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The Listen Dog Blog

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I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!


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Reactivity - What It Is - Why Your Dog Does It - What You Can Do About It

By listendogtraining, May 15 2017 10:47AM

In recent years, the problem of ‘reactivity’ has come to the forefront in the dog training world – and it’s something I have a lot of experience with. When I got my oldest dog, ten years ago, he started his life with us as a happy and confident youngster. He was socially inquisitive but not overbearing, and interacted kindly with those of his own species and those of ours.

Sadly, within his first year, he went on to experience two highly intimidating encounters with dogs many multiples of his size, which had a dramatically detrimental effect on his social interactions going forward. One encounter involved him being chased and nipped into a rabbit hole by two uncontrolled German Shepherds - hats off to their herding skills, which were 100% en-pointe for their breed… but I wish they’d been on-lead – the other was an outright attack from a stocky dog who helped himself to a firm grip on my youngster’s skull before eventually being prised off by an owner who reassured me his dog’s behaviour was nothing more than amicable.

Unfortunately, my tiny terrier cross didn’t take it amicably and, as a result, his once happy-go-lucky demeanour was replaced with a desperately anxious persona when in the presence of other dogs, which he fronted out with highly aggressive outbursts directed at any and all canines within his line of sight.

Rest assured, my now 10-year-old mongrel is a mellow old soul these days, who will happily engage with every canine we encounter on our daily adventures; any whom he becomes wary of after a customary bum-sniff receive a curt vocal warning to back off and nothing more, those he approves of are invited for a quick rotating frolic before we all go along our separate ways. These are healthy canine interactions.

Now… dealing with a 3kg reactive dog is one thing, but a dog displaying these same reactive behaviours who weighs 25kg+ presents an even more difficult-to-manage problem to owners, who are pulled into roads, pulled right off their feet, and even suffer serious shoulder/arm/hand injuries as a result of trying to maintain control of their large reactive dog. So, what can be done?

If you are experiencing reactivity issues with your dog that are having a major impact on yours and your dog’s daily lives, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with a quality dog behaviourist or dog trainer in your area who can help you devise the best plan for dealing with the issue going forward.

Remember that generally speaking, reactivity is a fear-based response. Your dog is attempting to manipulate what it perceives to be a threatening environment using the only tools available to it. When we leash our dogs and take them out into the big wide world, think about how much control they relinquish to us. Who decides which path we take? The speed we travel at? When it’s time to go home? How tight that collar is? Whether we’re going to stop at that lamppost or power-walk straight past it because we need to get to work soon? We do. Dogs just come along for the ride. Now imagine you had that little control over your own journey from A to B, your hands are tied behind your back, and a madman wielding an axe has just appeared on the path up ahead you. You’re being dragged towards him, and he’s running towards you. You need to change his mind about coming towards you: reactivity.

Never scold or punish your dog during a reactive outburst – I have clients say to me “It’s so embarrassing when she does this, how should we snap her out of it?” The answer is: you’re looking in the wrong place for the solution. If your dog is already reacting over-threshold (all focus on the subject in question, entirely non-responsive to physical manipulation, vocal reprimand or food offered by owner) then it is too late for you to reach your dog right now. You have no choice but to increase the distance between your dog and its subject, until your dog becomes responsive once again. Now, look at how far away you are and take note…this is your control distance going forward. Never force your dog any closer than this to another dog, and if you spy another dog in the distance further away than this, begin the slow and steady process of counter-conditioning now.

You can read more about counter-conditioning in my article on classical conditioning against anxieties, here.

In the meantime, do not hesitate to get in touch with a quality dog behaviourist or dog trainer in your area who can help you devise the best plan for effectively dealing with the issue going forward. There are many things you can try under the supervision of a professional which can help to address your dog’s instinctive emotional response to the presence of other dogs (or men, or cars, or whatever it is that causes your dog to react), your dog’s choice of calming behaviours/coping strategies, and the priority of your dog’s focus when out and about.

It is not impossible to help improve life with a reactive dog… ditch the 5am walks and take action that your dog will thank you for!

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