We’ve all seen them – those nightmare dogs who lunge, leap, growl, snarl, snap, bark, threaten, bare their teeth, act like bullies, and charge at other dogs. They ruin visits to dog parks and even walks around the block. They’re out of control. They shouldn’t be allowed!
It’s only natural to feel angry or annoyed when you encounter a problem dog. That’s scary enough – but it’s worse when the out-of-control dog is yours.
Years ago, almost no one used “reactive” to describe these difficult dogs. They were called “aggressive,” and most trainers applied physical corrections. Today “reactive” describes several related problem behaviors, and the emphasis has shifted from physical punishment to positive-reinforcement training.
Like many who have reactive dogs, I was not prepared. My first two Labradors, Samantha and Chloe, were calm, friendly, relaxed, and easy going. Neither ever chased a deer or a car. From time to time I heard about the rehabilitation of problem dogs but didn’t pay much attention.
Now I’m making up for lost time. My crash course in reactive dog training began two years ago, when my Labrador Blue Sapphire was six months old. Blue would love to race after not only tennis balls but animals, skateboards, kids on bikes, motorcycles, joggers, and anything that moves. For months she erupted with ferocious barking as soon as she saw motion – a hiker, dog, deer, or bike – 50 or 100 yards away. No one meeting us would assume that this growling, barking, lunging terror was otherwise intelligent, affectionate, and a joy to live with.
Since then, in addition to working with talented local trainers, I’ve been studying books, DVDs, articles, and online classes devoted to reactive dogs. Blue is mastering impulse control and I’m learning a lot about training. Perhaps some of what has helped us will help you as well.
FIND SOME BOOKS…AND MAYBE A VIDEO
You don’t have to purchase the library’s worth of books I’ve invested in, but multiple descriptions can help you understand and implement effective training programs. Trainers presenting the same basic information do so with different examples and approaches, at least one of which may be a perfect fit for you, your dog, and your schedule. If you prefer video demonstrations, try some DVDs, webinars, or online classes.
It would be wonderful if these resources came with magic wands that transformed our dogs overnight, but alas, they don’t. They offer tools that we have to master and practice in order to help our dogs develop patience, confidence, and good manners.
Some of you may be most interested in how and why dogs become reactive and what their body language means; you may find technical descriptions and the language of behavior modification fascinating. Others may be impatient to skip the technicalities and start training, or want to focus on the emotional and energetic bonds connecting dogs and humans. No matter what your approach, you will find resources that will help advance your understanding and ability to deal with your reactive dog.
For a topic that barely existed two decades ago, reactivity has spawned a training industry. So far I’ve studied 40 books and more than a dozen DVDs from force-free trainers, some of whom live with reactive dogs and all of whom have helped inexperienced handlers change their reactive dogs’ behavior.
What exactly is a reactive dog? Reactivity describes a dog’s over-the-top or excessive response to specific situations, such as seeing a person, animal, other dog, or unexpected object. Dogs are called leash-reactive when the frustration caused by a restrictive leash overwhelms them (see Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell). Blue is a good example, for once she’s off-leash on a trail or in a dog park, she plays well with other dogs.
In the training book The Midnight Dog Walkers, Annie Phenix says, “A reactive dog responds to normal events in his environment with a higher-than-normal level of intensity. Some of those overreactions include barking, whining, lunging, hypervigilance, panting, pacing, restlessness, and difficulty responding to his owner, even for well-known cues such as ‘sit.’”
Aggression is usually defined as threats to harm an individual, whether human or animal, with attacks, attempted attacks, or threats of attack. Underlying causes of aggression include guarding or protecting territory or family members, guarding resources, prey drive, physical pain, and frustration. According to Pamela Dennison in How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong, aggression is a normal canine behavior, so it’s important to channel a dog’s natural aggressive instinct into socially acceptable activities. This can be done by identifying the dog’s unique issues and redirecting her actions.
The first time Blue leaped in the air, snarled, and lunged at another dog, I was too startled to think straight. When she did it again, I was upset and confused. To me – and I’m sure to the people who saw her in action – she looked aggressive and dangerous. In and out of the house she began reacting in the same noisy, alarming way toward anything unexpected.
We did well in the American Kennel Club’s STAR puppy class, but when we took the Canine Good Citizen test, the neutral dog did us in. Here was a new dog! And a new person! It was all too much!
In addition to the training classes we took with Adele Delp at Canine Fitness (caninefit.com) here in Helena, Montana, I hired Jeff Lepley (happytrailsdogservices.com), who had recently completed Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers certification.
It was Jeff who helped me understand that when Blue barked at distractions, she was frightened. At first I found that hard to believe because she looked so fierce, but the logic made sense. Yikes, there’s a strange person/thing/animal/whatever! I’ll scare it away! See? It worked!
THRESHOLDS AND TRIGGERS
Thresholds are borders at the edge of a dog’s peaceful, comfortable state – the place or time when some stimulus causes the dog to experience stress, anxiety, or fear. A trigger is any stressor that occurs within the dog’s threshold, resulting in reactive behavior.
When a dog is “over threshold,” as Sunny Weber explains in Beyond Flight or Fight, “it means that the animal has lost control of logic and his brain is engulfed with stress hormones, making reasoned thought or learning impossible.”
What is your dog’s threshold? Blue’s extended as far as she could see in any direction, but once a scary visitor was inside the house, she relaxed. For some dogs it’s all about proximity – the closer the threat, the more intense the reaction. For others it’s the unexpected. Inanimate objects like parked cars and plastic bags startled Blue if they appeared where she wasn’t used to seeing them. Studying your dog’s threshold is important because with every repetition, a dog’s reactive behavior becomes stronger and more established.
Canine body language offers plenty of clues if we train ourselves to notice them. Handlers whose attention wanders won’t observe changes in posture, ear or tail positions, hackles, eyes, or facial expressions, all of which give important signals. When Blue was leaping in the air and barking her head off, subtle cues had already come and gone, but with practice I learned to recognize them and redirect her before she progressed into full reactive mode. One simple test is whether she’ll take a treat. If not, I know we’re already over threshold. If she takes it in a distracted way, I know we’re close. Either response gives me options like changing direction, moving to a new location, getting her attention back, and practicing familiar commands.
Knowing how to interrupt a reactive response is worthwhile, but avoiding it is even better. As Sue Brown explains in Juvenile Delinquent Dogs, “The first step to changing your dog’s behavior is to prevent it from happening in the first place…. Preventing a behavior is called ‘management’ and it is done by managing your dog’s environment. You will save a lot of frustration, stress, anger, and energy if you focus on managing your dog’s environment rather than reacting to your dog’s unwanted behaviors.”
Annie Phenix agrees. “If I could enforce a signed pledge that owners won’t expose their dogs to the outside while they’re enrolled in the Growly Dog class, I would surely do it,” she says. “I ask for no walks during this time because it is critical to keep the dog under threshold (don’t put him in a position where he barks, lunges, growls, etc.) while we are reframing what an oncoming dog or person means to your dog. We are rebuilding trust and communication between owner and dog as well. It’s like a bank account built of trust. We spend four weeks building up that all-important account, and one scary incident can wipe out your savings, particularly in these beginning stages.”
Pat Miller, whose training articles are familiar to WDJ readers, says in her book Beware of the Dog, “If something you’re doing is triggering your dog’s aggression, stop doing it. If something or someone else is triggering the aggression, prevent your dog’s access to that person or thing, and prevent that person or thing from having access to your dog.”
To this end, Miller and other trainers recommend blocking a reactive dog’s access to windows, fences, and similar triggers. When left unsupervised, Blue monitored upstairs windows, watching open fields and hiking trails. If something moved, she’d go ballistic.
In Help for Your Fearful Dog, Nicole Wilde warns readers to keep reactive dogs away from “lookout posts.” Because the barking that results is self-rewarding, she writes, it is likely to continue. “The problem is that with each incident, adrenaline and other stress hormones are flooding your dog’s system so that her anxiety level spikes. The cumulative effect can be a dog who is perpetually stressed and on guard.”
I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to appreciate the damage caused by Blue’s lookout posts, but setting ground rules and maintaining them made an immediate difference. As Wilde recommends, I closed doors leading to upstairs windows and interrupted barking by calling her to me, praising her for coming, asking for different basic behaviors (sit, down, touch my hand, watch me, let’s go), and rewarding her with favorite toys or treats. Whenever I leave the house without her, Blue stays in her crate or in a quiet room with closed curtains. Without the constant reinforcement of outdoor distractions, the indoors stays peaceful.
ACT LIKE A TRAINER
In 1993, Jean Donaldson videotaped dog trainers and dog owners to see what they did differently. As one would expect, all of the dogs performed better with professional trainers, but there was an even more important difference that Donaldson didn’t notice until she rewound and fast-forwarded the tape while collecting data. In Train Your Dog Like a Pro she writes, “I was amazed to find that I could identify whether the person on the screen was a trainer or not with just a one-second sample or even a freeze-frame, based strictly on whether the person was attempting to train the dog at all.”
Donaldson calls this difference “the perseverance gap.” Typically, non-trainers tried something a few times, such as getting the dog to lie down, and then, whether successful or not, they stopped training and waited for the next activity. Once again they tried two or three repetitions and then quit. In between, they chatted with anyone nearby, checked their watches (today they would check their cell phones), or petted their dogs. Most of their training time consisted of this “between-training” dead air.
In contrast, the trainers constantly watched their dogs while doing one repetition after another. Donaldson says this pattern was evident whether the dogs caught on quickly, were difficult to train, were already highly trained, or were unruly novices. “The trainers trained like bats out of hell,” she says, “and the non-trainers were mostly on break time.”
Count that as a breakthrough realization. No one had videotaped Blue and me in our classes, but if they did, we’d see a lot of between-training dead air. Following the advice to “fake it till you make it,” I imagined Jean Donaldson observing us as we walked up and down stairs, practiced heeling in the living room, went outside, paused at gates, came inside, paused at doors, went to the dog park, practiced retrieves, practiced recalls, practiced basic obedience, and practiced tricks while Blue received undivided attention, rapid rewards, and enthusiastic praise.
My second turning-point trainer was the late Sophia Yin, DVM, whose DVD exercises revealed just how slow my timing was, how my posture was incorrect (bending over the dog, not standing straight), and how my reward delivery was vague and inconsistent. Practicing along with her workshop participants made my movements faster, more direct, more decisive, and easier for Blue to understand.
In her video workshops and in How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves, Dr. Yin focused on “sit” as an automatic behavior equivalent to “please,” because insisting that a dog “sit for everything” helps one become a clearly communicating leader while changing the dog’s perspective.
In addition, Dr. Yin recommended tethering, attaching dog to handler with a hands-free leash, and wearing a bait pouch containing not just a fraction of the dog’s daily food allowance but all of it. In other words, during the early phases of training, all of every meal arrives one piece at a time from the handler in response to correct behaviors.
Because Blue’s raw diet doesn’t work well in a bait pouch, I loaded up on hand-feedable treats that could replace parts of her dinner. Tethering and keeping the bait pouch full improved my observation skills, helped me notice and reward every behavior I wanted to encourage, kept Blue motivated, kept her away from threshold-threatening windows, and reminded me to act like a trainer.
A third breakthrough author, Amy Sutherland, helped me appreciate force-free training from a completely different perspective. While writing a book on modern training methods, Sutherland spent a year with the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Moorpark College in California. Her follow-up book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, focuses not on killer whales and other creatures but on humans struggling to master training fundamentals.
By applying modern training methods to every aspect of her own life, Sutherland changed herself, her husband, and all of her relationships. Several of the books listed here discuss challenges like unsympathetic observers, anger, and vocal criticism faced by those with reactive dogs, but Sutherland demonstrates how the versatile laws of behavioral training can transform handlers as much as the animals we work with.
FOUNDATION AND DEFAULT BEHAVIORS
Foundation behaviors are responses so thoroughly practiced and automatic (think muscle memory) that the dog does them without thinking. These are often basic obedience commands, and they provide alternatives to whatever a dog is doing (or about to do) that is other than what you want. Most of the resources listed describe how to teach, practice, and improve foundation behaviors.
In When Pigs Fly: Training Success with Impossible Dogs, Jane Killion calls automatic attention the mother of all behaviors and one of the first things we should teach our dogs. “There is no point in teaching your dog how to do things if he is going to ignore you when you ask him to do them,” she says. “Attention is the foundation for any training program.”
As Patricia McConnell explains in Feisty Fido and her DVD “Treating Dog-Dog Reactivity,” the attention or “watch” cue has many advantages. “Teaching an incompatible behavior is a time-honored and elegant solution to a lot of behavior problems,” she says, “and it works wonderfully with fidos who are a bit too feisty on leash walks. Additionally, by teaching your dog to look at your face when she sees another dog, you’re teaching her what you want her to do, rather than hoping she’ll figure it out for herself.”
In addition to making eye contact, Pamela Dennison’s essential behaviors include name recognition, heeling on a loose leash, accepting touching, accepting secondary reinforcers (rewards other than food), staying in place, coming when called, doorway control (when going in or out of cars or buildings), and remaining relaxed around objects, people, or places instead of guarding them.
In Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt adds the whiplash turn, which is a fast turn of the head away from something and toward the handler. “If the dog isn’t looking at me,” says McDevitt, “the first thing he needs to do is disengage from what he is looking at and orient toward me instead.”
Her instructions include mat training, which involves independently going to a mat, lying down or sitting on the mat automatically, and staying on the mat without fidgeting until released. Blue responded right away to mats, which can be anything from a square of plywood on the ground to a towel, area rug, or bathmat on the floor. That’s where she stays while meals are prepared and consumed, plus whenever the doorbell rings. Outdoors she runs to her plywood mat when we practice retrieves.
Emma Parsons’ foundation behaviors in Click to Calm include watch (make eye contact), sit, down, heel on a loose leash, target (touch an object such as a hand or target stick on cue), stay, come when called, four-on-the-floor (no jumping allowed), kennel up (go into your crate), leave it, and hold an object.
In Out and About with Your Dog, Sue Sternberg recommends three essential skills for moving past dogs and other distractions: watch the handler’s face without interruption, heel on the left side, and heel on the right. “The more treats you use and the more frequently you give them during the initial foundation training, the stronger your dog’s behavior will be in the end,” she says. “Don’t skimp. Have many tiny treats ready in one hand and shovel them into your dog, one at a time, until he is looking at you and there is a constant stream of treats going into his mouth.” Before you run out of treats, put the food away, walk away from your dog, and ignore him for a few minutes. “Leave him wanting more,” she says, “while there’s still more to be had.”
Default behaviors are whatever responses come easily to the dog and which are stabilizing, relaxing, and comfortable. Leslie McDevitt defines a default behavior as one the dog commits to and maintains for the duration of a specific context. “The context is the cue to begin the behavior,” she says, “and the behavior will continue until the context changes or you give your release cue.” The default behavior is automatic and it gives the dog something to do (lie down and chill out, for example) when she isn’t receiving instructions. McDevitt recommends letting the dog choose her defaults. Whatever the dog offers, such as a sit, down, or anything else, can be encouraged, strengthened, and lengthened with attention and rewards.
Studying your dog’s inclinations can help you discover a canine sport for which he has a special aptitude or interest, such as dock diving, hunting/retrieving, scent tracking, herding, agility, rally obedience, nosework, flyball, disc sports, parkour, or trick training. As your dog becomes more confident and responsive to your management skills, any of these might become a perfect match. For inspiration, see Hyper Dog 101 by Kim Mayes; Play Your Way to Good Manners by Kate Naito and Sarah Westcott; and Dog Parkour by Anna Louise Kjaer.
REWARD THE BEST, IGNORE THE REST
Behavioral trainers reward what they want to see more of. This simple strategy is the key to modern training, and it’s based on research. In You Can Train Your Dog, Pamela Dennison describes three basic laws of learning:
- Rewarded behavior is repeated.
- Ignored (unrewarded) behavior stops.
- Once a behavior is in place, random (variable) rewards will strengthen it.
What do we mean by “ignoring” unwanted behavior? When a dog jumps on people, his rewards may include attention, physical contact, shouts of alarm, or an opportunity to run and chase, so the recommended response is to stand still, turn your back, look away, and ignore the dog’s jumping. When jumping isn’t fun any more, the dog will look for something else to do, and when sitting politely earns rewards and treats, that new behavior replaces jumping.
But what about self-reinforcing activities like barking, running fence lines, chasing bikes, or lunging at people and other dogs? Ignoring these behaviors won’t extinguish them, and as long as they’re rewarding to the dog, they will grow stronger. This is why it’s important for handlers to manage their dogs’ environment, plan ahead, avoid triggers, notice changes in posture, and become skilled at evasive maneuvers. Inattentive handlers and reactive dogs are a dangerous combination.
To the basic laws of learning, we can add three suggestions for motivating your dog from Jane Killion:
- Identify the things that your dog loves.
- Gain control of them.
- Exchange them on a regular basis for behaviors that you want.
And as Sue Brown adds, when training doesn’t change your dog’s behavior, one of three things is probably happening:
- There isn’t enough consistency.
- You have not given it enough time.
- What you are doing is not effective and needs to be changed.
The most widely used reward is food, but whatever your dog finds valuable or fulfilling can work. Some dogs live for tennis balls, tug toys, an opportunity to run hard, or play dates with special friends. Verbal praise and physical petting may be appreciated, but they are seldom as rewarding as food, toys, or the chance to do something exciting.
The least rewarding food treat is your dog’s regular kibble. Try filling your bait pouch with a variety of meats, cheeses, crunchy biscuits broken into small pieces, and other tasty handouts.
If your dog enjoys them, interactive puzzles can be amazing motivators. Whenever Blue (a puzzle addict) is almost but not quite reliable with something she is learning, I show her a Nina Ottosson puzzle and she suddenly seems to remember and understand exactly what I want from her and she does it with great enthusiasm.
Many trainers recommend documenting results on a printed form or in a training notebook because keeping an objective record of your dog’s progress will help you move forward without the frustration and disappointment of setbacks.
“We want an ever-increasing level of difficulty without losing the dog by having him quit because it’s too hard,” says Donaldson. She recommends measuring the success of every step in a training session and not moving on until the dog successfully completes the behavior for five repetitions in a row.
When completing a practice set, be sure that all of the repetitions are identical. Don’t change your location, position, the direction you’re facing, your body language, voice, or other signals until you’re ready for the next installment. Paying close attention to what you are doing helps prevent the accidental reinforcing of behaviors you would rather extinguish.
When the dog performs each action successfully five times in a row, she is ready to move on to the next, more complicated, assignment. If she can’t complete more than one or two repetitions, make it easier by dropping back to a previous, simpler behavior. If she completes three or four repetitions, stay where you are and try another set of five repetitions.
The advantage to training in sets is that they clearly show your progress. Endlessly repeating a behavior that your dog already knows is inefficient and boring, and jumping ahead too quickly is inefficient and stressful.
Organizing training sessions helps us be “splitters” instead of “lumpers.” In The Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog, Terry Ryan explains that two of her mentors, the positive training pioneers Marian Breland-Baily and Bob Bailey, taught her these terms. Splitters break tasks into small, easy pieces, increasing the chances for success. Lumpers grow impatient, assume that the dog can move ahead faster, and focus on the desired end result while skipping in-between steps.
As Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes in Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out, “If we lump behaviors – ‘my dog has learned to sit in an empty room, so now I’ll ask him to sit while the doorbell rings and guests walk in’ – we’re going to experience failure and frustration. Splitting can feel ‘slow’ to those not used to it, because it’s many small steps instead of a few large ones, but in the long run training actually moves much faster!”
In support of good training, your definition of “jackpot” may need updating. I used to think that a jackpot, which is a special reward for something done well, would be an unusually yummy treat, like maybe a chunk of raw steak. But that’s only part of it. A really rewarding jackpot isn’t a single treat that’s quickly swallowed, it goes on for as much as 20 seconds or more. That’s a long time!
The other day as Blue and I walked to my car from the dog park, a commotion erupted on the sidewalk ahead. When I said, “Come front!” Blue spun around, sat with her back to the action, and ignored a leaping, snarling, on-leash German Shepherd exchanging words with a leaping, snarling, on-leash Lab. Blue’s jackpot consisted of 30 small pieces of hot dog, cheese, freeze-dried liver, almonds, bacon, turkey jerky, peanut butter treats, and dehydrated bison tripe, delivered one at a time with decisive arm movements while I stood straight and praised her for being so awesome. The distracting dogs went their separate ways and Blue ignored them as we resumed our walk.
LIFELONG MANAGEMENT OF REACTIVE DOGS
If there’s one thing the experts agree on, it’s the importance of ongoing practice. For best results, reactive dog training never stops. Well-managed reactive dogs are often the best-behaved dogs in classes, competitions, at home, and in the great outdoors because their handlers’ management skills are so polished and automatic.
In Better Together: The Collected Wisdom of Modern Dog Trainers, Ken Ramirez observes, “The most impressive changes have occurred with dogs that have had a lengthy break from exposure to triggers combined with lots of fun and advanced training as part of a stable program.” When advanced training is not part of the equation, he says, most of the dogs he has worked with continue to have challenges.
Living well with reactive dogs requires commitment, patience, and a willingness to try new methods. It’s an ambitious investment of time and effort. It’s also one that, as I’m learning with Blue and the resources listed here, can pay a lifetime of dividends.
I have a dog that jumps and nips only when people get up from a sitting position . I’m puzzled as my mother in law she is friendly with , and has known for four years. It’s secondary people in our family not my husband and I. Our dog goes over and accepts pets then does this action… is this a similar situation..?
Karen W. Sounds like your dog doesn’t want people to leave. We had a wire fox terrier who loved people but she would get upset when they got ready to leave. One of our current dogs sometimes does the same thing (the other is afraid of most people, especially strangers). Perhaps a redirection of her attention when your guests are getting ready to go. A favorite toy or special treat? Obviously you would need to inform them ahead of time. Have you tried having her on a leash when you have people visit? Mat training can be helpful. I’m working on that with ours.
Mine allows pets then will jump and snap. What’s that about. I cannot trust him at all
Patrice, maybe too much stimulation? Have you tried putting him on a leash when people come over? Does he do this with or your immediate family or just other people? How old is he? If old could be health issue.
This article contains a lot of useful information. Try digging into more of the resources she mentioned. There are some nuggets in there for sure! I will be bookmarking this page.
very interesting! I think it is her voice, and saying goodbye that can make your dog anxious. My dog actually reacts to certain characters on the T.V, and people in certain people in general. so does our other dog! Perhaps have her bring treats in her pocket next time for your dog and your visitors bring their dog if their bringing theirs? This may change your dogs atmosphere, and get her less edgy in person. hopefully, the dogs will get along or the guests will need to leave their dog out in the car or at home. Dogs do get jealous too, and very protective of their owners voices and their treats! Beware though having another dog unknown to your dog in the home could get vicious! I experienced this with one already, and it was scary!
Karen J, it’s quite possible that her dog is reacting to goodbyes. Bringing treats may work but it is NOT a good idea to bring strange dogs into her home. Most dogs, even normally friendly dogs can be aggressive towards an outsider invading their territory as you’ve discovered. Sometimes it works out well but it’s definitely not worth the risk!
Karen J, you are probably correct that her dog is reacting to goodbyes. Bringing treats may work but it is NOT a good idea to bring strange dogs into her home. Most dogs, even normally friendly dogs can be aggressive towards an outsider invading their territory as you’ve discovered. Sometimes it works out well but it’s definitely not worth the risk!
My cocker is too friendly with people. She is an agility dog and is very active. We go in a bank and she is so well mannered until somebody comes close and then she is determined to meet this person she is pulling at her leash and not even listening to me at all. Her whole body is wiggling so fast and just has to meet this new person. She won’t react to the sit command or if she does it’s only for a split second. She is shy meeting other dogs but people she just has to interact with them. Any advise for an overly friendly people dog? I don’t like her pulling hard on her leash as I worry about hurting her neck. In training she was best in her class , she has her good citizen award plus lots of ribbons in agility and most of the time she is so well behaved and the model dog of manners. How do I calm her down when she sees a person she wants to meet? Help
Certain attitudes/behaviors are pretty hard wired. Perhaps you could train greeting as a behavior, so that she did not do it unless she received the cue to greet. This could perhaps be done by training an opposing behavior to greet, like looking at you glued to your side ( these chained behaviors could be the cue `velcro dog’).
Also, you could use a harness instead of a collar, so her enthusiasm never strained her neck vertbrae.
You could also do an experiment to determine the limits or extent of her greeting behavior needs. Given unlimited access to people, does she meet and greet endlessly, or does she get satiated at some point and stop socializing on her own after 10 (or whatever) minutes? If she had some intrinsic limits to her socialization needs, you could regularly build this into your schedule.
Too bad you don’t have a shop, cause her ambassador behavior would be a huge asset as your shop’s greeter:) She sounds charming.
” Typically, non-trainers tried something a few times, such as getting the dog to lie down, and then, whether successful or not, they stopped training and waited for the next activity. Once again they tried two or three repetitions and then quit. ”
“In contrast, the trainers constantly watched their dogs while doing one repetition after another.”
In my long, comprehensive, positive reinforcement based dog trainer course, I’ve been taught to do max. 3 reps in any exercise, then a finish cue and a break before next session, as this is how dogs absorb the learning most effectively
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This article could have been written by me and my reactive Aussie, Raven. I have read almost all of the books you suggested. I have Dr. Yin’s videos, I hired a personal trainer to help us. Two things stand out (we are a failure on the street) but very successful in mixed class. I have not stopped Raven from running the fence. I have not stopped her from gazing out the front windows. Of course, she barks and throws hissy fits whenever she sees movement on the street.
I am going to begin again with training (managing) Raven. And, I will be very generous with her rewards.
I have never had a reactive dog before. And, I came very close to returning her to the Aussie Rescue Group because I viewed Raven as a dangerous dog. I have had her for two years now. I am completely smitten with her because she is so good and loving when we are at home. My favorite pass time before I got Raven was dog walking my beloved Aussies all over the neighborhood.
Hi Linda, I could have written your message myself as you echo my exact process with my reactive GSDx! I’m also back to the drawing board with managing my boy, I’m working on adjusting my expectations of both him and myself which has been difficult as I got him specifically to run with my on the mountain! I’m now just working towards peace for both him and myself!!!! I wish you every success with your journey, stay strong and positive 🙂
My new dog is a rescue, just under 2 years old – Boston Terrier. He growls and barks at both of my teenage boys, and all male people in general. It’s only been a few days and i’m not sure how to help him. He is perfectly fine with women though. He is also not neutered yet. Could this aggression mean he was abused or yelled at by a man or male figure?
The rescue didn’t neuter him? I’m surprised.
Neutering an already nervous dog could be a bad choice as can make them more nervous after the loss of testosterone. Yes rescues usually do neuter dogs before adoptions though but in this case sounds like they did the right thing not neutering!.
This article is a tremendous and comprehensive resource for those of us who love and live with highly reactive dogs. I wish it had been around when Rubinka Airedale was alive and and am grateful that my recently rescued (2 years ago), 10 year old Rose Airedale will receive the benefits. I’ve tried lots of GREAT books and videos and Rose is much, much better (she didn’t know sit, stay, lie down, etc when adopted; we had to develop a language with which to communicate first) but this articles will help us get to the next level. Thanks very much.
As I sat down to search for ( the umpteenth time) some revelatory information that might help me understand this neurotic poodle, I found this article. I had lain awake in utter hopelessness last night. There’s a spark of hope in me after reading this article. After two years of ignoring her frequent submissive urination, downplaying the greetings, assuring, assuring, and reassuring this fearful dog, it all came to a head last night. I had come home from work and was listening to my mom’s report of finding dog poop downstairs and dog pee upstairs earlier that day, when another member of the family member came upstairs to report the dog had pooped downstairs. I had just been taken her outside! I called to the dog, she cowered away … leaking pee as she went. I put her outside and vowed she’d never come back into the house. She chases people. She runs right into oncoming cars. She chases dogs. She barks incessantly at our goats and chickens. She only obeys who she wants to obey and that is me … but only when she wants to. How much should we endure? Yet, I worry about re-homing her because she is so insecure, or attached or something, that she keeps one of my shoes with her all the time. When I’m gone, if she isn’t outside being naughty, she’s lying with and protecting one of my shoes. She growls if the kids get too close to the shoe. Maybe someone else could help her and they could live happily together. Maybe not. I really don’t know how to help this highly reactive poodle.
Robin, I don’t know if you’ll see this but my heart breaks for your poodle and for you. About a year and a half ago we adopted 2 young dogs after losing our almost 17 year old dog. Both are very high energy and both have a lot of fears (not all the same though). I had never dealt with such anxiety in a dog before. We love them both but sometimes wonder what we were thinking. We do not have children or other animals so that makes it easier for us.
It sounds like your dog has several issues. High anxiety is a big one. Probably severe separation anxiety. She obviously needs to feel near you to have some sense of safety. Do you have an old shoe or (preferably) another sanctioned object that she could have and instruct your family to leave her alone with it? Does she have a safe space like a crate or corner somewhere? Our old dog liked laundry baskets. One of our current dogs will curl up in her crate or hide behind the couch when she wants to be left alone. Have you talked to your vet about the submissive urination?
One of the things I’ve tried is having one on a leash attached to me most of the time for several days. Started on a weekend so that helped.
One of our previous dogs would not poop outside for the first 3 months we had her. I was walking her 2, then 3 times a day! Turns out, she wouldn’t poop if someone was watching. We had her for almost 10 years and still miss her nearly 6 years after she’s been gone.
Anyway, you ultimately have to do what’s best for you and your family, but I encourage you to keep trying if you can.
Robin, it also sounds like she’s afraid of just about everyone and everything except you and even then sometimes of you as well. You didn’t mention how she is or how long you’ve had her. So wondering how long this has been for you all? You mentioned her being naughty outside. Please try to change your thinking about this. She’s is afraid and is reacting accordingly, not being willfully disobedient. I realized that her behavior is potentially dangerous, hence your concerns, but she needs help to feel safe, not scolding. One thing I learned years ago is to never scold an animal for doing its business where you don’t want it to. All that does is make it more fearful. Then they tend to hide it. Hopefully you’re not scolding her but I got the impression that you sometimes do? Or maybe she was scolded by her previous owners? Anyway, you have your work cut out for you. I hope you’ve gotten more help and have more progress since Jan. 🙂🐕 Hang in there!
Thank you for one of the best articles I’ve read on training concepts. Will print for an informal class I teach.
Big difference between leash reactive and leash aggressive…and honestly I wish people who are supposed to be experts in their field would recognize the difference and identify the behaviors which differentiate one from the other. And there is a huge difference! Leash reactive dogs get excited, pull on the lead, and may bark like a banshee, but they don’t snap, growl, raise their hackles, or go into attack mode. To lump all aggressive behaviors under the umbrella of reactive does a great disservice to those dogs who are truly reactive, but don’t have an aggressive bone in their bodies…although they may elicit aggressive behavior from dogs who are and sadly get themselves in a tough and dangerous situation.
Thanks for the great information and great reminder not to get lazy or inconsistent. Guity of both and ultimately, it’s my beloved rescue hound, Shayna May, who suffers the consequences and frustrations. I’m realizing that when Shayna May is leash reactive, It’s own my own nervous energy about what I worry she might do that makes it worse. My calm intervention or distraction doesn’t awlways work, but my nervous voice and yanking never work.
For us, it’s back to our great so supportive positive trainers at Your Dog’s Friend in Rockville, MD., (www.yourdogsfriend.org), who bring a sense of humor and kindness to serious training (and fun variants, such as agility games). Essential is the limiting to small groups (5 or 6 pups) and at least one expert assistant for back-up and special attention when needed. My heroines! They are non-profit, totally in it for the dogs, and their website has great tips and links to helpful articles and studies and practicums. And there are free talks, and now, because of the virus, online learning. I don’t plug businesses but YDF is special.
I’ve heard about them, too bad they’re not in our area! I’ll have to check out their website for the latest info. Thanks!
After several dogs who ignored the world I had one who developed leash aggression. Called I trainer in another city who I had heard gave good advice. First thing she said was that it was obviously my fault because I must have sent a tense message through the leash. I laughed at her, asked why that would be if none of my previous dogs did that and also told her that I was bent over tying my shoe when he reacted and the other dog was not even close. Found trainer closer who gave me much better advice.
This is one of the best training articles i have read. Useful tips from some of the world’s leading behavior Experts. I am sharing it far and wide.
Susan Claire, CPDT-KA, FFCP
My Dalmatian is 23 months old. He was amazingly calm, placid, unusually well behaved. But he was bitten 8 times (first time at 10 weeks), dragged along the floor by his back leg, jumped on, bitten bitten bitten….been to the supervet 7 times with no real outcome (as he was limping and skipping with his back legs since being dragged along the floor), confined to the lead for 6 month…..and until the age of 18 month he was a REAL good boy…for 5 month now he has certain dogs he will just ‘run for’. I have been threatened, shouted at, sworn at. I live in an apartment on the second floor, so no garden and we have to go out and my Quito wants to go on the green outside and I do go with sweaty hands and a heartbeat so loud that I can hear it. And of course, my Quito knows, and now we are both anxious. I have paid three trainers with NO outcome.And now going out is a real pain for me. Indoors Quito is amazing…I work from home, so he is always with me.
He also has become anxious and behaves as I would hit him any minute. He ducks down when my hand goes towards him and he also seems ‘scared’ of me at times. Somewhere this has gone ‘wrong’ and I do not know where and I do not know how to correct it all. The trainer said to keep him on the lead away from dogs, but I can’t. He has some lovely little friends he plays with outside and he is/can be quite submissive to small dogs. He also is a full boy and I have been told if I have him done now and take the testosterone that it can enhance the issues he has?? (my vet did and also all three trainers I have had). I do not know what to do, but I like to have ‘control’ over this situation and I do not know how to do this alone. But i dont want to pay another trainer. Quito is an amazing gorgeous beautiful boy. Once this problem with him is sorted, he would be more than perfect!
Viola, how long have you had Quito? I gather you rescued him or adopted him from a rescue? Poor puppy, no wonder he’s afraid you’re going to hit him! Being abused like that! An apartment is probably not the best place for him but it sounds like you’re committed to working with him🙂. How old is he? Getting him neutered generally helps but I’ve heard that certain breeds need to wait longer than most. Also waiting too long may cause problems too.
Do you have a friend who might be willing to help you? There’s a lot of good training information on this website and others. I’ve found lots of very helpful advice, videos, etc. Also consider calming supplements and/or a calming shift. Medication can be helpful in some cases too.
Fabulous article. My Gracie, a (cocker mix) is a rescue that I’ve had since she was 2 years old. . She was found on the freeway and someoine took her to the pound. She is 4 years old now. She loves the cats in the neighborhood, and all of my neighbors. She likes 3 of the dogs in our neighborhood, but gets very reative when she sees other dogs, strangers, UPS, Mailman, any car that doesn’t belong in our neighborhood. She lunges, barks, pulls, jumps aggressively. I am going to try your suggestions. My question is: Will a Gentle Lead help? I’d rather not use one, but would like to hear from you. Thanks so much.
Thank you for writing this. I started searching for help this morning as I’m getting beyond exhausted trying to figure all this out with my dog. I have a 130 lb Great Pyreenees mix who is 3. I’ve had him since he was a puppy. We moved a year ago to get a better neighborhood for my child and I as our last one was rough but it had an easy set up for a dog. The now house has a trail right behind our fence that cuts through the entire neighborhood. It’s lovely but when anyone comes by all the nearby dogs bark and go the fences. Now mine has taken the running the fence and is looking and sounding more like a rabid beast to me every day, even going nuts when a new puppy got walked by….a cute little puppy! Normally, I walk him a lot, he gets time at an off leash hiking park about an hour / 5 days a week and then and a long leash walk in our neighborhood later in the day which has helped him stay calm (he’s great with dogs in an off leash park. All the dog parks have been closed now for 2 months with the Covid situation and leash walks are what we’ve had and it’s now becoming pretty awful. He’s reacting now to many dogs now and it’s a handful. Dogs that are doing nothing but walking…no threat that I can see. I can tell he’s nervous but I don’t know why. I start to see his body tense up and ears go down and then there is no getting his attention. I just try to pull us over off the trail or off a road and stand and wait for another dog to pass, it seems to calm him but not always. When he’s not reacting he walks on a loose leash and is beyond tranquil. We love this dog but it’s getting harder and harder to do fun things with him or enjoy our neighborhood.
I have a puppy who just recently turned 1 year old. When were first looking to adopt and saw her at the shelter she was the calmest of her puppy friends, but that’s not the reason we adopted her. We adopted her because when we saw her something clicked and we just knew it was her that we were gonna adopt. When we first brought her home she was so calm but after a few days and after she had gotten use to everything she started getting a lot more energetic and playful whenever we went on walks. It’s been about 10 to 11 months since we got her and she is now much better on walks. Sometimes when she sees a dog she tries to run at them but most times she just sits down on the grass or walks right past them minding her own business.
Great article !!
I understand that Great Danes are extremely sensitive.
We have covered the windows.
The chain link fence surrounding our 2,000 sq ft backyard is improbable for covering, noting it is 4’ high and our Great Dane could look over it.
As a result, barking inside is reduced to noises AND, recently, TV dogs, horses, etc.
Outside is open territory to see dogs, people, neighbours’ cars in & out of driveways. Lots of barking, with and without raised hackles.
The thought of loose leash walking makes me anxious; I have to consciously calm myself beforehand but those surprise triggers show up and my attempts to circle, change direction, treats (from chicken dog slices to cheese) are ignored and pulled away from. Then we go home. Do I do more or less of LLW ?
(She is almost 7 yrs old).
Thank you !
Thank you for such a great article! I rescued a Spanish podenco girl 10 months ago, she is 2 now (used to live on a street). She’s super sweet at home and was so at first. The rescue said she was good with dogs both in kennels and foster homes but I doubt it now…3 weeks with us and she started going after all dogs. Not just dogs coming up to her but she would run across a field to a dog who isn’y even interested in her, and would try to pin them down, going for their necks, growling. She doesn’t bite, just has this very “policing” style (she also “polices” our beagle boy for doing something not allowed in her mind). However, if we take time to introduce dogs (paraller walks etc), she would still growl at first or try a snap or two, but then either become friends or be neutral.
We’re doing all the training (counter conditioning etc), but at the moment avoiding all dogs altogether, just trying to stay below threshold. But I’m afraid she’ll then won’t learn to meet them? Should I try dog day care? dog classes? (Currently not happening due to Covid). As I said, if she’s given time to meet a dog, she’s fine but it’s not possible on a regular walk or in a park. She always goes quite full on when meeting, she doesn’t know how to approach them in a relaxed manner, etc. Any advice would be appreciated!
I have a kelpie x he is almost 2, he is reactive to other dogs, and is crazy excited when people come in, he doesn’t listen to commands his way of greeting is jumping all over them and licking them.
s fo taking him on walks if he sees another dog he lunches pulls the lead and starts making crying noises and his hair along his back goes up. we have taken him to a dog park a few times, he has done well but then the last 2 times he has started fights, he comes across very dominant and stands over dogs, if the other dog isn’t submissive then my dog will start a fight, I have been doing a lot of research into dog behaviour, he went to puppy school and was like that there at the age of 1year, and now its just becoming more fustrating as a owner, he was a rescue puppy, which that also makes me think did his mother go through somthing while she was pregnant, or when he was born something happened, not sure, but still working through this journey with him.
any thoughts or ideas??
But how can you actually do this?
Oh wow wonderful Post!
Having a reactive dog can be a handful, depending on their degree of reactivity and aggression, even dangerous. Getting these behavior issues under control is not only wise but necessary. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll tell you the story of Kathy, one of my dearest clients, and Lolla, her German Shepard.