Imagine your current walking routine. What does it look like?
Is it a peaceful walk around the block where you stop and say hello to your neighbors and your dog leisurely strolling at your side? Maybe your dog sniffs the different trees or shrubs, but he always catches up to you. And when you stop to talk, she just relaxes at your feet and waits for you to be done.
It looks a little more like a ninja mission. You are always scouting the next half of a block looking for your dog’s triggers. Maybe other dogs, maybe its people, or even just anything moving. And when you do see something ahead of you, you quickly have to duck into someone’s bushes or yard and try to distract your dog from turning into Cujo at the end of the leash.
Reactivity is hard.
Owning a reactive dog is never what we as dog owners wanted or expected and sometimes, we just want to yell to our dog that nothing bad is going to happen.
I personally own a reactive dog. His name is Adam and he is a 55 pound, person loving, dog-hating, dog. His ideal world would be one where he has food on demand, pets on demand, and all other dogs ceased to exist.
I could give you a couple guesses as to why he turned out this way, but in the long run, the reason why doesn’t really matter. I can’t change what happened in the past, but I can move forward and try to help him in the present.
When we go on walks, it looks a lot more like the second version than the first, though we have made huge strides in his ability to cope with other dogs existing in his world. I found a great support network of people struggling with the same issue and learned techniques to better equip both him and me for those unexpected times when we can’t just hide.
Reactivity takes time to overcome. It takes patience too. And a little bit of chocolate because after a bad walk, we all need a pick-me-up.
We started helping Adam’s reactivity through games like the Look At That Game (coined by Leslie McDevitt), management strategies like the U-Turn or Find It, and a lot of practice.
We first needed to change how he felt about dogs in his presence. We started that by using a high value treat he can’t resist and on walks if he saw another dog, he got that treat. I didn’t care if he couldn’t look at me, but if he started reacting, I knew we were too close and had to try again. With that technique, he was slowly able to be closer to other dogs while remaining calm.
I kept the rate of reinforcement high – I wasn’t stingy with the treats! As long as he remained level-headed, the bar was open and he was able to take full advantage.
We are now to the point where he knows which houses have dogs and as we approach, he will start to get a little worked up in anticipation, but will automatically look back at me. He will look at the dog, look back at me. As we pass, he maintains his loose leash and once the situation is navigated successfully, he gets his big jackpot reward.
Reactivity is not fun and can be extremely isolating – no matter if your dog is reactive to other dogs or humans or anything that moves. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to overcome those issues but have hope! It can be done.
If you find yourself plateauing with training, don’t be afraid to reach out to a certified professional dog trainer near you to help guide you and your dog.
You are not alone.