From Chaos to Calm with Your Reactive Dog
Are you tired of feeling like a tugboat on your walks with your dog whenever they see another dog in the distance? Does your furry friend bark, lunge, or pull on the lead, leaving you feeling frustrated and embarrassed? The good news is that you’re not alone. Many pet dog owners struggle with these behaviours and wish for a more peaceful walk with their furry companions. But here’s the thing: you can’t expect your dog to magically know what to do.
When we decide that we’re going to make a change, it’s vital that we lay the foundations for success. We can’t simply put in a few training sessions and hope that everything will be different from now on. A couple of weeks of training is usually not enough to truly embed core skills. In the last post, we looked at the twelve core skills as we move towards a robust and resilient dog who is ready to tackle anything. Here, we unpick the first skill: teaching skills separately before we embed them into our walks.
Many of us add to our dog’s confusion because we’re not consistent with what we’re asking for. Sometimes, we expect our dog to just carry on walking. At other times, we might ask them to sit and wait. Then there are the times that we decide it’s all going to be too much for our dogs and try an about turn.
We also forget how hard it is to walk on a loose lead all the time. But if our dogs can’t do it in more favourable conditions, it’s not really fair to expect them to be able to do it when the going gets tough.
We all start off with the best intentions, doing a couple of days of training. Yet we often expect our dogs to go from easy situations into really tough ones. It’s the equivalent of playing a few Sunday League matches and then thinking you’re ready for a high-stakes International with players who have dedicated their life to performing this one single thing.
Worse, we also celebrate our dog’s joyful and excited emotions, but then feel decidedly less warm about any negative emotions. We have high expectations. Our expectations are ironically most lofty when our dogs are least likely to cope.
We need to face up to reality: if our dogs can’t do things in fairweather situations, they won’t be able to do it when they’re struggling.
We can make our dogs’ lives easier by reducing confusion and also by teaching them the coping skills they will need in tricky situations.
For instance, if our dog gets stuck barking and lunging at other dogs, we need them to disengage. We need them to be able to take their eyes off the other dog. We also need our dogs to be able to disengage their nose, head, brain and attention. Instead of fixed staring, our dogs need to be able to move their head away.
Some people rely on head halters to do this. Dog trainers may well recommend head halters to help you out. The problem is that if head halters work to manage a dog’s attention, they do so because they put pressure on the dog to move their head.
Head halters can take a long time for our dogs to get used to. It can sometimes take months to train the dog to accept a head halter. All that gradual desensitisation can take an eternity.
We also can’t afford to injure our dogs if they pull into the halter by accident. That can cause some pretty nasty injuries.
Like any management technique, they don’t teach the dog anything. Our dogs rely on us to manage their behaviour. They never learn skills for themselves and they certainly don’t internalise the learning. Between the time it takes to habituate a dog to a head halter and the fact that even then, they work to control the dog, we might as well have trained the dog in the basics.
There are two absolute fundamentals for reactive dogs. The first is that they need to be able to walk on a loose lead in all sorts of situations. If your dog can’t walk on a loose lead when there are no exciting animals about or there’s nothing to be afraid of, then it’s very unlikely they’ll be able to when they’re in more challenging conditions.
The second foundation skill is a solid recall.
To be honest, if you have a solid recall that works in all circumstances to get the dog’s attention and your dog always walks on a loose lead, you may feel like you don’t even need to break down the other skills.
It can be really helpful to do so, though.
A recall starts with one simple behaviour: we have to have a noise that cuts through the chaos. Sadly, many of us leave it too late to get our dog’s attention. We may also rely on words or sounds that don’t even work when we’re living on Easy Street. Some dogs associate their name with negative experiences like being stopped from doing what they want. Others have learned that when we call them, something exciting is probably going down elsewhere.
So we need our dogs to be able to either respond to a cue that gets their attention, or we need them to be able to look to us and check in of their own volition. Either is fine. Both are handy.
Beyond checking in with us or recalling when we ask, we also need them to be able to disengage more than their nose and head. Many dogs simply go back to doing what they were doing even if we are able to get their attention. We need better than that.
This is why we also need our dog to be able to move towards us. A head turn will turn into a shoulder turn. That will move into a recall.
We forget sometimes how the most simple of things like a recall can be made up of a lot of complex processes.
First, we need our dogs to have made meaning out of the sound or word we use to get their attention. Then we need that to be followed by them disengaging their eyes, nose, head, brain and attention. This is followed by a shoulder turn and a return to us.
It’s a lot more complex than it looks!
There are other things that can be really helpful. We’re going to run through the eight fundamental skills our reactive dogs will need out in the real world.
#1 Find a word or sound meaningful
Sound is designed to break through chaos and get our attention better than any other sense. It’s no surprise that emergency vehicles rely on noise to get our attention. Alarm clocks, smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, seatbelt warnings and vehicle motion alarms all make use of this sensory advantage. Your nose may be able to disregard the smell of smoke when you are asleep, but your ears will hear the alarm. Your eyes may miss the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, but your ears will hear the sirens.
Unless you plan on using an air horn with your dog, you may struggle to know how we can make words or sounds meaningful to our dogs. This is especially true if your recall cue has failed more often than a politician’s promise. Also, if you plan on the air horn, you may find that your dog really has no interest at all in approaching you and whatever it was that made that noise.
You already know how to make sound meaningful to your dogs. I lived with a cocker spaniel who could hear me opening a packet from the bottom of the garden. We simply pair up sounds or words with yummies. We don’t hold back on the good stuff. If you want your dog to drop everything and listen to you, make it clear and make it worthwhile. Don’t be cheap.
#2 Move their eyes and head towards us
Did you ever have those, ‘look at me when I’m yelling at you?’ conversations when you were growing up? No? Just me, then?
We often equate paying attention with looking at the person asking for it. Thousands of children have been traumatised by the very thought of being asked to look at someone yelling at them, as if they couldn’t possibly be listening if they weren’t also looking.
Why we need this skill from our dog actually has nothing to do with this old chestnut.
We need our dogs to disconnect their eyes (and brains and attention!) from whatever is exciting them or making them feel worried, and we need them to prepare to move away. You can’t easily move away when your whole body is still pointing in the direction of all the stuff bothering you. Honestly, it doesn’t particularly matter to me if your dog does not want to look directly at your face, but we do need their head to be pointing somewhere in our general direction after we make the noise or say the word. My spaniel didn’t find her way to me and the rustling packet bum-first. No. Head first.
If you want to kickstart the process, Leslie McDevitt’s ‘up-down’ game is ideal. Start in the home and then work out from there. Practise in a lot of different locations around a lot of different challenges. If you can’t get this simple skill in easy situations, then it’s worth building up their value right from the beginning in your kitchen. The up-down game is perfect as ‘busy work’ as well so we can keep our dog occupied.
#3 Move towards us
The next step after disengaging their nose, eyes, head, brain and focus from whatever is bothering them is moving towards us. We need them to complete the action.
It’s no good if our dog simply gets stuck wherever they are. We need them to orient towards us and take those first steps, even if we’re walking on lead.
When our dogs can do this, it is much easier to shape that movement into something else, like a u-turn or being able to keep them busy.
In order to shape this movement towards us, Deb Jones’ two-treat toss is a really easy way to make it our dog’s default action once they’ve disengaged from whatever there is in the environment that’s been bothering them.
So many dogs get stuck at the end of the lead barking and lunging. Often, that means we are too close. Our dogs need space. Wouldn’t it be nice if our dogs could just move with us instead of sticking like glue to the spot?
A fluid u-turn is an absolute gift. We almost walked right into a very disgruntled Lhasa Apso this morning. Thanks to a great u-turn, we all avoided a scene. No matter how many times I see a dog who could have really benefited from an Exit Stage Left way before they started to struggle, it does not seem to be a behaviour their owners had even contemplated.
Get into the habit of fluent, fluid u-turns in all situations and you’ll find it much easier to do when you’re about to run into trouble. That habit is for you as much as it is your dog.
#5 Dip their head to the floor
Quite often, we can avoid a scene with our dog if they have the habit of dipping their head to the ground right in front of them. People often overlook the very simple skill of teaching their dog to dip their head to the floor on cue.
Just think of the times your dog might miss that foaming-at-the-mouth Beast of Bodmin Moor ambling across the path, or that cat who decided to shoot out at the last minute if you could ask them to ‘go sniff!’ knowing that their nose would hit the ground.
A head dip is an amazing behaviour.
When you can prolong that head dip with a scatter feed or an intense olfactory ground search, you can avoid so much trouble!
#6 Be able to engage in Busy Work
Busy work is simply the art of keeping yourself occupied. Many dogs simply don’t have a busy work habit. They’re not used to their guardians trying to do things with them on a walk. Instead of engaging with us over a tug toy or a few simple games, our dogs carry on to bark and lunge. We could have avoided this so easily if our dogs had the habit of letting us keep them busy in emergency situations.
There are times when it’s simply not possible to do a u-turn. If you do a u-turn only to find yourself facing oncoming trouble, then being able to do a little busy work at least helps your dog keep their mind busy instead of barking and lunging. Let’s face it: they don’t need more practice doing that!
We forget sometimes that this is a habit like anything else. Simple games like the up-down game and the two-treat toss aren’t simply good for helping our dogs look to us or orient to us. They’re also good for keeping our dogs busy in emergencies.
Many of us make the mistake of asking our dog to sit and wait while things that really excite or worry them move in. Brain strain often takes over and then our dogs can’t do anything at all. It takes a lot of effort to sit still and change how you’re acting. Instead of expecting our dogs to cope when a cat is running towards them or a stranger is moving in, it’s easier to keep them busy for the approach. It can also work for the depart too.
Keeping busy when other things are going on is a habit though. It’s worth investing in that habit.
#7 Sit and wait
Not many of us would dare to dream that our dogs could sit and wait while all hell breaks loose in front of them. Even so, there are times when we need them to do exactly that. For example, you may have a dog who barks and lunges at strangers. You will have perfected your disengagement, your u-turn and your busy work. But what if a car pulls up and someone needs directions?
That exact situation happened to me not so long ago. It was a beautiful summers morning way before the rest of the world was awake. An ambulance pulled up alongside us as we were out on a walk. I’m not the sort of person to ignore paramedics looking for an address, so I asked my dogs to sit and wait while I spoke to the crew.
I’m not a huge fan of asking dogs to do this, but it’s always useful for those odd times you need it. If you can ever imagine you might need it, train it!
#8 Loose lead walking
If our dogs can’t walk on a loose lead down Easy Street, they’re never going to find it easy on Confrontation Alley. Like the other seven skills, if we want it, we have to practise it. For that reason, the next post will focus on loose lead skills, because I know it is a challenge for many. No wonder we resort to head halters and uncomfortable harnesses. All that discomfort simply makes it even less likely our dogs will keep their cool in a crisis situation. No, seeing next-door’s beagle probably isn’t a crisis situation, but to many of our dogs, it truly is.
This is not a time for a dog to be out adrift at the end of a 30ft lead.
Although I don’t often ask for dogs to walk close in proximity to their guardian, when they are prone to barking and lunging, it’s really important that they know how to do so. Even if it is just for a short while, it’s a useful skill. I require it every time we go around a corner. The corners cue my dog Lidy to come back into my proximity. It works in the same way that roads cue assistance dogs to stop and check for traffic. The environment tells her what to do.
The last thing I want is for me to turn the corner and run into Cerberus and his fine three-headed friends guarding the way.
When we teach our dogs what to do and we give them a chance to embed those skills, we can make a huge difference to their lives. We may find we don’t need to ever do much more than this. In fact, we can sometimes reduce these eight skills to the most simple of all. Recall when I ask and loose-lead walk with me when I ask. That’s it! If we excel at these two things, we have everything we need to succeed.
To find out more
You can watch this video on Youtube of the two-treat toss
Find the full course for dogs who bark and lunge when they see other dogs at Teachable