“Why doesn’t he completely lose it when you are working him? I don’t understand. How does he know the difference, I only gave you the leash!”
I heard this from a client quite a while back and the answer is so simple but so difficult at the same time. When he was handling his dog and it started to react he would choke-up on the leash (shorten it), tighten the leash, eventually lean over the dog and then frantically try to hold his dog to restrict his movement (grabbing the collar/harness). He was reacting just as much as his dog was but he really didn’t see that. I talked him through what he does when the dog reacts and he figured out what he had been doing. A few weeks later a dog came into class late which set his dog off into a reaction (our goal is to always keep the dog below threshold but sometimes things would set him off). As the dog was reacting, the guy went through his normal frantic paces of trying to handle the dog, I opened the barrier and took over the leash and within moments the dog was able to control himself again and focus on me. When I asked what I just did differently, the handler smiled and laughed… “everything!”
He was totally correct. While the handler would be frantic and clench down on the dog to try and control him, I stood tall, stayed calm and redirected the dog’s focus back onto me. I didn’t get in the dog’s face at all, didn’t loom over him, and the closest thing to physically restraining him was cuing a U-turn and increasing distance (and there is likely tension on the leash as I moved away until he gives up reacting and comes with me–at which point I reward). Putting the brakes on the reaction really requires a calm reaction.
Although that’s great, being able to calm down a big reaction, the biggest difference comes from preventing the escalation of a reaction in the first place. Remember, at the first sign of a reaction the handler would tighten the leash, start looming, etc. I firmly believe this response to the very beginning of a reaction is what really makes such a huge difference. If he were to approach the impending reaction in a way that was less, well, reactive himself, I think he could really prevent the reaction. This dog was easy to redirect and responded to cues easily if caught before a full-blown reaction. The dog could be getting tense maybe even mildly barking/lunging but could still be easily redirected… but as easy it is to redirect him, it’s just as easy to set him off into a full reaction. Staying calm when the dog starts to react (or starts thinking about reacting) really does enable the handler to stop the reaction before it starts.
It can be incredibly frustrating and stressful walking/handling a reactive dog. I even know how ridiculously embarrassing it can be to try and handle a dog who looks like a raging lunatic at the end of the leash. It is difficult but it is so important to remain calm and relaxed when working with reactive dogs. Whether we recognize it or not, we really do communicate a lot of information down the leash, with our tone of voice, and our body language. I also wouldn’t doubt for a minute that the dogs can pick up on our own adrenaline rush. It is easy for people of reactive dogs to also become reactive but it’s important to try and resist the urge! The calmer the person stays, the more likely that they will be making rational choices and will be communicating more clearly what behaviors they’d rather see. “No, No! Sit, down, bad dog! Sit, shush, stop it!” All came out of a woman’s mouth in like 1.5 seconds as her dog reacted to mine at the park one day. Her voice was high pitch and was just spewing out the words like an auctioneer… there was no way her dog could translate the words coming out of her mouth let alone respond, so the reaction continued to escalate.
One thing that I think is very important for handlers of reactive dogs is to practice what to do if the dog starts to react. Practice the emergency u-turns (walk-aways), practice doing random evasive maneuvers and have your dog follow, practice using a hand target to break the focus, practice playing the name game to regain focus, etc. The more you practice the various evasive moves and management options, the more they become ingrained in your behavior, and the less you will have to think about what to do if your dog starts to react–you will simply act. It’s like building muscle memory for how to react in case of an emergency. I was a lifeguard for years back in the day. We practiced the various water rescues, first aid, emergency plans and CPR on a somewhat regular bases. Although I never had to use the skills at my job (thankfully), I was at a dog event where two dogs got into a bloody dog fight. All the practicing of how to respond to an emergency really enabled me to stay extremely calm in the situation and once the dogs were apart, I was able to help with cleaning up some wounds and stopping the bleeding so the dogs could get to a vet. If I hadn’t had the regular practice of how to respond to an emergency I probably would not have been as calm in my response. I got more comments about how calm I was given the situation than about the fact I had a crazy amount of gauze pads, vet wrap and antiseptic wash with me (which was pretty comical, I just kept pulling more out–though by the end, I was tapped out)!
Practicing and preparing for potential situations can help in remaining relaxed on two fronts–1. you have prepared for the situation and know what to do, you don’t have to think about what to do, you just do it 2. you know you know what to do so you are more confident in your abilities.