About a month ago, I set up a private appointment with Amy Cook, PhD who specializes in fearful and reactive dogs. We had hit a plateau in Odin’s reactivity training and it seemed like the traditional counter conditioning was no longer was working with Odin. I was very surprised to discover that Amy had been only 30 miles away from us this entire time! Amy was amazingly knowledgeable and had a long list of recommendations that she wanted us to try out with Odin.
The first and most profound change Amy recommended was moving away from using calm behavior while doing counter conditioning around Odin in the presence of the trigger. She wanted us to use play and fun to illicit an emotional change in Odin around his triggers. I want Odin to feel happy in the presence of a trigger, so I use a reinforcer that makes him really happy (a tennis ball). We switched from calmly giving Odin treats in the presence of a trigger to GASPING when we saw a trigger and then starting to play with Odin. The play could be done using toys or treats. We agreed that since a tennis ball is Odin’s highest value item, then that was the item we should be using. We got Odin a tennis ball on a felt rope (ETSY Link) that were easy to hide and play with on walks. We use the same methodology as traditional counter conditioning. The ball toy comes out when Odin sees the trigger and goes away once his trigger is out of view. We also started practicing playing with Odin while out on walks and while in the house. We GASP and then we start playing with him. Usually, I pick certain light poles or bushes and pretend those are his triggers. I GASP and then start playing with him. The GASP is a stroke of genius on Amy’s part. When we get surprised we will GASP, so we might as well condition our dogs to think it means play time.
The second recommendation Amy gave us was to change our walking location. We are no longer walking near the house as Odin has increased reactivity near the house. We think this may be due to territorial behavior as his reactivity is very bad when we are near or in front of our house. Also, walking through the neighborhood created a lot of situations where we could run into surprise triggers and situations where we could not increase our distance if necessary.
Changing locations has transformed Odin’s success rate for encountering triggers. We found a great park with very clear sight lines and lots to sniff and lots of room to create distance if needed. Over the past month we have seen over 50 dogs and have only had 5 reactions. There is nowhere in this park for triggers to surprise and there is always room to create distance.
Another recommendation from Amy was to get Odin out of the harness and onto a flat collar. This was due to the pressure that the harness will put on Odin’s entire body if I start pulling on him. Any pressure will make him explode and the harness made it hard to control the tension. Odin has lose leash walking in the bag, so there was no concern over using a flat collar. She also recommended that we walk him on a ten foot leash. Tension in the leash can almost guarantee an explosion from Odin in the presence of a trigger and 10 feet also would give Odin more freedom to sniff/explore while on walks. Per her request, I ordered Odin a personalized 1.5″ flat collar (ETSY Link) and a 10 foot leash.
Learning how to walk with such a long leash took a couple of weeks to get the hang of. Learning how to play with Odin with his toy while he was on the long leash took a little longer. Sometimes we got so tangled up we were like the scene in 101 Dalmatians.
We also stopped playing the “look at that game.” While this works for many dogs, for Odin, this only increases his stress and needs to ignore the triggers rather than look at them. Also, I do not want him feeling like he has to look at the trigger multiple times in order to get a treat. Currently we are working on getting increased/consistent focus and ignoring the triggers. The best way I have found to train this is to have a dog walking behind us (if the dog is walking the same direction, Odin has little to no reactivity) and pay Odin to when he makes eye contact and continue paying him for continuing his eye contact. This started out with me saying “Yes” almost every step so he wouldn’t break his eye contact, but as we have worked on it he has gotten better. Walking past people, he is breaking his contact with me less and less and is learning to ignore the world around him when I tell him to “watch me.”
As Odin gets better and better with his “watch me,” we have started to increase the difficulty of him keeping his eye contact. When we have a dog behind us and Odin is looking at me, we make a 360 degree turn and I reward him for keeping his focus on me and not looking at the other dog. We started doing this at great distances from the trigger and as he has gotten better, we decreased the distance between him and the other dog.
Overall, everything we have changed has increased Odin’s success rate while walking. He is less reactive in general. Yesterday we were out on a hike we passed two bikes and two hikers and he barely gave them any notice. Walking Odin is significantly less stressful and is actually enjoyable now. I look forward to taking him out for his walks and playing with him on the walks. I can tell his emotions are starting to change when he sees other dog. When we ran into a surprise dog while out walking. He happily looked at me when I Gasped and was ready to play with me.
4 Pieces of Advice for Dealing with Reactivity:
(1) Know what your dog finds reinforcing – Use the things your dog finds exciting. Emotional change comes from inspiring a new emotion. I want Odin to feel happy in the presence of a trigger, so I use a reinforce that makes him really happy (a tennis ball).
(2) Practice! Practice! Practice! – Practice the tools you will need so they become reflex! Practice playing and taking treats. Practice Gasping so the dog will associate that with play. If you cannot do these things in the comfort of your home, how can you expect to do them out in the real world? You wouldn’t go do a piano recital without practicing the song 100 times so it is reflex, so you should do the same when it comes to reactivity training! Pretend like you are walking past trigger. Pick an object (such as a light pole or a car) and make that your trigger. Practice the tools/methods you will be using and perfect them in a controlled environment.
(3) Set up for success – Pick a location to walk that increases your chances of success and gives you the most control over the triggers. The more positive associations your dog has with their triggers, the more successful you will be long term. When we encounter too many triggers in one day, we are on edge and stressed. Dogs can read this stress and they themselves cannot relax and walks turn into a stressful time. The reduction of daily pressures and decrease in seeing too many triggers turn walks into fun and relaxing endeavors. Before long, the relaxation becomes more of a habit and expectation.
(4) Listen to the needs of your dog – Not every dog is the same and not every method will work for you. “Look at that” stressed Odin out and he feels much more confident playing “watch me” in the presence of another trigger. But other dogs might like keeping their eye on the trigger and will make them feel more calm. Listen to what your dog is telling you. If they are playing “look at that” and they are getting more and more worked up as time increases, “look at that” might not be the correct option for you.
I want to hear from you! What does your dog find reinforcing? How do you set up for success? What methods/tools work for your dog? The more we share with each other, the better we can get at understanding our dogs!