The First Steps to Training Your Reactive Dog

When it comes to reactivity, every dog is an individual. Our approach to working with each dog may vary based on the root cause of the reactive behavior. Some dogs are only reactive when there is a leash or barrier keeping them from getting to the trigger.  Other dogs are reactive to something as simple as movement.  No matter how your dog reacts to their trigger, it can be helped with training under the guidance of an experienced behavior consultant.  A reactive dog can learn to look to your for guidance when exposed to a trigger instead of lashing out.  With careful training, you and your dog can build trust to enter new environments with confidence.

Training your dog to be more relaxed when exposed to a trigger can be a challenge for some.  It requires consistency and patience, but the results and freedom are worth it.  Once you and your dog spend some time getting to know one another, you can take these techniques with you anywhere! 

Positive Reinforcement

Punishment suppresses behavior, but dogs who receive that form of training often end up less confident and can exacerbate their behavior long-term. A dog that is reactive is often just scared or insecure.  So when you associate pain or discomfort with the dog’s fear of their trigger, you end up with a dog that is even more reactive to stimuli than before.  In addition, it teaches the dog that pain and punishment comes from their handler. To quote an article from Psychology Today regarding a study on the long term effects of aversive training:

“It seems as though a negative emotional pallor has descended upon the dogs which received the aversive and force-based training as compared to their compatriots who received positive training. Those aversively trained dogs simply are not expecting anything good to be coming as a consequence of their behaviors and choices.”

Positive reinforcement is the process of giving your dog a reward for behavior that you’d like them to repeat.  Giving your dog a treat or affection will make them want to work with you more and repeat the desirable behavior.  And when you give your dog treats or affection, you’re teaching your dog that all good things come from you.

Remember that training your dog is all about bonding and building trust, not control.  You as a pet parent should be giving your dog the choice to respond to you and your cues.  A dog who chooses to listen is going to be far more confident than one who is forced to.  And a dog who trusts you will feel safe when following cues.

Finding The Threshold

Finding the right place to train your dog can be a bit of an art.  You need to be in a place where you and your dog can have enough distance from their triggers while being able to expose them productively!  If you dog barks at cars you need to find a place where there are enough cars at an appropriate distance. If your dog lunges at humans then you need to find a place where there are people at a great enough distance. If your dog lunges and barks at dogs, then…. You get the point.  Usually a public park is a good place to find any one of these things and they offer wide open space to create distance between you and everything else.

Now here comes the fun part.  There are three distances that your dog can be from a trigger.  Let’s say your dog reacts to other dogs.  If you’re too close to another dog, your dog will lunge and bark and rehearse the undesirable behavior.  If you’re too far from other dogs, your pup won’t even take notice that there are other dogs around and you don’t want that either.  What you do want is a distance at which a dog will notice that there’s another dog, but not lunge or bark at them.  This space is called the sub-threshold; and it’s the only distance where your dog can start to learn.

In some cases, you will find a distance from the trigger where a dog no longer reacts, but they also won’t listen to cues or take treats.  That means that you’re still too close.  You have to be close enough the your dog notices the trigger, but not so close that they are unable to listen.  You’ll have to spend some time playing around with your proximity.  Be patient and pay close attention to your dog.  Their body language will tell you what to do.

Understanding The Behavior

You know how sometimes it feels good to shout?  Like when you win something, or you’re happy to see your friend?  Or you’re having a bad day and nothing seems to go correctly? The same is true for dogs.  Dogs bark because it feels good and releases tension.  And sometimes barking can be like a mini reward.  Your job, as the handler, is to give the dog a reward that is better than barking.  We recommend treats or a favorite toy.

The goal is to reprogram your dog’s brain – essentially reorganizing the neuro-pathways in their brain.  Right now, they react to stimulus in a way that you don’t want them to.  You cannot stop them from reacting, but you can ask them to behave differently when stimuli is introduced.

We all know that giving a dog a treat means that you’re rewarding them for a desired behavior.  The same is true in this case; however, you need to link the new desired behavior to the stimuli.  Essentially the presentation of the stimulus is the cue for the dog to offer the new, desirable behavior. This is called stimulus control.

How To Reprogram Your Dog

Step one – Find the Sub-Threshold
Once you’ve arrived at your training destination you need to wait for your dog to notice the trigger.  The trick to reprograming their behavior is taking advantage of the moment they recognize their trigger is nearby.  You’ll know that you’re in the right spot when your dog sees the trigger but does nothing.

Step Two – Reward The Behavior
As soon as you see your dog notice the trigger mark with a clicker or verbal marker and give them a treat.  Essentially you’re rewarding them for anything other than reacting (which is way better than having them bark).  If your dog does not take the treat, it means that you’re still too close to the trigger.  Adjust your distance accordingly and try again.

Step Three – Repetition
You’ll do steps one and two until your dog eventually expects a treat when they see their trigger.  At this point you have reached your goal.

The Result

Once your dog is automatically checking in when the trigger is presented, you’ve succeeded.  You’ve “rewired” your dog to control their impulses.  Instead of reacting, now they’re looking towards you for guidance.  This begs the question: “Now what should you do now that you’ve arrived at the destination?”

Continue to do this exercise with you dog and re-evaluate the threshold once a week.  You may find that the distance that it takes for your dog to react lessens, and eventually diminishes, because of your newly improved communication. The most important part of the journey is the improvement in your relationship with your dog, and that they feel comfortable and confident with you while out in the world.

Would you like help with your reactive rover? Check out the fall Academy session!


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