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.
One of the most frequent requests I receive is about training your own service dog. The ADA covers Service Dogs but NOT Service Dogs In Training (SDiT). SDiTs are regulated by most states. Some states, such as California, mimics federal SD law with either a trainer or disabled handler. Others states may have much tighter laws on who can train and what, if any, access rights the dogs have.
These are links that I find helpful. It is the consumers responsibility to verify all information found on these links.
Find a professional trainer:
Association of Professional Dog Trainers
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers
Fear Free Certified Professionals
Training tips and resources:
Positively Victoria Stilwell
CARE For Reactive Dogs
Dr Sophie Yin
CARE For Reactive Dogs
Pet Web MD
ASPCA Poison Control