Reactivity is frustrating and tough. You feel like you are constantly on the defensive, watching for other dogs and triggers in the distance, and need to explain our dog’s behavior to those who don’t understand. It is emotionally and physically draining, however, with the right management, your dog can be successful when they encounter their triggers. Odin has an assortment of triggers which includes dogs, scooters, skateboards and roller-blades (bikes used to be a trigger, however we have been able to manage his reactivity towards them).
Management is important for reactive dogs as they need our help with they go past their threshold because once they become too emotional they cannot regulate their behavior on their own. They need your help! When you help to manage their behavior, you become the support and structure they need to lean on in stressful situations.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when managing a reactive dog is not going anywhere with them out of fear of their reactivity. If you fully remove them from the outside world, you cannot help to teach them to manage their behaviors. Now I am not saying you should just keep bringing them into stressful situations, but rather that you need to structure and be proactive about their outings so they can be successful and learn how to manage their behavior. The more time you take practicing real world situations, the more places you will be able to go successfully. When I take Odin out for a walk or run, I take already planned out walking paths that I know have locations where I can make quick escapes away from upcoming triggers. For example, when we took him to Crater Lake we made sure there were no other dogs at the viewpoints we stopped at before bringing him out of the car. If there were other dogs that we knew would be too close for him to handle, we passed up the stop and continued driving around the lake.
My overall goal for Odin’s reactivity is to be able to take him to a local festival/event without fear of him reacting over seeing another dog. I know this will take significant practice and time (possible years until he is ready) as we still cannot successfully pass another dog on the same side of the street without triggering his reactivity. However, I will be fine if this is something he will never be able to do with me. I have been working consistently on Odin’s reactivity using BAT and clicker training for 6 months and we have made significant progress. When I first started, Odin could not pass a dog on the other side of the street without his reactivity being triggered. I know managing Odin’s reactivity will not be something that can be fixed overnight, or within a month. It is something I will probably be helping him manage for the rest of his life.
Here are some important tips to understand when managing your dogs reactivity:
1. Understand what is going on with them emotionally.
We cannot read our dogs minds, however, we can learn to read their bodies. Obviously barking and lunging at their triggers means they are not feeling good. They are acting out for a reason. If their trigger did not bother them, then they would have no reason to act out. When you are out with your dog, your chief concern is reducing their emotional negativity and stress. This usually means providing them space from their triggers before they start feeling uncomfortable and rewarding them for just being themselves.
Sometimes, your dog may be behaving well (ie. not barking/lunging) which can give you a false sense of security about your dog’s emotions. Even though your dog isn’t showing reactive behaviors, if your dog is unable to look away from their trigger or respond to your commands, then they are stressed and not outwardly expressing their feelings. Spending too much time in this proximity to their trigger can cause them to become overwhelmed and react. So once you reach the point where they become unresponsive, it is time to start proving them space from their trigger before they become overwhelmed. As their manager, it is your responsibility to know your dog’s limits and emotions and the respect them.
2. Be proactive about what your dog needs.
For both you and your dog, protectiveness is far better than reactivity. You need to be proactive in setting situations up correctly (ie. mapping out walks beforehand, or sending a scout up ahead/around corners to ensure there are no triggers up ahead.) Doing this before hand and during your walks will set you up for success. You are preventing yourself and your dog from entering unknown situations and are not as likely to be surprised by a new challenge.
Some ways to be proactive include knowing what distances from the trigger your dog has been doing well with, what kind of situations they struggle with, knowing what the environment will be like beforehand (ie. will there be a large amount of dogs, children, bikes, etc.?) By being proactive, you are entering the situation with a plan instead of going in blind.
3. Override what others think about your dog.
You will often need to override what others think about your dog. Sometimes people don’t understand when I turn away from them when we are out walking or tell them that “no our dogs cannot meet” when Odin is not being reactive and is below his threshold. They see my dog as friendly and under control, whereas I know that once they come too close, Odin will go over his threshold. To them we may seem over-protective, coddling or open to unsolicited advice, however, we know our dogs best. Let their remarks roll off of you and do what is best for your dog. You need to be their advocate.
When others try to engage me while Odin is being reactive and over threshold, I ignore every remake and make my main focus about getting him away from his trigger into a comfortable situation and into a comfortable situation. There is nothing that you can say to someone who remarks “you should get your dog under better control or train them better” that will make them understand or better the situation for the dog. Your main concern at that moment is the emotional state of your dog.
If you do find yourself in an unwanted engagement, give a quick “sorry he/she is shy” and continue moving away from their potential trigger. This may seem harsh or unfriendly, but it is what your dog needs and will help manage their reactivity in the long run.
4. Manage their fatigue
You need to keep your dogs fatigue in mind. Keeping control of themselves and seeing their triggers takes a huge effort and can be emotionally/mentally draining for them. They can only be managed for so long before them become fatigued and the training/management loses its power.
Stay tuned. Later this week I will post some good visuals that relate to thresholds and reactivity management. I hope you are able to find some value and peace of mind from these posts if you too have a reactive dog. You are not alone!