I didn't know what a reactive dog was until several years ago. I did know that I rarely enjoyed a walk with my dog because every encounter with another dog, even from a distance, resulted in extreme barking, lunging, and jumping at the end of the leash. I finished most walks feeling embarrassed, exhausted, and angry. Hiking was the worst because with limited space on a trail, the lunging and jumping was even worse due to the close proximity of a passing dog. So, for many years I simply didn't walk my dog, Stella. I had a toddler and a baby, and Stella's reactivity more than once almost pulled me over along with the jogging stroller, so unfortunately, I gave up on walking her. Afterall, I had two small children, and Stella had a fenced in yard so she would be okay. As Stella got older, I realized that I wanted her to have a better quality of life. As a senior dog I felt like I was depriving her of important exercise and also time for the two of us to bond since she has always been my buddy and very important to me. I began reading dog training books and watching videos in a desperate search to understand Stella and learn how to make our walks more enjoyable. Nothing I was doing seemed to work, but I did start walking her while being sure to avoid certain routes that were known to have dogs out in yards.
Finally I decided I had to find a local dog trainer because what I was trying, wasn't working. My search found All Dogs Go to Kevin. I actually remember emailing Kevin and asking about private training. He suggested I sign Stella up for the Reactive Dog class. That class began my journey toward becoming a dog trainer for Kevin. And now, along with my co-trainer, Nancy Plavan CPDT-KA, I teach the Reactive Dog class for ADGTK.
The Reactive Dog class at ADGTK is one of my absolute favorite classes to teach. I love it because it's challenging, the owner's are entirely commited to learning and helping their dogs while using positive based training, and we get to see amazing progress from week one to week six.
I'd like to give you a short overview of what a reactive dog is, what causes a dog to become reactive, how reward based training works, and what you gain from the ADGTK Reactive Dog class.
What is a reactive dog?
A reactive dog is one who barks and lunges at the end of their leash when they see an object that generally causes fear, anxiety, and/or frustration. The "object" could be another dog, a person, squirrel, small children, etc. My dog, Stella, reacts to all dogs; my dog, Charley, reacts to dogs and small critters like squirrels and bunnies.
What causes a dog to become reactive?
There are many answers to this question. In some cases the dog has had a negative interaction with another dog and this has caused a generalized fear of all dogs. In other cases it is the cause of "barrier frustration". In other words, the dog may do very well playing off leash with other dogs, but when attached to a leash the frustration of not being able to greet another dog is just too much for them, so they start to react.
How does reward based training work with reactive dogs?
In our class we work very hard to build a positive association between your dog and another dog. We do this very slowly and in a controlled environment. What makes dogs feel good (and most people)? Food. So we use extremely high value food to our advantage in terms of building a positive association between your dog and that "scary thing" which could be another dog or a squirrel, for example. Instead of your dog seeing another dog and reacting, we want your dog to see another dog and expect something delicious. By using classical conditioning we are able to slowly change your dog's response to another dog. But, you might ask, what about punishment? I see other people using a shock collar or a prong collar and their dog doesn't react. To answer this question I appreciate this response by Emma Parsons in her book, Click to Calm:
First of all, punishment is bad because it's abusive. Second, it may be effective in that it halts the behavior as it is happening, yet over time the frequency and intensity of the punishment needs to be increased to maintain the original threshold of suppressed behavior. The dog becomes at risk from the implementation of the punishment itself, as well as the disastrous side effects that commonly occur, including hyper vigilance, irrational fear, heightened irritability, impulsive/explosive behavior, hyperactivity, aggression evoked with minimal provocation, withdrawal and social avoidance, loss of sensitivity to pleasure and pain, and depressed mood. (72)
In my opinion, I definitely prefer training my dog, who is already extremely hyper vigilant, as all reactive dogs are, to see another dog and then look to me for positive reinforcement rather than the alternative future resulting from the quick fix of using punishment based training. Additionally, I value and respect the relationship I have with my dogs and I want them to trust me and look to me for guidance rather than fearing what I might do to them.
What you gain from the ADGTK Reactive Dog class:
Living with a reactive dog and learning how to cope with their behaviors can be a daily challenge. At All Dogs Go to Kevin we truly enjoy working with reactive dogs and helping students manage their dog's behavior. There is hope for your reactive dog. It is a slow process, but if you commit to it, your hard work will pay off and during the process you're sure to develop a deeper bond with and have a greater understanding of your dog. Nancy and I look forward to seeing you in class!