Having a reactive dog can be a burden and can make daily walks and outings stressful for both you and your dog. Odin is reactive and it makes it hard to take him places and makes walking an event. Reactivity occurs for a variety of reasons. It can be a conditioned response to feeling frustrated about not being able to greet another dog on leash, or they can become reactive out of fear of new/strange dogs. Odin’s reactivity towards dogs is due to his frustration of him not being able to interact with them, whereas his reactivity towards skateboards and scooters is fear based. Dealing with and overcoming reactivity requires determination and resilience. It is not something that can be changed overnight.
Punishment should never be used to help fix a reactive dog. Rather you should focus on trying to help the dog adjust their behavior to something more acceptable. Dealing with reactivity takes time and patience. Overcoming reactivity will require your determination and resilience as it will be hard to continue to put yourself into these situations. There are multiple ways help your dog overcome their reactivity.
- Classical Counter Condition: This strategy links the appearance of another dog with food. This strategy is most helpful for dogs that are fearful of new, strange dogs. Your dog should start linking the appearance of new dogs with food, something that makes them happy.
- Operant Condition on Cue: This strategy teaches the dog that another dog approaching is a good thing and the dog will feel relaxed and look to the owner for food/play. This is similar to Counter Conditioning, however instead of just giving your dog food, you are telling them to “look” and find the dog, once they do, they should look back to you for their reward. This is what I am currently using for Odin. If I see the dog first, I tell him to “look.” He looks to the approaching dog then back at me for his treat. This turns these situations into more a game rather than a stressful situation. This teaches the dog to become comfortable with the approaching dog enough to be able to look away from the dog while remaining calm.
- Operant Conditioning with No Cue: This is similar to the strategy listed above however, instead of telling the dog to “look” for the approaching dog, they find the dog on their own then notify you of the approaching dog. This strategy can be little harder to teach. This strategy includes what is referred to as BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training.) The dog is brought just close enough to their trigger to elicit a reaction such as them looking at the other dog (but not barking or lunging). The handler stops moving and waits for the dog to gave an acceptable behavior, such as looking away or at the owner and then a reward is given (either a treat or moving away from the other dog/trigger.) After a while, your dog will be able to show you a certain behavior when approaching another dog. Odin has started doing this with me. Once he learned the foundation of the cued “look,” he began offering looking at me directly once he saw another dog approaching. I reward this type of behavior, and if I can I try to create distance between myself and the trigger to avoid reactivity.
All the current strategies are have one thing in common. They all provide the dog with the appearance of something awesome every time they see their trigger, and eventually the dog will learn that their trigger predicts the appearance of something awesome.
In addition, all of these strategies take time, patience and determination. I have been working on Odin’s reactivity for about 5 months now and we have just made it to having a 50/50 chance of being able to pass another dog that is across the street without reacting. Anything closer is still too much for him and he will go over his threshold. However, his reactivity towards bikes is almost non-existent after months of training and using the classical conditioning method. He does not see bikes as something to fear, rather as something that means he will be getting food. This takes determination as it is hard to continue going out and putting yourself in these types of situations, however, not taking them out for walks is not an option. The more you practice and get out the better it gets.
Last night was a hard night for Odin. On our walk we passed by multiple dogs that he really wanted to play with and he got frustrated as he could not get over to them to greet them. So he barks and lunges. I assume he is barking “Hey! You! Other dog, I can’t get to you but maybe you can come to me. Hey! Why aren’t you coming over here to me?” And he lunges as a way to try to get closer to them. Having this go on multiple times during a walk is exhausting and can make it seem like you are not making much progress. However, on the days when we are able to walk past other dogs and he offers looking at me, rather than reacting, I am so proud of him and I can start to be hopeful and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with a reactive dog is that you need to stay determined and not give up. It does take time and there is hope for one day being able to walk stress free. There are going to be good days and bad days, however, how you bounce back from the bad days is what will determine your success. Reactivity can be overcome and we can help them conquer their fear/frustration, it just takes time and handler determination.