A ‘reactive dog’ is a term used to describe a dog that reacts to certain stimuli or triggers in the environment: adults, kids, other dogs, cats, squirrels, you name it. Some dogs react by growling, barking and lunging. Other dogs whine, yip, howl and pull on the leash when they encounter the same stimuli. Some dogs are reactive because they’re excited, oftentimes a result of too much uncontrolled socialization or high prey drive, and other dogs are reactive based on fear, previous bad experiences, lack of socialization and so on. If you have a reactive dog, and you want to help your dog, the following tips will be extremely useful to you. Just keep in mind, once you begin training you must stay the course. Consistency is key. Laying a foundation for your dog’s training is easy to do, it just takes time and practice. Start your training the right way with the following tips:
Tip #1 GO BACK TO THE BASICS
If you have a reactive dog, you need to start the rehabilitation process by going back to the basics with your dog. You need to redefine the relationship you have with your dog, and an easy way to go about that is by laying an obedience foundation. Simple commands like sit, sit-stay, down, down-stay and walking on a loose leash can help to add structure to your relationship, redefine expectations and give your dog a purpose by giving him a job to do. I highly recommend having your dog work for his kibble instead of feeding him on a schedule. By using food as a reward for training, you’re tapping into your dog’s natural instincts to work for his food. Fifteen minutes of obedience training each day will make a big difference in the relationship you have with your dog. Remember, if your dog won’t listen to you inside the house, he’s definitely not going to listen to you outside.
Tip #2 SET HOUSE RULES
Dogs that are reactive typically lack structure in the home. They’re allowed on furniture, they’re allowed to go into any room of the house they choose, and oftentimes they are not crate trained. By failing to give your dog structure, you’re allowing your dog to make decisions (where to go, what to do) without your input. You need to teach your dog to be mindful of you in the home before you expect him to be mindful of you outside of the home. This means you need to give your dog house rules. A few examples of house rules are: stay off the furniture, don’t beg during mealtimes, don’t be pushy or obnoxious with your toys, stay off the bed and be quiet in your crate. First, write down House Rules on a piece of paper and tape them to the refrigerator. This holds everyone in the household accountable and serves as a helpful reminder throughout the day. Next, teach your dog what the rules are by tethering (leashing) him to you. Reinforce what’s allowed and what’s not so that your dog has a clear understanding of the new rules. For example, rather than trying to push your dog off the couch, teach him the “Off” command to keep him off the couch in the first place. It’s much easier to nip unwanted behaviors in the bud than it is to correct your dog once he’s already indulged in a certain behavior. Keep in mind, it can be difficult to break old habits, but it’s not impossible; consistency is key.
Regarding toys: Stay tuned for a future blog post titled “The Importance of the Off Switch.” If you have a high energy and/or high drive dog, put toys away so he can learn to be calm in the house rather than anxious and constantly in a state of play.
TIP #3 CRATE TRAIN YOUR DOG
In order to truly break your dog’s bad habits, you must find a way to prevent them from occurring when you’re away from home. Crate training your dog is an easy way to provide your dog with structure in a healthy, constructive way. When trained correctly, dogs enjoy being in crates especially when they have a comfortable bed inside the crate and bones to chew on. We recommend crating your dog for no more than four hours at a time, but dogs can be crated for up to eight hours when necessary. As long as your dog is getting sufficient exercise, training and mental stimulation, crate training is not cruel. Leaving your anxious dog to roam about the house, pacing endlessly and barking at passersby from the window in a frenzied state of mind is cruel. This unnecessary freedom fosters reactivity and anxiety.
Note: A dog’s crate should be large enough for him to stand up, sit and lay down in, and it should be placed in a low traffic area, such as a guest bedroom or laundry room. Cover the crate with a blanket to eliminate visual stimuli and create a den-like atmosphere.
TIP #4 INTRODUCE NOSE WORK
Reactive dogs are oftentimes highly visual dogs. They’re easily stimulated by what they see and rarely rely on using their other senses to gather information. Nose Work is a great activity for all dogs, but especially for reactive dogs because it encourages them to use their nose to get information. You don’t need to purchase target odors to start Nose Work. Simply put your dog on leash, walk around a room (living room or kitchen, for example) and hide high value treats for your dog. Initially, put the treats in plain view so your dog sees what’s going on, then as your dog becomes more proficient and understands the game, put treats in hard-to-find places. Introduce the game with a cue like “Find it!” and end the game by telling him “All done!” so he knows to stop looking. The nose is a very useful sensory organ, unfortunately domesticated dogs don’t use their noses like they can (and should). This fun game helps your dog practice using his nose and will come in handy for dog-dog desensitization training later on down the road.
TIP #5 IMPULSE CONTROL IS A MUST!
Dogs that are reactive towards people and other dogs oftentimes lack impulse control. Start by teaching your dog basic crate manners. Rather than allowing your dog to bust out of the crate excitedly, teach your dog to enter the crate on command, wait calmly and exit on command followed by an implied sit. This exercise is one of the first things we do with reactive dogs; it’s simple and effective in changing a dog’s state of mind from erratic to calm, submissive. Fetch is another easy way to add impulse control to your dog’s daily routine. Throw the ball but don’t allow your dog to get it. Make him wait and look to you for permission before retrieving the ball. This teaches your dog to See + Think + Do in situations where he’s excited. The “Leave it” commands is another great way to teach impulse control. We use the “Leave it” command to teach dogs to resist food and/or toys and look to you for permission to do (or have) something. The whole idea is that, in situations where impulse rules, you want to get inside your dog’s head. This is a crucial skill in early training. Start with something that’s easy for your dog to do, and then work towards more difficult exercises from there.
I hope you find these tips helpful. Having the right tools in your tool belt will make training (or in some cases, un-training) your dog much easier.
Amy Pishner is the Owner and Head Trainer of Valor K9 Academy, LLC. She uses a balanced approach to training and is triple certified through Starmark Academy, Vohne Liche Kennels and The Michael Ellis School for Dog Trainers. Amy specializes in obedience and behavior rehabilitation training for dogs of all ages and breeds. Amy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.