Tools for Reactivity

Again, my apologies for being totally out of order, but I just realized it may have been helpful to talk about the tools I suggest for working through reactivity.  I do think there are some training tools out there that are actually quite counterproductive when working with reactive dogs.  It’s mostly anecdotal, but it’s something I have seen with enough frequency to find it worth mentioning.

Front Hook Harness

I am a huge fan of using front hook harnesses for reactivity.  They really are more than just a no-pull tool.  I have found that when reactive dogs wear front hook harnesses, many do not have the same level of reactions.  I think it has a lot to do with removing the pressure from around the neck.  A dog who is increasing in their anxiety finally hits the end of the leash and that pressure around the neck kick starts the full-blown reactions.  If a dog hits the end of the leash on a front-hook there isn’t that pressure around the neck, instead they feel a squeeze on their body which may actually help prevent the reaction (again purely anecdotal).  Plenty of research has been done about the soothing/calming response to body pressure–Thundershirts work on this principle.  Since front hook harnesses are sort of snug around the chest, it may have a similar effect (before getting a Thundershirt, I would put a t-shirt on Bandit under a tight fitting harness with some good results).  Some front hook harnesses that I suggest are the Sense-ation/Sensible Harness by Softouch Concepts, Freedom No-Pull Harness by Wiggles, Wags & Wiskers, and lastly is the Easy Walk Harness by Premier–I put the Easy-Walk last because I think it is hard to fit on a variety of dogs (especially broad chested dogs, they tend to get rubbed raw under the arm pits), the chest band is easily stretched out, and the I have some concerns about the martingale feature on the front pulling shoulders out of alignment on dogs who pull frequently.  That being said, former foster dog Dexter fit in the easy-walk beautifully and it was great for him.

Food Tubes

I think food tubes are the bees knees when working reactivity.  Often times dogs will get very hard mouths when stressed out and food tubes can save hands from taking abuse.  I also really love the continual reinforcement option… dogs can lick the food out of the tube the entire time a trigger is in sight (counter conditioning), there is no pause between treats that can give them enough time to react.  It’s easy to administer and there is no need for carrying around a container of something like peanut butter.  I used to use peanut butter on a spoon (and I still do at times) but the food tube is really far superior.  It’s clean, quick to offer rewards, easy to use, and offers a very wide variety of possible rewards–plus it keeps your fingers safe from dogs who get hard mouths.

Clicker

Shocking right?  I don’t generally push clickers on people whose main goals are a dog who doesn’t pull like a maniac and who doesn’t jump… you can get both behaviors easily enough without needing a clicker (and many of these people aren’t interested in training enough to spend the time working with the clicker, which is perfectly fine).  I do think using a clicker can be very helpful when working reactivity.  Timing is so very important that using the clicker can help achieve the precision timing needed.  When working with Look-At-That, it’s important to click looking at the dog not turning back to the handler… a slow click won’t hurt anything, but you won’t get the behavior you wanted.  The other benefit is that the click is a unique noise that has become a secondary reinforcer–simply hearing the click is reinforcing, so when a clicker savvy dog gets clicked they are actually being reinforced twice… once by the click itself and once with the primary reinforcer (food).

High Value Rewards

When I talk about high value rewards for reactivity it really is food rewards almost exclusively (with few exceptions).  Using food to treat reactivity is giving the handler an added bonus, when dogs chew/lick they are reducing stress/anxiety and are producing “happy” brain chemicals that can have a positive effect on the dog’s reactivity level.  Types of high value treats that I frequently use–canned premium dog food in a food tube (fish, rabbit, and venison varieties are a big hit), broiled hot dog bits, string cheese, peanut butter, boiled chicken, fishy-fudge (tuna based homemade treat), homemade meatballs (ground meat, bread crumbs [I frequently use oatmeal], egg, garlic), roast beef or deli meat, etc.  I once had someone using whipped cream in a can and another who used ez-cheez (cheez whiz).  There are some instances where I will use tug as a reward for dogs so they can get out some of the stress/anxiety in a more positive manner (this is not something I’d use with dogs who already have an arousal problem).

Head Collars

Head collars, or more specifically the Gentle Leader and Halti are tools that I rarely ever suggest.  However, if you have an extremely large dog or a dog who will bite if reacting, then I think head collars can be important safety tools.  It’s important to properly desensitize the dog to the head collar before attempting to use it–if you just put it on and hope for the best, you could very well ruin any chance of successfully using the tool.   There are dogs who, even with the most careful desensitization, will never accept a head collar and others who are not forgiving if you rush the process of desensitization.

I feel as though I have forgotten something but, as implied, I cannot figure out what… so I may end up adding some extras if I remember whatever it is I have forgotten!

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About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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28 Responses to Tools for Reactivity

  1. Ettel E says:

    I think it’s also important to note under food tubes that licking is a calming behavior. I taught my dog reactive Poodle to lick on cue and he uses it when he’s stressed – and I taught it with a food tube. When he’s closer to threshold than he should be and can’t use licking of his own accord, I offer him a food tube (if available), and he visibly relaxes while he gets into the “zone” and licks.

    • I knew I wrote about that somewhere in the post but have it in the high value rewards part, but you are absolutely correct. It’s one of the reasons i use the food tube w/ reactivity. That constant licking is itself a calming mechanism that can take a dog who may have just started to cross the threshold back to being below threshold. Until we can safely teach our dogs to chew gum, I think the food tube is a great tool to get that constant licking going.

  2. Kristine says:

    I wish I’d known about front harnesses back in Shiva’s reactivity hey day. I’ve even thought of buying one now just to use when we travel to new places. She doesn’t react but I know it would help with the crazy pulling. I will have to put it on the list. Those nose harnesses kind of bother me, however. They are probably awesome if you know what you are doing but I dislike the idea of leading my dog around by her nose. Potential for too much disaster, in my opinion.

    But then, I rarely know what I am doing!

  3. gotspots says:

    Where would I be without my food tubes .> Lol

  4. Kat & Holly says:

    Wonderful post! I’ll have to make me a food tube, Holly’s no longer reactive, but I doubt she’d object to a new type of high-value reward.

  5. I used a Gentle Leader on my dogs for a while, but moved to a front harness rather quickly. It seems to work quite well, although Sage isn’t much of a puller.

    • I really do prefer the front clips over head harnesses. There are very few instances/situations where I suggest them… i just think they are too much of an aversive for most dogs and that they aren’t that necessary.

  6. bztraining says:

    Love, love, love the no-pull harness. And so do the boys. Zachary is convinced collars are for “lesser” dogs. 🙂

    • Haha! Zachary’s got the idea! LOL–though I do suggest always having a collar with tags/ID on as well as the harness just in case the dogs somehow gets loose. I really do just love that there is an option that is less aversive.

  7. Great explanations of why you choose the tools you do.
    Another quick suggestion, for those that don’t have a food tube handy, another thing to try might be a kong stuffed w/peanut butter for those hard mouthed dogs.

  8. Very informative read. Thank you!

  9. Mel says:

    I was going to mention that I also think there is something about the front hook harnesses that apply to pressure points and then I read you mention that. I have found that it works wonders to have a front hook harness. We sued the Easy Walker at our shelter for the strong pullers and reactive dogs. I actually wouldn’t mind trying the one you have in your picture instead. The Easy Walk is okay, but it constantly needs to be readjusted. Drives me crazy.
    I had not heard of a food tube before, but I really like the idea. I also hadn’t thought of licking as being a calming activity, but of course it is. Makes sense that it would work.
    I worked with a few reactive dogs in my business and found that sometimes just turning and walking the other way until they calmed down or focused on me and then turning around and trying to walk forward again worked with many of my clients, but it takes time and patience and not everyone has that kind of time, or patience to do it. The smarter dogs caught on quickly though.
    Really great post!

    • Thank you! The harness in the photo is the Sense-ation Harness (same design but different nylon to the Sensible Harness). I really love this harness. I have found that fewer dogs get rubbed raw by this harness and it doesn’t need to be adjusted as often (*I’ve used the easy walk and the senseation with heavy pullers and while with really heavy pullers both need adjusted periodically, the Senseation didn’t need it nearly as often). One of my dogs could fit the easy walk just fine but the other two would have developed nasty rub burns from the fit… yet all three fit into the Sense-ation beautifully (there are, I’m sure, some dogs who fit the easy walk better but I haven’t encountered but one or two of them). The Senseation harness fits further back behind the shoulders so it doesn’t rub as often on the dogs. I haven’t tried but would LOVE to try the Freedom harness, I’ve heard WONDERFUL things and have had students use it and really love it but I haven’t had the opportunity to use one.

      Working with reactivity is certainly a trial in patience. It’s very easy to get frustrated and embarrassed by reactive dogs so people are quick to give up… but I think there are different management tools available to help things go as smoothly as possible (choosing when to walk, having escape routes for walks, some amazing name recognition and focus work). It is true that not everyone can handle reactivity. Even within the professional community. I know trainers who can work with fear aggressive dogs who have crazy bite-histories until the cows come home (but who aren’t dogs who put on big displays)… but give them a dog-reactive dog and they are really pushed to their own personal sanity limits.

  10. Laura N. says:

    This is a great post! I’ve never heard of the food tube idea. I like that one. The clicker works magically for our leash reactive dog. We are big fans. I also use the Sensation Harness and prefer it. It definitely helps take away the edge that pulling on his neck creates. Thanks for the tip on the food tube! I would definitely use something like that if we were in a place where we couldn’t use the other options. 🙂

    • I do love the food tube… it’s so ingenious but so beneficial. I’ve used it with fearful dogs because they get an extra few inches from me and they don’t have to touch me at all. I will say, before you test drive it in a high distraction environment, you should use it before so your dog can figure out how to get the goods… it’s a different concept and some dogs take a few attempts to figure out how to get at the yummies!

      I really love my Sense-ation harness but i’d love to have a chance to try the freedom harness because i’ve heard such good things… but until then, the Sense-ation is my go-to harness 🙂

  11. Of Pit Bulls and Patience says:

    Oh man, I wish I had read this yesterday! I have an Easy walk harness for my pit bull, Skye, who is always hard to fit stuff too. Her chest is big but her shoulders are fairly small, so the harness isn’t a great fit. But when the harness is on she never ever thinks about pulling, so it’s been working just fine. Today I brought home a male pit bull to foster, who is strong and has no leash manners. I decided to buy him an Easy Walk too, even though the fit wasn’t excellent. Sadly, I assumed that the other no pull harnesses would have a similar problem without the convenience of an employee discount, so I didn’t look into it. This is me kicking myself in the pants. Really helpful advice though!

    http://parkerskye.blogspot.com/

    • Well, if the easy-walk fit causes injuries, you know there is another option to try out (Sense-ation company is AMAZING with their customer service and they will go over the measurements for the dog over the phone and suggest the right size… and if the size doesn’t work, I’ve heard that they are good about returning items-though I dont’ know this first hand). Give it a go, maybe he’s a lucky one who fits it well enough that it doesn’t rub him raw!

  12. Prudence says:

    We love the Sense-ation harness. Mom loves walking me while I’m wearing it, so much easier. She’ll have to try the food tube, very interesting!

  13. Fallah says:

    I’ve never heard of food tubes either but I think they would be really useful in my house! I have two dogs and whenever the treats come out they are both throwing behaviors and stealing each other’s morsels. With a tube I can just offer it to the right dog. I can also easily take it with me and make it last forever when working on leash-reactivity with the GSD pup. I may use one of the Kongs until I can get my hands on the real thing!

    I also desperately want a front-clip harness, ideally for both dogs but especially the GSD. He barks and lunges at “intruders” and maybe the slip collar is making it worse. (The regular-style harness definitely made it worse! So we switched to the slip collar.)

    Thank you for writing this series on reactivity! I have found several good tips.

  14. We had no luck with the Easy Walk either. It just did NOT fit my Lab correctly. I found this brand, – http://www.wiggleswagswhiskers.com/newsite/freedom-no-pull-harness.htm and OMG, it is awesome. It even has a back clip for when we are walking in places where there are not a lot of dogs, (Toby pulls more around dogs), so it can be used as a front clip or a regular harness.

    • I DESPERATELY want to try the Wiggles and Wags freedom harness! I’ve heard amazing things about it! One day, when i have the extra funds, I’m definitely going to give it a go! It looks like an awesome harness!

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  16. Alexandra says:

    Hi there! Just wanted to say that I really love your blog. I’m finding your training tips very helpful as I work with my mildly reactive rescue dog. Just wanted to let you know, since you mentioned that you wanted to try it, that I actually tried out the Freedom Harness for a month with my pup, and I hated it!
    I had high expectations, since the reviews I could find on it (albeit there are only a few reviews available online) were all raving. Wiggles, Wags, and whiskers recommended that I use the training leash with the dual connection, so I ordered the set that included the harness, dual leash, and training guide. While I appreciated their nice customer service, and their attention to detail (such as velvet to prevent chafing), I didn’t like how the harness and leash operated in real life. When I walked on the street with my dog, the leash would get all twisted up from simple movements like if she would go sniff then turn slightly. Every time it would get twisted, I would have to pull over to the side of the sidewalk and try to unravel it. I didn’t like the puppet-style handing. I also didn’t like how the rear connection (on the back) operated by squeezing her body for pulling. I didn’t feel comfortable using a tool that used any pain or discomfort on my already sensitive dog, especially in a situation where she would be prone to reactivity. Just my thoughts and experience! Glad the harness has worked for others, though! I plan on ordering the sense-ation for my dog and trying it out this week. Have a great one!

    -Alex

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