When I work with dog reactive dogs, I use a simple 4 step process. Each step takes approximately one week of Board & Train or 1-3 lessons, depending on the owner and the individual dog’s behavior history, age and temperament.
Step 1 is foundation training to establish a working relationship with the dog, to build confidence and to teach basic skills such as focus, place, art of doing nothing and heel with auto-sit. Step 1 also includes basic obedience commands, treadmill training, agility, sheep herding and other confidence building and obedience exercises. Dogs are not visibly exposed to other dogs in step one.
Step 2 is avoidance where we teach dogs to ignore other dogs, thus breaking the cycle of “I see a dog and I explode.” To do this one must have access to calm, stable, balance dogs at first then you build up to dogs who aren’t as well-behaved, and are barking or running around or barking at the dog you’re working with. The objective is for the rehab dog to ignore other dogs regardless of what they’re doing. How this looks/works for each dog varies because each dog is different.
Step 3 is teaching or re-teaching social skills. Dogs are typically reactive due to excitement or, as is usually the case, fear. Reactivity that’s fear-based is typically due to lack of being socialized with other dogs and/or bad experiences with other dogs. Teaching reactive dogs how to interact and “be a dog” with other dogs is important. Again having a balanced, stable pack is mandatory for this. Teaching social skills is a mandatory step in truly rehabbing a dog. And it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Step 4 is proofing and generalizing training to the real world. Training isn’t complete if it’s not applicable to real life. If the dog only behaves inside the training building or around the trainer’s dogs, that’s not good enough. If the dog can’t handle walking past other reactive dogs, training has failed. If the dog doesn’t behave for a novice, inexperienced or new handler then the training is lacking. Not all dogs will pass these four steps with flying colors, but the majority do. And that’s the goal.
I hope this is helpful for everyone with reactive dogs who wants to know my process for rehabilitation. Rehabbing dogs is simple but not easy. ♡
Amy Pishner is the owner and head trainer for Valor K9 Academy, LLC. She specializes in obedience training and behavior rehabilitation training for dogs of all ages, breeds and behavior problems.