How can you help your dog when he/she is displaying ‘reactive’ or ‘aggressive’ behaviours on lead? Will your dog be able stop doing this? What sort of training methods should you use?
Following on from my last blog on ‘What can I do to help manage my leash reactive dog’, this blog will explain some techniques you can use to help your dog manage and/or overcome some of these aggressive and/or reactive behaviours on lead. The following information is of a general nature and not specific to your dog’s situation. If you need further help please go to our Dog-to-Dog Reactivity page and contact us for a tailored behaviour modification plan. Changing your dog's emotional response We won’t be able to change your dog’s behaviour unless we change how your dog feels about other dogs (and/or people if this is your dog’s trigger). We call this your dog’s emotional response. We want to make this a positive emotional response rather than the negative response your dog has with other dogs (or people) at the moment. So to change your dog’s emotional response to other dogs, we need to set up a situation where your dog is stationary, far enough away from the scary thing and under threshold (meaning he/she is nice and relaxed and feeling very safe) so that when he/she sees another dog appearing, there is no reaction. This may be that your dog is on one side of a large park and the other dog appearing is on the other side of the park. Remember the threshold is different for each dog so you will need to know the distance where your dog is under threshold. When your dog is nice and relaxed and under threshold, your helper on the other end will appear with a dog. As soon as this happens give your dog extra, extra special treats and give them out quickly one after the other. Make sure they are the most fantastic treats in the whole world! Your helper with then move out of sight with their dog and then you stop giving the treats. Keep repeating this process. What is your dog learning? Instead of ‘dogs are scary and I want them to go away’, they start to learn ‘when strange dogs appear, good things happen’ (associates the trigger with pleasurable things). This process is extremely powerful and should not be skipped. Look At That (LAT) game After a while your dog might look at the dog appearing, then look at you like ‘where is my treat!” You can then play the ‘Look at That’ (LAT) game (developed by a trainer called Leslie McDevitt). Quite simply, the dog looks at the trigger (other dog or person), then looks back at you, you click and give them a treat. The dog learns to look at the other dog, stay calm and look back at you to get a treat. I like this method because it teaches a dog to become more comfortable with the trigger and feel better about it. Remember if your dog starts showing stress signals or reacts in any way at the other dog appearing your dog is NOT under threshold and you are too close. We want to avoid your dog reacting because once he gets into this state, there is no learning taking place. Your dog needs to be relaxed and under threshold for learning to take place. Desensitization Eventually, over many repetitions you can decrease the distance your dog is from the other dog ever so slightly (desensitisation). But remember, don’t move too close too soon and stress your dog. Allow your dog the choice to move forward or not. This process takes loads of time and for some dogs it can take months of consistent training sessions to move closer. It can be a slow process so expect that. Behavioural Adjustment Treatment (BAT) Here you can also use ‘Behaviour Adjustment Treatment’ (BAT) by Griesha Stewart. Meaning you can set your position with your dog under threshold, wait for the trigger to appear at a distance, watch your dog closely for signs of relaxation and/or an alternative behaviour such as sniffing, a head turn etc. As soon as you see that, walk away from the trigger. This gives your dog a functional reward in that what your dog wants is to increase the distance between him/her and the scary thing. You can give a treat after you have finished walking away from the scary thing. After several seconds, go back into place and repeat the procedure. Repetition is important and change in behaviour will occur at your dog’s pace and their ability to relax in the presence of the trigger. My dog is just being dominant! Your dog is not displaying these reactive or aggressive behaviours because he/she is trying to be ‘dominant’, ‘leader of the pack’ or is doing it on purpose. They can’t help being scared of something anymore than you can. They will do what works to get rid of the scary ‘thing’. The magic wand Every day I receive calls from clients wanting me to fix their leash ‘aggressive’ or ‘reactive’ dog. Believe me, I wish I could but what owners need to understand very clearly is that there is there is no magical cure. Behaviour is complex and takes time to change because you are trying to create new neural connections in the brain. Be patient and understanding with your dog You will need to be very patient and understanding. Sometimes the behaviour cannot be ‘cured’ and you can only get the dog to certain point such as managing the behaviour and limiting the dog’s exposure to the trigger/s. BUT, I strongly believe that every dog has the ability to improve. We owe it to our dogs to protect them from what makes them scared and uncomfortable and to help them progress and feel safe in their world. Owners need to put the work in Success will very often depend on the owner’s compliance and how committed the owner is in sticking with the behaviour change program. Most of the time it’s because the owner doesn’t want to or cannot put the effort in over the time required to change the dog’s behaviour. WARNING - Hire the right trainer! Some dog trainers may use punishment techniques such as shock collars, check chains, physical force, intimidation or other methods that scares the living daylights out of the dog, causes extreme pain and/or more psychological trauma and in the end suppress the dog’s behaviour and shuts the dog down
. When you use punishers and aversives to treat fear, stress and anxiety, you are reinforcing to the dog that the scary things = horrible experiences.
These dog trainers will sprout to everyone who will listen that they can cure dogs with ‘reactive’ or ‘aggressive’ behaviours. Be very clear, the BEHAVIOUR IS NOT CURED. All they have done is failed the dog and the owner. What we are aiming for is the dog to feel safe and relaxed, not more fearful, stressed and anxious.
Rome was not built in a day. Changing behaviour takes time, there are no guarantees but even small steps and small changes can make such a difference to a dog’s life.
If you have a dog who is sensitive to other dog's out in the environment, please get help straight away! We would be more than happy to help you! Dogaholics Dog Training and Behaviour Services (Dogaholics is a dog training and behaviour service located in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area of NSW.)