First of all, let me apologize.. my reactivity series has been absolutely all over the place! Out of order, poorly planned… just a bit of a mess. I’m putting them all in the “reactivity” category so if you want to find them all and read them in a manner that makes more sense to you, hopefully that will make it possible and easy enough for you!
We’ve explored fear-based reactivity but there are several other types that fall under my very broad definition. I figured reactivity caused by a high level of arousal could easily lead to barrier frustrations, so why not start with a potential root cause. Most dogs who are reactive because they are too excited tend to be dogs who are extremely friendly and driven by social interactions. These dogs often are great while off-leash playing with other dogs but the act of being “near” another dog without being able to interact freely causes them to react.
Dogs who are overly excited or whose reactivity is caused by being overly aroused, are not that different in terms of what one can do to remedy fear-based reactivity. In the big picture I build focus, reward calm behaviors, and continue to decrease the threshold.
When working with fear-based reactivity, the first step I generally take is working on counter conditioning to change the Conditioned Emotional Response. Dogs who are fearful often have a quick trigger, once they hit their threshold (or if they suddenly find themselves above threshold) they just start to react. It’s a little bit more black and white than dogs who have high arousal levels. These dogs tend to build their anxiety and arousal levels the longer they are exposed to a trigger (no change in distance needed).
Much of the work I would suggest we have talked about previously, Carwork, BAT, and LAT. Build default attention, work on rewarding calming signals, and teach the dog to engage with the trigger for a reward. The extra pieces that I would highly suggest working on is a relaxation protocol, rewarding calm behavior and work on teaching the dog how to settle down after a state of high arousal.
Although I do not generally follow Dr. Overall’s Relaxation Protocol to a “t” nor do I suggest it (in its entirety) to most people (I find it’s just too much for most people to actually follow through with it), I do think it can be helpful for dogs who have arousal problems. Building relaxation as a behavior can be quite beneficial. It’s another way to reward a behavior so it’s more likely to happen again. I’d follow the protocol inside for the first few days and then take the work outside (assuming the dog is doing well). I’d focus the outdoor work to areas that the dog frequently visits–hopefully during off-times when the dog can be successful. The more we can reinforce calmness and relaxation out in the world, the more likely calmness will happen again out in the world.
In addition to working on a relaxation protocol, I suggest teaching a dog how to settle after getting riled up and how to think while riled up. I like to capture relaxed behavior by working in a small boring room like a bathroom. You get the dog a little riled up by playing tug and then disengage the dog and wait. Eventually the dog will lay down (or show calm behavior). When the dog downs you can mark it verbally and reward with either a lower value reward or something form a food tube. I do not generally use the clicker for this because I find the clicker increases the arousal level and defeats the purpose. I also prefer either a lower value food or a food tube to keep arousal levels lower. I repeat the process with the goal of the dog relaxing quicker and quicker each time the game ends. Learning to stop the increase in arousal level is so helpful in both preventing the increase in arousal but also the ability to bounce back from an overly exciting situation.
I also like to work on teaching some self control (having done some of the aforementioned work). I set up a situation with a dog at a distance. I will reward and reinforce calm behavior with a high rate of reinforcement while stationary at a distance (below threshold). When I have the dog’s attention pretty well, I start working toward the trigger dog. The entire time I’m ONLY moving forward if I have my dog’s focus and a loose leash. I am still using a high rate of reinforcement to reward LLW, focus, and calm. If the dog starts to become overly aroused, I cue a “u-turn” and walk back to the starting point and start over. Hopefully each successive attempt will result in getting closer and closer to the trigger while remaining calm. If both dogs know each other and are known to be friendly on leash you can reward by letting the dogs interact, if that isn’t an option, you can reward for proximity by giving a jackpot reward or offering a tug as a high value reward. The dog gets to go where it wants only when it is calm and the leash is loose. You can even go step by step. Take a step, stop… wait for focus/calm behavior… click/treat…. take another step and stop… wait for focus/calm behavior … click/treat, etc.
There are a few other tools I have in my tool box but they are not necessarily tools that I would suggest to be used in all or most cases. I think they can be easily misunderstood and misapplied if just basing them off of a blog post–SO, with that in mind, I’m going to stop there.
The big idea to take away when working with dogs who have high levels of arousal is to work on reinforcing calm behavior, teaching dogs to cut off the arousal (or come down quickly afterwards), and teaching dogs to have some impulse control, all in addition to the work previously mentioned.