Choose your path carefully with your reactive dog
As you develop new skills to help your barking, lunging dog, there’s one inevitable truth we all need to go to terms with. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we already have.
In other words, we need to take a break from the daily barkfest.
If our dog isn’t coping, it’s vital we change things.
Our roadmap to adaptive behaviour rather than reactive behaviour starts by understanding the route we’ll be taking.
We also need to understand the core skills our dogs will need and make sure these are truly embedded before we start.
But it’s not enough to make sure our dogs have the skills and just hope for the best. We also need to take a bit of time out from our regular walks if they cause our dogs to struggle. We can’t just throw them in at the deep end having taught them what swimming feels like from the edge of the pool.
Choosing situations selectively
Choosing situations selectively is something we all do to help ourselves out. For instance, we might avoid all-you-can-eat buffets if we’re on a diet. If we’re afraid of the water, we might avoid deep swimming pools. If we’ve got an uncomfortable conversation to have at work for example, we might avoid our boss.
Researchers in emotional resilience call this situation selection. What it means is that we choose situations that help us manage our emotions better until we have the skills to cope with them.
We avoid places where we would struggle.
It’s not just about avoiding certain places or activities. It can also be about choosing from a range of situations that help us get our needs met. Every time you pick a holiday destination, you’re actively engaging in selecting situations that meet your needs best. You might avoid noisy resorts with a lot of youngsters, or you might actively seek them out. If you don’t like long haul flights, you might choose a location closer to home. And if you’re not a fan of flying, you might choose destinations that involve boats, trains or cars instead of planes.
We choose situations in two ways. We avoid situations that make us feel worse, and we select situations that would improve our lives. If we’re feeling sad, we might seek out places or activities that we hope would make us feel better, for example.
The problem for our dogs
In many ways, when it comes to choosing where to go and what to do, dogs are like children.
Many children struggle with school, for example. That said, most parents do not consider school an option, and so it’s often a case of ‘my way or the highway’ for children.
It’s also a problem for parents because there are things we are obliged to do. We have to provide some form of education for our children. If they are struggling at school, we often have few other options. Much as we might like to homeschool our children, if we have to work, it is not always an option.
Parents also have to balance the needs of their children. It’s hard to choose holiday resorts that meet the needs of both a social butterfly and a more shy child. Likewise if we’re trying to meet the needs of both a teenager and a toddler.
In the same way, it can be very hard for us as owners to pick walks that meet everybody’s needs. If we’re rushed for work or we don’t have a car, we often don’t have options about the walks we can take with our dogs. We’re also bound by social conventions and our own home. It doesn’t matter so much if you live with three acres of land, but if you don’t have a garden, you may not have much choice.
Dogs are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to selecting the location of their walks. We are too, as their guardians. It may not be within our power to change very much about their walks. Our dogs can’t opt out of walks very easily.
Teaching skills discretely
In the last article, we explored the importance of teaching core skills separately.
What that means is we help our dogs learn the kind of behaviours that will help. We can teach them skills that are clear so that they know what to do around distractions.
The most fundamental of those skills is teaching our dogs how to disengage from overwhelming situations.
Once our dogs can do that, we can also teach them to look to us for guidance so that we can make a decision about whether it’s safe to walk on. Sometimes, we’ll decide that we need to stay put or that we need to create some space.
But we can’t expect those skills to be perfected overnight.
They need time to embed.
After all, if our dogs can’t disengage from simple items of low value in the home or garden, how can we expect them to be able to disengage from a dog who’s driving them mad on a walk?
We have very high expectations of our dogs in terms of what we expect them to be able to do. In reality, we often aren’t as proactive as we could be about teaching them the coping skills they need. We perhaps assume that those skills just emerge at some point, or our dogs will just learn better ways to cope. Perhaps we hope that they’ll just be able to behave differently or make more appropriate choices of their own volition.
When we can help our dogs tune their decision-making process, we can make a real difference. We can also teach them the behaviours they’ll need. Our dogs need more support in how they manage their emotions. That means we need to step up and offer them support.
About situation selection
When we choose situations ourselves, we do so for two reasons. Some situations might make us feel worse, so we avoid those. That could involve locations or activities that make us feel worse or cause us to feel afraid or panic. We also choose to go into situations that make us feel better. That too can involve locations that are uplifting or activities that bring us joy.
For us, that might not be a very conscious process. No doubt you are now thinking about the places you choose to go or that you avoid. I avoid one supermarket that is very big and busy. It often has long queues. I hate queuing. It’s such a time suck. I go to the supermarket that is very small and I can get around in ten minutes. The checkout is often empty. I’d rather pay a little more not to stand in queues and to get out of the supermarket quickly.
Before I thought about it, this was not a very conscious process.
I just found myself popping in to one supermarket more than the other.
Choosing situations selectively is a proactive approach on the whole. We take actions that make it more likely we’ll experience positive emotions and less likely we’ll experience negative ones. It’s not always easy to tell how we’ll feel in an unknown situation, so we also use our history to make comparisons and judgements.
The benefits of choosing situations selectively
The benefits are clear: choose a situation carefully and you don’t have to face the problems you normally face.
Choose a different walk with your barking, lunging dog and you’ll avoid all the barking and lunging. You get to have a peaceful walk. Your dog gets to have a peaceful walk.
You’re probably doing this already to some degree. We naturally find ourselves avoiding places where we know there might be chaos. For example, I never park at one particular car park to start our dog walk because there are three dogs outside in the yard who always kick up a stink.
It’s hard for any dog to cope with that first thing on their walk.
I also avoided walking past one of my neighbour’s houses. His dog spent most of the day outside and really struggled when we walked past. It made me sad to see how upset he was, and so we avoided that route, even though it led most quickly and directly to a place my dogs and I enjoyed walking.
When we choose situations carefully, we can proactively prevent all manner of problems. Many people live like this in semi-permanence with their dogs who bark and lunge at others. In fact, one or two of my clients have actively considered moving homes as part of their situation selection behaviour!
Many of us make sacrifices for our dogs that involve smaller changes. For an older dog or where that involves minimal change on our behalf, it’s often an easy thing to integrate into our lives.
The tensions of choosing situations selectively
The toughest bit is where we simply do not have capacity to change much about the world, or where avoidance in the long-term would be dangerous. For instance, if our dog struggles in the vet surgery, this may cause us to hesitate in taking our dogs for treatment. We can’t change much about it so we avoid the situation completely.
Choosing situations selectively is also a management strategy. Management of behaviour and emotions is always fine, and always makes up a central part of behaviour modification for dogs. At the same time, management usually fails at some point or another.
You might, for instance, avoid places without leash laws. Walking a reactive dog is much easier when you aren’t faced with off-lead “friendly” dogs racing up to you when you’re least expecting it.
There will, however, be that one time someone decides they know better. Even though I usually stick to places where there are clear leash laws, there have always been owners who broke the rules.
Managing behaviour also means there’s little behaviour change.
Perhaps, if our dogs have become a little sensitive to other dogs or to strangers or machines, our dogs might re-set. It’s not unusual after a house move, for example, for dogs to feel a little sensitive to things that wouldn’t normally bother them. Dogs like that may well benefit from little more than us choosing walks carefully for a few weeks until they’ve settled in.
On the other hand, most of the barking, lunging dogs I see have a much longer history of this behaviour and a re-set simply isn’t possible. They need more than this.
The limitations of choosing situations selectively
Management rarely leads to behaviour change or adaptive coping skills. It also doesn’t provide our dogs with a way of changing how they think and feel about the world. Not only is it difficult for most people to do, it’s also hard to keep doing. Life gets in the way.
Therapeutic interventions with dogs involve behaviour changes. They also change their emotional response to the world. No doubt, there are also powerful biological and neurological changes at work too. We are actively involved in changing the way animals interact with the world. When we rely on management, none of that is possible.
We’re also subject to cultural and societal expectations that affect how we feel about long-term management. In rural France, nobody questions why a dog may bark at another dog they see in the distance; in the UK, barking at another dog is often viewed as acceptable for small dogs and a death sentence for dogs of particular breeds.
We cannot help but be affected by these views. They affect how often we think we should take our dogs out and the kind of experience they might enjoy. Loose-leash walks and face-to-face encounters are not only seen as par for the course in the UK: they have been normalised.
Thus, no matter how much we may commit to using secure fields or going on leash-only walks, we will have to resist social pressure to conform to expectations about what dogs need or should do. If every time you hear, ‘Oh, it’s a shame for your dog!’ you’re going to feel bad about it, then management is not a long term option for you.
Where it is useful to choose situations selectively
It’s useful to choose situations selectively while you are embedding key skills.
In choosing different routes, you are providing safe environments for your dog to learn. We do this naturally with our children and we need to do the same thing with our dogs.
For example, when we teach children to ride bikes, we choose quiet, flat, smooth, wide streets where we know they will have the best chance of success. We put stabilisers on their bike and we help them find their balance. Then we encourage them and we give them feedback.
We don’t immediately then send them down Skiddaw in the Lake District in charge of a £10000 mountain bike. Nobody is saying, ‘oh, let’s now go and do one of the UK’s hardest legal moutain bike trails with our five-year-old who just mastered life without stabilisers’.
Yet we often expect that of our dogs.
We spend two weeks teaching them to disengage, to focus on us, to u-turn and to walk on loose-leash in optimal learning environments, and then we put them right back into the same challenging arena where they were struggling before.
Relying on curated situations when we’re busy
When we curate situations for our dogs, we actively pick out and manage locations and situations rather than simply leaving things to chance.
This is not simply for dogs. It’s useful for us as guardians as well.
There are times in our lives where we cannot actively supervise and support our dogs. When we are busy, our minds can be elsewhere. We often struggle to support our dogs in the ways that we intend, even if these have already become very strong habits for us. For example, on busy days we may forget the simple things like putting enough treats in our treat pouch.
On days like this, choosing less challenging walks is a way that we can ensure our dogs’ needs are met without putting them in situations that they cannot manage. Let’s face it: the last thing we need if we’re stressed or bothered is an incident with our dog after months of training.
Being able to pick easier walks when we’re struggling to cope with life ourselves is one way we can take the pressure off without neglecting our dog’s needs.
Gradual exposure through selected situations
Like a parent supporting their child as they go from stabilisers to extreme mountain biking, we can also select situations that will help our dogs learn best.
Obviously, a would-be mountain biker will never learn if they stick to the safe, flat cycle paths in your local park. We gradually increase our skills when we actively select situations of increasing complexity.
As we work through training programmes with our dogs who bark and lunge when out on walks, it’s important to be able to provide situations where our dogs can learn. Once they have the skills they need, the safety of totally curated environments will hinder our dogs’ progress and learning. At the same time, putting them at the top of a mountain won’t work either. We need a range of situations in between. This is also where we can select environments according to our dog’s needs.
We cannot keep taking our dogs out on the daily barkfest if we expect them to improve. If nothing has changed so far, we can’t keep doing what we always did. At the same time, when our dogs have learned the foundation skills that they will need, we should not be seeking to avoid every potentially troublesome situation either.
What we are looking for is an optimal level of safety and challenge for those walks where we intend to actively practise skills with our dogs.
It is not simply a binary choice. If we have a collie who barks and lunges at cars, we are not simply choosing between walks without cars and walks with cars. We will find many layers of complexity in between.
By manipulating this complexity in order to create ideal learning environments, we can help our dogs to practise their new behaviours. We could, for instance, choose a walk where cars are only visible occasionally for a short while at a fair distance and then do some training exercises at that level.
Knowing how to manipulate walks so that they are less challenging for our dogs is a core skill for any guardian whose dog is barking and lunging. It is not just part of our management strategy, but also part of our teaching strategy.
To find out more…
You can read this article about gradual exposure
This article about the twelve key features of emotional resilience will also help
You can also purchase the Lighten Up course for frustrated greeters that discusses situation selection at many points, giving you ideas about how to pick walks that will help your dog thrive rather than simply surviving.
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