigger. If needed, you can move back to the engage steps to boost your dog's confidence again and to ensure they do not become too stressed.



Having a reactive dog is not easy. They take a lot of love, time, and patience. My female pug can be reactive at times and we have worked on this for awhile now. Her reactions are mild, but she will never be 100% 'cured' and that is ok. Do not lose hope! If you are really struggling and need some advice, seek out your local dog trainer or behaviourist for support.



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