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.