Life Hacks to Improve the World for your Reactive Dog

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Life Hacks to Improve the World for your Reactive Dog

April 18, 2023 Uncategorised 1

There are many things we can do if our dog is barking and lunging out on walks. Perhaps they are barking at other dogs. Sometimes they may bark at strangers, particularly those who make our dogs feel afraid. Some dogs struggle with moving machines too, like cars or bikes. In the past three posts, we have been looking at the skills that can help our dogs thrive rather than simply surviving.

One of the most important things to do is to teach our dogs what to do separately. When we are training our dogs discretely, we are helping them build strong habits with particular behaviours. One behaviour that can really make a difference is learning to disengage from things that are bothering us.

How many of us would find our lives made immeasurably easier if only our dogs would disconnect from whatever they’re barking and listen to us instead?

Other skills that can really help are loose-leash walking, being able to do a u-turn and understanding the kind of activities we might do to keep our dogs busy if the going is getting tough. For instance, we want our dogs to be in the habit of playing simple distraction games so that we can help them keep their focus around a chaotic or unpredictable world.

We also need to be able to give our dogs a break from walks that are particularly challenging. Just as we’d teach our children to swim in the shallow end of a swimming pool, we need to do the same for our dogs. We would not simply keep taking our children to death-defying breakers with a strong riptide in the open ocean and hope they’d cope. Changing the situation can make an enormous difference.

How we adapt the world around us

There are times that we adapt the world around us if we cannot change the situation completely. For instance, we may not be able to get out of the annual vaccination drive even if we hate needles and injections. We may not be able to pick the clinic we go to. There are things in life that are obligatory for us, just as they are for our dogs. We can, however, adapt that world a little. We might choose to go during off-peak hours. Opening a window or sitting near a fan could keep us cool if we are getting anxious.

We can do this with our dogs too.

We make changes to improve the world we live in. If you’ve ever screened off the world to improve the view or you’ve added climbing plants to disguise an ugly wall, then you’re improving the view so that it’s less unpleasant.

We can use the same strategies with our dogs.

Vet visits are an unavoidable part of life. We can’t get out of routine check-ups or health checks. If our dog really struggles at the vets but they need an emergency intervention, then we would very willingly make concessions to improve their experience. For instance, if we have a fearful dog, we might choose not to take them at the busiest times. If our dog struggles with other dogs, we might ask if we can keep our dog in the car until the last moment, and then bring them in through a back door.

The key question we can ask ourselves here is, ‘how can I make small changes in order to prevent my dog seeing, smelling or hearing the things that bother them?’

The benefits of adapting the world around us

There are many benefits to adapting the world. When we would struggle to cope, we can easily make changes that will make life easier. When moving house is not the practical option to stop our dog barking at the neighbours, we often make adjustments to the world as it is.

Many dog trainers and behaviour consultants are experts at adjusting and adapting the world. Whenever trainers talk about management, we usually mean exactly this. Say you have a dog who chases sheep, you could avoid the walks where you would see sheep, or you could use a lead to prevent your dog from chasing them.

Our lives are full of modifications we’ve made to manage our dogs. In fact, entire industries are growing out of these changes and management strategies. From crates and pens to harnesses and leads, there are many ways we can manage the problems our dogs face without changing the situation completely.

For instance, if you have a dog who is digging up your lawn, you can pen off the lawn or keep your dog on a leash until the moles have all disappeared. You could add a digging pit so that their needs are met. If your dog barks at passers-by, then removing any visual perch that your dog uses to get a vantage point can make a big difference. Screening off windows can also help. If your dog barks at noises outside, white, pink, grey or even brown noise can reduce how noticeable the noises are.

Everywhere we look in our lives, we make adjustments to the world to help our dogs. We screen things off. We may reduce the impact of the world around them.

Management and modification of what we have is often a lot easier than changing the world completely.

The tensions of modifying our world

If our dog barks at other dogs going past and we live on the edge of a popular pathway, we could move house. This kind of change would involve choosing completely different situations. But this kind of radical change is not always possible.

Sometimes we simply can’t avoid the activities our dog finds unpleasant.

Management is often seen as an easier solution. Make one small change and you can eliminate behaviour completely. For instance, if you and your neighbour are on the same walk schedule, one small change might mean the daily barkfest is averted. By leaving half an hour earlier, you could avoid seeing your neighbour’s cantankerous dog without having to do anything drastic like moving home.

One of the problems with these small changes is that our dog doesn’t learn new behaviour. The moment they see our neighbour’s grumpy dog once again, they’ll both be back to barking and lunging. Management is not educative.

We also rely on management more than we should because it is convenient to us. It doesn’t take much time. It may not involve much work. Often, it doesn’t take much money either. It’s certainly a lot cheaper than buying a new house! Changing the time we walk our dog is cheaper than hiring a secure dog field, for example.

Ultimately, we are not equipping our dogs with the skills to flourish. We are also removing all choice from them and reducing the size of their world. That makes it tough for us to complain later that we can’t go very many places with our dogs.

The limitations of modifying the world around us

When we make small changes to reduce the intensity of the world, it can really help. We can train our dogs and build up their skills.

Management can be proactive, like putting up screens to reduce barking. It can be long-lasting.

When we’re out on walks, often, when we make changes in the moment, they can be very difficult to plan for. For example, we may have taken the proactive approach of walking our dogs earlier, but when we encounter another reactive dog whose guardian has had exactly the same idea, it can make it hard for us to think on our feet. Our own brains shut down proactive decision making under stress.

It’s also very reliant on us. We have to make those changes for our dogs. If we don’t, our dog will be barking and lunging at cars, bikes, joggers or dogs. When we rely on managing the world around us, we then spend all of our time looking out for problems. It makes US very reactive!

Modifying the world around us is a helpful strategy in many ways, but it does not change the way our dogs feel about the world. Particularly if we have an anxious dog, we can find that the more we manage them, the more their fear generalises. They are just accumulating more and more things that make them feel uncomfortable. Gradually, we find ourselves in a tiny world with a dog who is anxious about more and more things.

Situations where modifying the world can really help

While it is not a long-term solution, changing the world around you can make a real difference if you’re not done with training yet. For example, nipping behind a hedge with your reactive dog can stop them feeling the need to shout at an unexpected dog in the distance.

I’ve made use of all kinds of things in the environment to reduce a dog’s exposure to things that bother them. With a car-chasing collie yesterday, we just slipped behind a wall until the car had gone past. His owners have been busy putting training into place, but we knew it wasn’t strong enough to cope with a car so close.

Knowing how to modify and manage the world can mean that life opens up again. It’s often a really easy way to provide our dogs with ideal teaching locations. A little modification can turn a lousy teaching environment into a perfect one.

We can’t help our dogs learn real life skills if we’re only practising in the safety of our home. We definitely need to get out there in order to practise what we’ve learned. That said, even the most controlled teaching environments can be the scene of unpredictable events.

When we get to the point where we feel our dog’s skills are ready to take on the road, we can select the location carefully. We can pick out where we are going to go. We can also modify that place a little if it’s less than perfect. Sometimes, the smallest things can make the biggest difference.

How to modify unavoidable situations

Simply making small changes can often make unavoidable situations much easier. We simply have to make the small changes that reduce fear or frustration, or even that increase relaxation and joyfulness. Whenever we change things within the environment to alter its emotional impact on our dogs, we are modifying the situation. We may not be able to change the situation we are in, but we can change things about it. We’re just tailoring the world as it is to suit us better.

Modifying situations may not teach our dogs much, but it is a huge learning curve for us. Living with a very reactive dog can be tough but small changes can turn an unmitigated and unavoidable disaster-in-waiting into a manageable situation.

Moving out of the way for a short period is one way we can do this with our dogs. Working with one dog who struggled around bikes was hard when his owner and I could see a pageant of lycra-clad men on bikes rolling towards us. Simply cutting into a neighbour’s garden for five minutes averted disaster with a dog who wasn’t ready to cope with all that whizzing yet. When we take time out from an activity, we are modifying the situation. When we move our location slightly, we are modifying the situation. If we move behind screens and blocks, we are modifying the situation.

We can also do this as part of a treatment plan. Many dogs who struggle with fear and frustration find it hard to cope for a long period of time. Asking dogs to cope with their daily bothers is quite literally exhausting. It depletes their ability to restrain themselves. Giving them a break and keeping sessions very short can also make a huge difference.

To find out more…

Read this article that summarises the twelve skills needed by owners of dogs who bark and lunge

Check out this article about the foundation skills that your dog needs to adapt

Read this post about taking a break from your regular activities

Check out the Lighten Up course for frustrated greeters here. In it, we cover all the basics about adapting walks to reduce tension for our dogs.

One Response

  1. […] easiest thing for her to have done was to have anticipated the car coming and made a small change to her environment before it was too late… There was a wall to the side of her that would have been easy to slip behind and restrict her […]

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