Helping Your Reactive Dog Find Their Flow

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Helping Your Reactive Dog Find Their Flow

June 27, 2023 Uncategorised 0

Our dogs who bark and lunge have a long journey to resilience. It need not take much time, but it involves a lot of learning. Although many of us are seeking an overnight cure, the reality is that we need to put in the teaching.

If our dog is not learning anything, then we can’t expect change.

With the array of programmes available to help your dog, it can seem like a minefield. Most of us have no idea what will work and why. We end up picking things up piecemeal, taking a bit from here or there. Or we follow one programme assiduously and end up finding gaps that we need to plug.

In reality, the path to adaptive behaviour is more simple than that. There are twelve dynamic steps we can take to make progress.

Proactive management strategies

We can make sure our dogs truly have the skills they need to help them before we start.

Then we can make adjustments to our daily walks so that our dogs get time to recover and embed their new skills.

Should disaster occur and they’re faced with situations where they’ll likely fail, we can manage things to make it easier.

We can also give our dogs the skills they need to focus on us. Sometimes, we all need a little help from our friends!

These four steps give us a great foundation for success. They equip our dogs with the skills they will need and give them a break from the most challenging situations.

Supporting change

Wonderful as management is, it is often not enough for our dogs in the long term. We need more.

Although it’s important that they don’t avoid processing things that scare them, chewing them over and making sense of the world, it’s also important that this happens at low intensity. In other words, our dogs aren’t learning anything new if their dander is well and truly up.

Noticing things that get them hot under the collar is usually not a problem for our dogs!

We need to consider carefully if and how we include activities that encourage them to look at or to stare at the world. It is not useful for dogs who enjoy chasing and it is not useful for anxious dogs who are already engaging with the things that bother them. If your dog is barking and lunging at things, they do not need to be taught to look out for them. On the other hand, if our dogs are fearful and not engaging at all with the world, we probably need to find ways to help them process the stuff that scares them.

This is often easiest by separating things out into components rather than trying to take them as a whole. Rather than processing the entire dog, it’s useful to separate the dog out into components and grade them. We can then rank the components in terms of challenge. We could start with sounds of dogs or odours of dogs and move up to still dogs and then moving dogs. If we know our dogs are fearful of male dogs, then we can start with female dogs.

Attention and disengagement

Many traditional programmes for reactivity have prompted dogs to look at or to engage with things they’re already engaged with. It’s rare, however, to find dogs who bark and lunge at the world who aren’t already engaging a little too much with it!

Disengagement is the crucial bit.

At first, as we teach this, we help our dogs along. We teach them how to disengage. Dumb as that sounds, that’s the skill our dogs are troubling with. Of course they know how, just not from the things that usually catch their attention, like another dog at the other side of the park.

After this, we give them opportunities to learn how to disengage on their own. This helps ensure they have the skills to manage their own emotions, attention and behaviour, rather than relying on us to do it for them.

We can also teach our dogs things to do outside or around distractions to give them the opportunity to focus on other things. This can build up their optimism and resilience, depending on what we ask for. It can also give them something more rewarding to focus on.

Getting used to the world

Previously, our dogs were very sensitive to Life’s Bothers. If a strange dog appeared in the distance, they would be the first to notice it. Our dogs with the Big Feelings are quick to notice stuff. Anxious dogs can also be hypervigilant too, scanning the world for trouble. Although this seems like a useful defence mechanism, it isn’t very useful as it puts the dog constantly on high alert and also causes them to feel less positively about the world.

What we’ve all wanted from the beginning is that our sensitive dogs would just pay no mind to the things that didn’t require attention. Sure, when the world falls apart, that sensitivity is invaluable. It’s also invaluable if we keep putting our dogs in more challenging situations than they can cope with. If we regularly put them in potentially dangerous situations, then their responses are normal. So we have to stop doing that. It’s our job to keep them safe from unfamiliar off-lead dogs who charge over and from strangers who want to touch them.

But most of us are not making those mistakes. I can wholeheartedly say that in the last four years, my dog Lidy has never been at risk. I have never put her in situations where she might be at risk.

Life got a whole lot easier when I realised I could help her learn how to pay no mind to unimportant things.

Instead of being sensitive, she is now much more used to the world.


Habituation is simply the process by which the body gets used to noises, smells and visual stuff. Only when things change do we really notice it. Habituation is often our long-term goal for our reactive dogs. We want them to be used to the world.

And this happens.

My boy Heston, for example. In his earliest weeks on walks, he started to bark at cows. He was very sensitive to those cows for many reasons I can only guess at. Even so, we did a lot of things on our walks to help him cope. Like many of my clients, we took a kind of hit-and-miss approach; we picked up some pieces from here, others from there. I got lucky. Now I realise I got lucky because I accidentally followed most of the roadmap to resilience without knowing how.

Later in life, a cow and her calf got into my garden. The only reason I knew was because I heard them kicking up a storm. I went into the garden and there was Heston, doing his own thing. It was as if those cows weren’t even there. They were as much a part of the garden as the trees and bushes. It was as if he didn’t even see them. Despite the fact the cow and her calf had got in and were panicking, Heston behaved absolutely normally.

His sensitivity to cows was well and truly gone.

How do we get to this point with our dogs?

The recipe for getting to this point with our dogs has several individual ingredients.

Firstly, the path that you take as you work on reducing reactivity and increasing adaptability includes accumulating many positive experiences. Although I don’t work off the principle that animals need hundreds of repetitions to learn things, it’s important that our dogs manage to accumulate successes. This gives them the opportunity to experience success and reward.

All the research suggests this new learning helps modify the old. They are learning exceptions to the rule.

We can also normalise new behaviours. Most of our dogs are not in the habit of doing other things when requested out on walks. If it’s one thing my clients share, it’s a need for just a little more training. Training forms such a central part of what we do. We are setting up learning activities that help equip our dogs with the skills they need to cope with novel challenges in the future.

The importance of training

It is ridiculous, therefore, to suggest that reactive dogs don’t need training. There may of course be medical components that can be treated and may be contributing to barking and lunging, but to suggest that every reactive dog has something medically wrong with them is a very dangerous view in many ways.

This view also misunderstands the fact that poor health also affects learning. I slipped down the steps eighteen months ago and I still go down one step at a time these days. Past pain that has long since been treated has affected my confidence and my movement. Training can form a central part of ‘relearning’ movement and confidence, just as occupational health, physical therapy and physiotherapy do with humans.

Some people also take the view that our dogs will stop being reactive when they feel safe. Most of my clients have never jeopardised their dogs’ safety. A sensitivity to the world is not just because owners are idiots. Taking the view that reactive behaviour will decrease when the dog feels safe often erroneously assumes the owners have risked their dog’s safety. It also means that the dogs can be living with chronic levels of anxiety in this case. Behaviour modification can address this just as therapy does with humans.

Not doing so can cause chronic welfare issues.

Finally, some people believe think that “agency” will help. They rarely define agency, confusing it with choice. Certainly, they don’t see that agency simply means the ability to actively engage with the world in order to build competencies and self-management skills. Training situations can provide that.

Passivity is not the solution to reactivity

We no longer need to wring our hands helplessly with reactivity. Owners do not need to blame themselves for making their dogs feel unsafe: that is really unhelpful and misunderstands the roots of behaviour. There are genetic, gestational, developmental and hormonal factors we should take into account alongside health and learning.

We also do not need to pick out bits piecemeal from different programmes and create a patchwork programme of our own.

Working through the roadmap to resilience is rooted in research and informed by a multidisciplinary understanding of what best helps behaviour change. It’s also based on experience of what works best with reactive dogs.

Many programmes, however, focus only on the dog’s negative feelings about things that cause them to bark and lunge. In this way, it’s an unbalanced and lopsided approach.

Building Flow

In the 1990s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed a theory of ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’. This state of being completely absorbed by intrinsically reinforcing activities has expanded our thinking about human well-being. Positive Psychology is no longer simply about skilling us up to cope adaptively with stress, but also about balancing this out with opportunities to thrive. It’s no longer simply about surviving, but about thriving. Flow is a big part of that.

The ability to seek out pleasure and to enjoy life is not simply for humans. Although there is scarcely any research with animals and whether they too can experience flow, none of us would argue that there are times when our dogs are lost in pleasure. Particularly if we have dogs traditionally bred for hunting and herding roles, flow may well be something with which we are very familiar.

Although ‘jobs’ and ‘work’ cannot be seen as remedies or solutions for reactive dogs, we cannot overlook the benefits of intrinsically reinforcing activities for our dogs. When our dogs engage in such activities, we have the opportunity to help them learn important life skills.

The kind of activities which our dogs immerse themselves completely in can help them in other ways. First, they help fuel optimism and confidence. Scentwork is one example which increases our dog’s optimism (Duranton & Horowitz, 2019).

They also fuel curiosity and interest. Many activities also fuel problem-solving and creative thinking. These benefit our dogs immensely in creating behavioural versatility. They also teach our dogs to cope with low levels of frustration and to work through it. Such activities also build our dog’s focus and attentional muscles.

In essence

By working through the twelve dynamic milestones of the roadmap to resilience, we can equip our dogs with the necessary skills to cope with their daily lives. We need to treat the framework dynamically but following its systematic approach will assist our dogs in moving towards a time when they perceive the things that once caused them to bark as trivial and insignificant.

Additionally, we should not neglect the importance of training and building skills to thrive rather than just survive when modifying their behaviour. One thing that can help is interactive and dynamic play. Activities that foster our dog’s curiosity and engagement will also help. Mastering activities like this makes a huge difference. They build heightened focus and engagement and give dogs control over outcomes.

Moving towards mastery and deep engagement with more pleasurable activities is an achieveable goal that we can work towards with our dogs. We do not need to focus on some ill-defined time when they will be ‘better’ and will have stopped barking and lunging. Now we have tangible goals and outcomes!

To read more

This is the final post in a series exploring the Lighten Up roadmap to resilience.

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