Help for Your Dog-Reactive Dog
Imagine that you are walking along a lovely trail at a local park. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and your furry companion is trotting alongside you. Suddenly, you spot a dog coming toward you! There is no way to veer off the path. Your muscles tense. and you automatically tighten the leash. As the dog and his owner come closer, your dog’s body stiffens. His eyes become laser beams and he begins to pull toward the dog. In an effort to control him, you admonish, “Stop that! Walk with me!” But the pulling only becomes more intense. Just as the pair begin to pass you, your dog explodes in a flurry of lunging and barking, looking for all the world as though he wants to tear the other dog to bits. Does any of this sound familiar?
People whose dogs are sociable toward other dogs have no idea how stressful it can be to have a dog who is not dog-friendly. Having a dog-reactive dog affects everything from taking a simple walk to attending a training class to being able to go camping or anywhere else dogs might be present. Although you love your dog, his behavior may be frustrating, embarrassing, or even infuriating at times!
Maybe your dog is unfriendly toward all other dogs. Or perhaps he has a canine buddy at home, but views unfamiliar dogs as the enemy. Maybe he’s relaxed around some dogs he encounters but turns into a lunging maniac around others. You might even be concerned that something is wrong with him, especially if your previous dog did not have the same issue. Is your dog simply a bad dog? Should you consider a future for him that doesn’t involve you? No and no! Dogs have emotional issues and baggage just as people do. Whether you purchased your dog from a breeder, adopted him from a rescue or shelter, or took him in from another home, there can be many underlying reasons for his behavior. Keep in mind that your dog is not purposely behaving as he is to make your life miserable. He truly cannot help it, and feeling the way he does is no picnic for him, either. The good news is, regardless of your dog’s past history or the reasons for his attitude toward other dogs, his behavior can be modified.
Before I describe what you will find in this book, let me tell you what you won’t find: punishments and harsh physical corrections that will scare your dog into submission. Our canine companions deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. Besides, the vast majority of what is termed “dog aggression” is actually fear-based reactivity. Issuing a harsh physical correction when a dog displays a seemingly aggressive behavior might well interrupt what he is doing at the moment, just as you smacking me if I nervously bit my nails would cause me to stop immediately. But it would not solve the underlying cause of the behavior. The fear and frustration your dog would feel from being harshly corrected upon seeing another dog might create an even worse association, resulting in the behavior becoming more severe and even possibly damaging the bond of trust between you.
What you will find in these pages is concrete, immediately useful information. In Part One, we will examine what true aggression is and how to differentiate it from the far more common fear-based reactivity. You will discover possible reasons your dog behaves as he does and will learn to identify with pinpoint accuracy what triggers his reactions. In addition, you will gain the ability to recognize even the subtlest body language that can clue you in to how your dog is feeling before he has a full-blown reaction. Understanding your dog’s body language will not only be key to changing his behavior around other dogs, but will also help you to understand how he is feeling from moment to moment in your everyday life together.
Part Two lays out the four pillars of the Foundation Program: nutrition, exercise, mental stimulation, and leadership. Think of the program as being akin to the operating system of your computer that runs silently in the background, allowing the software to work. In this section you will find recommendations that go way beyond the standard “Feed a healthy diet” or “Give your dog enough exercise.” There are nuances in each pillar that can make a huge difference. Solid management is also discussed in this section. It is crucial that outside of controlled training sessions, your dog not be exposed to other dogs in a way that could inadvertently push him over threshold, the tipping point at which he begins to react. Careful management will ensure that your efforts are not thwarted by random encounters. As a whole, the Foundation Program will not only benefit your dog’s general health and well-being, but will also make your efforts to transform his behavior that much more successful.
Part Three is where the fun starts! Here, you will teach your dog a variety of skills that will enable him to pay attention when asked, to walk calmly past other dogs, to perform an alternative behavior to lunging and barking, or to follow you out of the area, depending on the circumstances and your preference at the time. You will also learn which training equipment is beneficial and which to avoid. The skills in this section, by the way, are not your usual sit, down, or stay obedience basics. Chances are you have not encountered most of them in a group class or even trained them on your own. One particular skill is actually never trained in a group class to my knowledge; it is one I adapted from a dog sport to use in addressing dog-dog reactivity, and it works amazingly well! Having a variety of techniques in your training toolbox will allow you to deal with various situations competently and confidently.
Part Four contains the meat and potatoes of the behavior modification process. Because you cannot expect your dog to pay attention to you or to perform a skill when he is overly aroused, you will first learn how to change his underlying emotional response when seeing another dog. Once that has been accomplished, you will be able to implement the valuable skills that have been taught. You will also learn how to design a behavior protocol and when to make adjustments depending on your dog’s behavior.
Although the previous sections alone are sufficient to help you change your dog’s behavior on walks, the reality is that behavior happens twenty-four seven, and situations such as your dog constantly barking at passing dogs from your living room window can set your progress back. For that reason, Part Five covers how to handle common problems, including how to curb barking in the car, how to ensure that vet visits go smoothly, what to do if you encounter off-leash or stray dogs and, in case the worst happens, how to break up a fight. Also discussed are group classes, and what to look for in a professional behavior specialist, should you decide to employ one.
Last but certainly not least is Part Six. This is where you will find complementary tools and therapies that can help across the board. Some may be familiar, while others most likely will not. None involve medicating your dog or doing anything that might cause harm. What they all have in common is that they are gentle, non-invasive ways to help your dog to feel more relaxed overall, which will help when he encounters other dogs. You will also find a bonus technique called The Invisible Friend that can make a big difference on your walks.
Rest assured that as a professional trainer with over thirty years of experience, as well as a dog mom to a now well-behaved dog who was very dog-reactive when I rescued him, I know the questions that will be on your mind as you read through this book. I have made a point of not only addressing common questions within each chapter, but also giving plenty of alternatives and fixes in case the prescribed techniques do not work for your individual dog in every situation.
You might be tempted to skip the initial sections and turn directly to the how-to chapters. I know I would! But please don’t. There is a wealth of extremely important information leading up to those chapters that will greatly affect the success of your efforts. Read through the chapters in order and implement changes gradually along the way. In doing so, you will not only gain a better understanding of your dog and get more control over his behavior, but you will also be building a solid framework on which to construct a successful behavior modification program.