Is your dog reactive to other dogs while on walks? You know what I’m talking about. That sweet, furry love of your life, who turns Cujo-like when he sees certain dogs (or all dogs). You aren't alone, it happens much more often than you realize. When it happens to you, tho, it seems much louder, much worse than when you see another dog react. This is normal because you aren't emotionally invested in someone else's dog but your dog can skewer your heart with this behavior..
You ARE emotionally invested in your dog and this affects how YOU react to your dog's reaction. Embarrassment, nervousness, fear, shame...these are all normal feelings. That's when we typically begin to yell, cajole, threaten, plead for the dog to behave. "It's no big deal" "STOP IT" "C'mon, you know better than to act like this" "ENOUGH already!" Maybe throw in a prong collar or e-collar for good measure to punish the behavior in hopes that it will fix the situation.
Instead, tho, the behavior eventually begins to escalate, getting worse. The first step in addressing the behavior is not punishment or bribery but identifying what the dog is trying to tell you. What they are trying to say is usually either “I’m so excited I don’t know how to control my behavior” or “I’m scared and need some space”. Either way your dog is over threshold which means that learning is not going to happen. Trying to yell or beg or bribe will not affect how the dog will react next time
So what is a frazzled handler to do? Take a deep breath, step to the side and say “lets go” while turning around and heading the other direction, increasing distance to that which they were reacting to. Once the dog has calmed down and giving you good attention you reward this behavior. Now it is important to make a plan that avoids these situations until your dog is ready and able to handle them.
Contact a professional who is experienced and educated in science based methods to work with you and your dog. One who understands that the research is very clear on how to best address the challenges for best results long term and has the experience to teach you and your dog. No flooding, no forcing, no punishment. Solid behavior help instead. Your average dog trainer is just that, a dog trainer. They aren’t educated or experienced in dealing with behavior issues in the best and most modern ways possible. This isn’t about cookie pushing but in timing rewards so that counter conditioning occurs by changing the emotional response to the stimulus (the other dog). Timing is everything, and must occur at precise moments with a high enough value reward while at the same time preventing over threshold or flooding situations where learning does not happen.
If you can’t afford a behaviorist there are also online resources, such as CARE For the Reactive Dog, that can help the dog owner learn skills to address their dog’s challenges. Beware of any trainer promising fast fixes…these fixes typically require use of punishment which may suppress the behavior but does not fix the emotional response. This can lead to even more challenging and dangerous behaviors later because the dog is still reacting but with a new level of fear added on.
If a friend tries to help you because something worked with their dog remember that not all dogs are the same. Educated and experienced trainers and behaviorists have spent countless hours learning about animal behavior and how to address these things in the best and safest way possible. While your neighbor or friend may mean well, they haven’t put their heart and soul and wallet into learning the best methods to make your dog better.
So called "balanced trainers" will often say that trainers must have more than one tool in their toolbox when justifying the use of aversives (prong collars, choke chains, e-collars, squirt bottles...) Science based positive trainers have many tools in their tool box but NONE of these tools hurt or scare. Balanced trainers often jump to the aversive because they think a treat isn't working or "it's faster" but they don't step back and look at the big picture. How does a science based trainer approach differ? We look at the big picture and then break it down and then focus on changing the dog's behavior. Let's take that common unwanted behavior of jumping on people.
1. What is the unwanted behavior: Jumping
2. When does it occur: People coming in the door
3. What is the motivator: Attention
4. What is the wanted behavior: Sit
What do we need to do: Manage the environment to prevent the behavior from continuing, teach and motivate the new behavior, teach the human how not ro reinforce the unwanted behavior when reintroducing the dog to the environment.
For the jumper we manage the environment by preventing Fido from being in the environment where the jumping occurs. When someone is coming in the door have Fido outside or in another room. Next, we teach the new wanted behavior, sit, until sit is generalized to many situations, locations and with distractions. Before we bring Fido back in we must teach the human that any attention is good attention to a dog and rewards the unwanted behavior. Yelling, waving your arms, pushing Fido away can be a favorite game. Take all of this attention away by turning sideways with your arms crossed and no eye contact. Say "sit" once and then wait for it. It's hard not to repeat the cue but it is important that the dog makes the choice to provide that behavior and it will get faster as they connect the reward to the behavior.
In the beginning this takes time so don't try to do this part while you are in a hurry. Jumping has given Fido a lot of attention in the past so he's going to have to work thru it in his brain that jumping no longer nets him any attention. He may even do the sit a few times and then suddenly you may have what is called an "extinction burst". This is when Fido, after doing well, reverts back to that unwanted jumping with a little more gusto in a last ditch attempt to get that jump to reward him with the attention. He is thinking "it worked for a long time, surely it will work again". Now is the time to stand firm. Practice this every day with family members first, then ask friends to work with you. Have treats by the door and tell visitors what you are working on and what you want them to do so that Fido has the best chance at being successful in learning to make the right choices.
This is how reward based training works. We identify the challenge, identify the motivator (or reward). We identify the wanted behavior. We manage the unwanted behavior by preventing the situation. We teach the wanted behavior. We ask for the wanted behavior while ignoring the unwanted behavior. This way we avoid punishments that the dog does not understand and, according to repeated studies, reward based training helps set up solid foundations that can prevent long term problems. It allows the dog to learn to make right choices and build self control, creating a life long family member that you enjoy spending time with rather than a dog who is submitting out of fear of the next punishment.
One of my hardest challenges as a dog owner is trimming the nails. I'm always nervous that I'll get the quick and that nervousness makes the dogs antsier. Not to mention how hard it is for me to exert enough pressure to clip a Great Dane's nails.
Zoinks breeder has been showing off how easy it is to dremel dog nails so I finally broke down and got the right bit and have been conditioning Zoinks to let me dremel her nails. This started slowly, first with the dremel off and then gradually increasing the speed (and noise) before ever touching the nails. I've now done a few sessions with her and it's gone amazingly well so we are now conditioning the others to it.
To make a positive association with the dremel we use a lick mat smeared with peanut butter (make sure it doesn't have xylitol in it). Just use a small amount, smeared on the mat, and then chilled it goes a long way. You could also use plain yogurt, cheese, liver wurst or even canned dog food.
Dogs wear muzzles for many different reasons, not just aggression.
Why is it a good practice to teach a dog to wear a muzzle? Putting a dog into a situation where they are already uncomfortable and then adding the never-before-worn muzzle adds even more stress to the situation. This means their next experience with training, at the vet or groomers will be even more stressful.
My dogs are all muzzle trained. Over the past couple of years our Desi has had a lot of vet visits due to skin issues. As the vets and vet techs are climbing over this 150 pound Great Dane to examine and obtain scrapings and biopsies they need to feel safe in order to give him the best care. I am not offended and actually offer to muzzle him. I want to make sure he's getting the best care but I don't want him stressed out, either, since that can make his issues worse.
We start muzzle training early. We show them the muzzle, let them sniff and check it out, giving them treats. Then we put treats in the muzzle so they can put their faces in to get the treats. Once they are consistently putting their snouts in by their own choice we add the strap. Then we secure it, very briefly, with a high value squirt of spray cheese added. Gradually they wear it for longer and longer periods of time, adding activities such as going outside or for walks, always keeping it fun with high value treats.
Operant Conditioning is learning thru consequence (both rewards and punishments). We learn that if we do one thing, something else will follow. Science has repeatedly shown us that long term, rewards are more successful. Study after study shows us this. A Review of Dog Training Methods: Welfare, Learning ability, and Current Standards, authored by IJ Makowska, M.Sc., Ph.D. for the BCSPCA, she demonstrates thru multiple studies and research just how important making the right choices in training are to a dog’s welfare.
I am going to use a simple example, flipping on a light switch and being rewarded with the light. If we want that light to turn on then every time we must flip that switch to make it happen. This is what we are teaching a dog with positive reinforcement. We do not have to use aversives such as shock collars (or electric, static, whatever you want to call it), prong collars or even high pitched whistles.
How would this work, say, if I wanted you to turn on the light but you didn’t know that was what I wanted? Imagine that I put you in a room and wait for you to turn the light on. Then, every time you did something, but that something wasn’t turning on the light, you were punished. You stand up “zap”. You sit down “zap”. You ask what I want “zap”. This is positive punishment. At what point would you become reactive to everything because nothing is working or simply shut down and give up? How did you learn to flip the switch? You saw someone, probably a parent, do it and then did it yourself and were rewarded with the light turning on or off. This is positive reinforcement.
How simple is this to do? When a dog is jumping they don’t KNOW this is the wrong behavior. They just know it will get your attention. So we choose the behavior we want them to do and then remove our attention from the jump and teach them that sitting gets them your attention. The dog darts out the door getting freedom and a game of chase. Wait, that’s not what you WANT them to do? Again, we determine the wanted behavior, not darting out the door. So first, we prevent the dart with a baby gate and/or leash and teach them that waiting while the door opens gets a reward. Then we teach them that going thru the door on cue gets a reward. Now the dog is waiting at the door instead of darting. We can even teach them to turn on that light switch by stacking behaviors.
Yes, this will take some time, especially if your dog has spent time learning the wrong behaviors. In the end, tho, your dog will be happier and less likely to develop behavior issues. Using science and reward based training methods; this is how we should be teaching our dogs. Teach Rover that he must do certain things in order to get that reward. If he doesn’t do the behaviors that are required then he won’t get the reward. With dogs we cannot explain this to them but we can teach them by demonstrating that every time they make the right choice something good happens. When they make the wrong choice they get nothing. No attention, no yummy treats, no games to play, no snuggle time.
Initially, we work on small, simple behaviors such as focus and sit to get rewards. Then we make things a little harder. Sitting and waiting in one place. Add in coming when called. Learning to choose the cooperative behavior in order to participate in the rewards of yummy treats, snuggle time, games of tug of war, going for fun walks.
What is THE most underutilized cue? Focus. While it is one of the first new behaviors taught in basic obedience it seems to fade away once sits, downs and stays become our "go to"s. It shouldn't, tho. A solid focus means that no matter the distraction the dog's attention will be on you. It helps develop self control and calmness.
Does your dog have a trigger that keeps him from listening to you? He sees another dog/person/rabbit while on leash and his manners go out the window? With a solid focus when you see the trigger you can ask for his attention until the trigger is gone.
Practice focus everywhere. Start with no distractions and then add as many environments as possible until the behavior is generalized (dog trainer speak for a behavior that is consistent everywhere).
Start with high value treats initially and big praise. Make sure you always praise or give a life reward when it is successful. Remember, they need a reason to look at you rather than the distraction.
At home ask for it randomly while you are watching tv, fixing dinner, reading... Say the dogs name and then ask for focus, using the treat to lure the dogs gaze to yours. Take the behavior from room to room, adding distractions. Have your spouse or child clap, move around, open and close doors. Go outside, in your yard and randomly on walks. As with any learned behavior continue to ask for it randomly, even after it becomes automatic, otherwise may fade and not be there when you need it.
What does force free mean? It isn't just "no shock or prong collars". It isn't just treats. It is learning to communicate with the dog so that you can teach without intimidation. We want the dog to want to do it rather than be afraid of what will happen if they don't.