So, here’s the deal, I’d love to be able to feature specific stories and give examples of how I would approach a specific situation (based on the details made available). I’d like to post the information of the specific situation and respond to how I would approach everything. I think it may be more helpful than some sort of more abstract discussion.
If you have a reactive dog send me an email with details about the pup and his/her reactivity and I’ll select some to work through. Again, all names will be changed but the details of the email will be just pasted into the blog. Not all will be posted but if you’d like to perhaps be a sample case, drop me an email to email@example.com
There is no way to address the various types of “reactivity” (or whatever we want to call all of those things) in a single post. Heck, I would probably fall short in my descriptions in some ways or another if I spent several days on each topic. Reactivity (or what I’m calling reactivity for simplicity’s sake) is a really big topic with an almost endless ‘answers’ that are very dependent on the situation. There are, however some pretty common plans of attack so to speak for the different causes of reactivity.
When we are talking about reactivity based in fear (typical reactivity) there are some basic things that get worked on in almost every case. In many cases, the very first thing that I choose to tackle is to change the Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to the stimuli. If we can change the CER, it makes the subsequent rehabilitation steps that much easier. CER is an automatic response to a stimuli or cue that has been learned from past experiences–it is not a choice or actively thought about, it is an emotional and automatic reaction. Soldiers who suffer from PTSD often have CERs to sounds that mimic explosions or gun fire–if they hear fireworks they may have flashbacks which may cause violent responses to the noise. We have many CERs in our daily life, the ice cream truck song=happy feeling from childhood memories which causes me to smile and pat my pockets for spare change (it’s completely automatic… even if I have no desire for ice cream, I still pat my pockets) and emergency sirens=check rear view mirror and slow down while my heart rate increases because there is the potential for a speeding ticket.
Reactive dogs who are fearful are not choosing to behave in the way they do, they have been conditioned to automatically respond to a stimuli with some type of reaction. What we need to do is pair the stimuli with something positive to create a new response. If, instead of ice cream and happiness, the ice cream truck song was on police cars handing out speeding tickets, I would probably have a very different reaction to the tune.
What we will do is pair the scary thing (stranger dog) with something extremely pleasant, then we can begin to change the CER. So instead of the automatic response being to react and put on a massive display to get the stranger dog to leave, the new CER will be anticipation of food at the presence of the stranger dog.
To change the CER we rely on the repetition of an event happening (the stranger dog being present) with some type of positive feedback. Confusing enough? It’s actually very simple. We will change d0g=potential threat to dog=yummy food.
With the reactive dog on leash, the handler should be completely ignoring the dog (maybe reading a book, or watching tv). The stranger dog enters the world (at a distance where the reactive dog will just acknowledge the stranger dog and maybe get focused but not close to their threshold) and as soon as the reactive dog notices the new dog at a distance, the handler says “wow, good boy, what a great boy!” and feeds the dog one treat at a time. For as long as the stranger dog is in sight, the fearful dog should be getting food and attention. After 30 -60 seconds (or so) the stranger dog should leave. As soon as the stranger dog is out of sight, no more food to the reactive dog. Bar opens when the stranger dog enters, bar closes when the stranger dog leaves. Adding to the dog=food connection that is being made, is the idea that the dog is being ignored unless the stranger dog is in the room which makes this training that much more effective. If every time the reactive dog sees a dog he/she got a treat, eventually he/she will look forward to seeing dogs and won’t feel the need to put on a reactive display .
The important thing with this work is that the reactive dog is well below his/her threshold. We could be talking of distances of 50ft or more depending on the individual dog. We want the reactive dog to notice the strange dog and suddenly treats rain down on him. The reactive dog doesn’t have to do anything for the treats….treats simply appear when the other dogs is acknowledged and then the treats go away when the other dog is out of sight. I generally try to do set-ups but you can do this at a park as well… if you sit off the path quite a ways you can just wait… when a dog comes into view you just start feeding your dog treats until the dog has gone by. Ideally you’d want to do this not during the busiest time but also when you’ll get in multiple opportunities to reward for another dog walking near.
This change in association (strange dog=food) will alter the CER and instead of having a fearful melt down at the sight of a dog, he/she will likely see the other dog and look back to the person for the treats! This new response allows the training to move forward because we aren’t fighting a losing battle against a dog whose automatic response to seeing another dog in the distance is a meltdown. Now, the dog should be able to think with a dog in the distance which is important for any number of “next steps” in the process.