ON LEAD REACTIVITY
What is Reactivity?
Reactivity is a term often used by dog trainers to describe a dog that is barking, lunging, growling, snapping or showing aggression towards other people or more often than not other dogs.
From my experience these behaviours are often stemmed from either fear, excitement or it’s become a learnt behaviour.
I have a saying that I use with my clients and that is …. “ dogs do what works” this is relevant in all aspects of your dogs behaviour, for example dogs learn quickly that “when I put my bottom on the floor I get a treat” therefore i’ll keep doing it because its got me what I wanted/something nice.
“ I jumped up at the work surface and there were some crumbs to mop up, i’ll do that again”
Nervous/reactive dogs quickly learn that barking/growling/lunging gets them what they want, the person or dog that they want to go away, goes away! TA DA that worked, I’ll keep doing it. Hence why it becomes a learnt behaviour.
What can happen is if those signals/ communication are ignored by the person approaching or the off lead dog bounding towards your dog, they may feel they need to “shout a little louder” so that they are heard. Their behaviour is likely to intensify and escalate if they are continued to be ignored.
REACTIVITY IS NOT NAUGHTY BEHAVIOUR, OUR DOGS ARE TRYING TO COMMUNICATE AND ITS OUR JOB TO LISTEN AND TO HELP THEM WORK THROUGH IT
Why Am I Writing This Blog?
I think its important that you understand why I am writing this blog, there is a hidden agenda! It’s not only to give owners an understanding as to why their dogs are behaving the way they are and what they can do to help but also to point out what NOT to do. Now I am well aware that I am entering into controversial ground here and I’m opening myself up to be bombarded with criticism from other trainers and dog owners who choose to use methods that I am going to be telling you to steer well clear of. My message to those people is to keep reading, be open minded, make your judgement once you’ve heard me out and if you still don't agree with me, cool, you do you and I’ll do me. BUT I am hoping that my blog will inspire or at least get people thinking.
NOW WHAT ON EARTH AM I TALKING ABOUT???
I am talking about the use of aversive/punishment methods with reactive dogs, or any dog for that matter.
I have seen an increase in owners coming to me for help with their reactive dogs that have been recommended to use prong collars AND electric collars on their dogs by “professionals”
I can fully understand and relate to these clients, after all they are taking the advice of a professional, someone in the know.
Myself and Jamie are qualified trainers with the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers. We are science based i.e. our learnings are backed by science based studies, force free, reward based trainers. I love my job and I’m proud of the work that me and my husband do however in the past before I became a trainer under another trainers advice I have used aversive methods with one of my own dogs, It’s not something Im proud of, it doesn't sit well with me at all and its hard to admit but I think its important that you know I have been there. I have been the owner desperate, dreading walks with my dog, not sure where to turn and being advised to try a trainer by Jo blogs down the park and then trusting that he knows what he's talking about and that he's going to FIX my dog. Well let me tell you, after watching a complete stranger, the professional, electrocute and jab my dog in the neck with a prong collar simultaneously AND paying him a small fortune to do it!!! well I cried the whole way home, I knew it was wrong, I knew it was cruel but I was desperate. I cannot explain how difficult I find it to relive that experience and I hope I can prevent anyone else from making the same mistakes as I did all those years ago. So you see I’ve been there, done it, worn the t shirt… trust me there are better, more ethical, kinder ways to train your dog. Causing pain to them is just unnecessary especially when there are so many kinder alternatives. If only I knew then what I know now……. and NO it didn't help, it made things ten times worse.
What is Considered Aversive …..
Anything that causes your dog pain/discomfort and anything that causes your dog to be fearful or feel intimidated.
Examples - some are obvious but some maybe not
Head Halti (however conditioned correctly I do believe they have their uses, but only as a last resort and to be honest i’d really rather not use them due to the physical damage they can cause)
Rattle cans ( pebbles in a bottle)
Pet Corrector ( compressed air spray)
Rolled Up news paper
Pinning/ Alpha Rolling (we can hold Caesar Milan responsible for this one)
You get the picture…………….
Why To Avoid Aversive Methods
As a trainer I am becoming more and more concerned about the increase in prong collar use in particular, my theory is that now its looking likely that e collars are going to be banned in England (they already are in Wales) the prong collar will simply replace it.
Take your Fearful Dog
Picture this……Imagine something you are scared of, I’ll use spiders as an example. Imagine a spider was working its way towards you, being nervous or anxious you are going to want to move away from the spider but you can’t because you have metal spikes around your neck and every time you try to move away or shout at it to back off the spikes dig and pinch into your neck, it hurts to move, it keeps coming closer and closer towards you, you cant get away…… how are you feeling?
Are those metal spikes digging in your neck going to make you feel more comfortable being around the thing you're scared of or do you think they might add to your anxiety and make you even more scared? The same goes for any of the aversive methods above, no matter what the aversive is you will still be creating the same emotional response to the stimulus. Fear
Now take your Excitable Dog
Imagine you are really really excited to go and see your favourite band, you're cuing for hours, and hours, you just want to see the band but you cant because every time you try to move forward into the arena where the band are playing someone tightens a chain around your neck preventing you from being able to move. You're missing the band! How do you feel? Frustrated? Angry maybe?
By using aversive methods you're not changing how your dog feels about the stimulus, they are still going to be fearful or excited AND you could create other undesirable responses such as aggression plus the added factor of causing injury to your dog.
Im sure you have all heard the expression “fight or flight”, if a fearful dog cant flee from the thing they are scared of, they may feel their only other option is to fight. Or they may completely shut down, give in, accept they cant get away. Because of this some people may think that the aversive methods have worked because their dog appears to be “behaving” but have a closer look at your dog, are they truly happy, confident and ok with the situation. Take a look at the body language poster below.
Personally I don’t want my dog to ever feel shut down, I want them to be well rounded, confident and happy. Especially on walks, otherwise whats the point! you may as well never leave the house with them.
These methods are not sustainable, they may appear “fixed” for a short period of time but gradually their old behaviours will come back because you have not changed their emotional response to the stimulus that causes their reactivity you have simply suppressed it.
How Can We Help Our Dogs
So I think I’ve made my point about what to avoid, and I hope you will all learn through my mistakes and not go down that road. If you already have gone down that road and are open to something new, thats great its not too late to make positive changes for your dog.
Where to start?
- Get the right equipment/tools, non aversive
- Find a Force Free Trainer
- Start building your foundation exercises at home
- Set Your Dog Up To Succeed (choose your environment wisely)
- Build on your Bank of trust with your dog, they need to feel safe, they need to feel like they can trust you.
- DONT GIVE UP AT THE FIRST HURDLE, STICK WITH IT… That is my BEST piece of advice for you.
Harnesses I recommend are : Perfect Fit, Easy Walk or T Touch
- Before you start your training I would suggest getting a front attaching (not back) well fitted harness for your dog, if you're really apposed to harnesses then I’d recommend a wide flat collar with a buckle, nothing that is going to tighten around your dogs neck if they pull.
- Get your dog a “I Need Space” coat/ bandanna/lead cover so that people have a nice clear visual cue that your dog needs space i.e. your dog really wont like it if their over zealous bouncy puppy comes running over to say hello. This doesn't mean by any circumstances that it will stop all dogs running up to your dog but hopefully it will reduce it, unfortunately we cant control what other people do. There is a scheme in the UK called “Yellow Dog Uk”, have a look at their website where you can purchase “I NEED SPACE” merchandise but you will probably find lots of similar products on google too.
- A treat pouch with some high value treats in it, a treat pouch will allow you to deliver treats quickly and hassle free, no more rummaging around in a plastic bag in your pocket, this will be a game changer for you if you've not already got one. And by high value treats I don’t mean their biscuits that they eat at home, or the dry generic treats you get in packets from the super market/pet shop I mean something soft, smelly and super tasty. Chicken, sausage, cheese, liver cake etc your treats need to be like gold to your dog!
- A CLICKER I love clickers! its been scientifically proven that animals learn quicker with a clicker. They are even clicker training animals in zoos now to make feeding and manoeuvring the animals less stressful.
- Consider the ENVIRONMENT you are asking your dog to learn in and to make changes to their behaviour. Don’t go to a busy park where there are dogs running off lead left right and centre, kids playing football etc the environment will be too distracting for your dog to learn. I have another saying “You wouldn’t go to a night club to study, so don't take your dog to the nightclub and expect them to learn”
SET YOUR DOG UP TO SUCCEED take them to an environment where they are comfortable and unlikely to be ambushed by their trigger.
I usually tell my clients to start their training at home, then the garden, then a remote field with plenty of space and not much going on, then when doing well in all of those environments look at joining a group class. I recommend group classes (in an outdoor location) because its a controlled environment, everyone is there to learn and you have an instructor making sure the environment is set up to suit your dog and ensure your dogs space is respected.
Exercises you can be working on at home……
Eye contact (Gives the dog an appropriate alternative behaviour to the one they are displaying at the moment)
How to start :
Take 5 smelly treats in your hand in a closed fist, hold your hand out to the side away from your body. Wait for your dog to look away from your fist and towards you.Then mark her looking towards you (even if its just towards your wrist at first then gradually work towards her looking further up your arm each time until you are catching “eye contact” with the dog) by saying “YES” or “click” then give her the food.
Repeat this exercise 5 times with each hand so that she learns from both sides. If she looses interest in the food get something smellier or get it right under her nose.
This is a foundation exercise, which will teach the dog to settle and look at you, by choice, to get what they want, if she has choice then she will be happy to do the behaviour and if rewarded she will be more likely to repeat the behaviour.
Do this randomly thought out the day as much as you can, 5 reps with the left hand and 5 reps with the right hand = x10 Reps at least 5 times a day.
With multiple, short bursts of this exercise the dog will improve quicker.
LAT, “Look At That” (Changing the association of their trigger)
Every time your dog sees their trigger in the distance you are going to click and get a tasty treat into them, we are changing the association of their trigger at sight. Pairing the trigger = something nice.
It is really important that your dog is kept at a far enough distance from their trigger so that they don’t react, this is called keeping your dog below threshold. If they are reacting you are too close, head away and end your session there and come back to your LAT training in a day or two.
Loose lead walking
This is to relieve any tension on the lead, making the dog feel comfortable and less trapped, remember Fight or Flight!!! In fact this is really important so don't shy away from doing the training.
Have a look at our you tube channel to show the basics of loose lead
Teaching your dog to come away from a potential trigger on cue and by choice rather than having to drag them away
Practice this one at home or in the garden before using it out on walks
- set out a marker, you could use a chair, a plant pot, a bamboo stick anything really
- Loose lead walk up to the marker and stop, ask your dog to sit use a food lure if you need to.
- When your dog has put their bottom on the floor, mark it with a verbal marker of “yes” or with a click.
- Now you are going to add in your lets go cue say “lets go” and tap your leg closest to the dog as you are turning to head away in the direction you just came from.
- You are not using your lead to get your dog to come with you, so no pulling the lead, I want your dog to come away with you by choice. If they have the choice your dog is going to feel more relaxed, willing and happier to come away with you.
- As your dog turns and comes away with you I want you to mark with a verbal marker of “yes” or a click from your clicker and reward your dog for coming away with you.
- The verbal marker of “yes” or your clicker are letting your dog know that responding to your verbal cue of “lets go” and your visual cue of tapping your leg and then following is why they've received their reward (high value treat).
I would always recommend seeking a professional to help guide you through these exercises, there are thousands of what we call Force Free/ Positive Reinforcement trainers all over the UK, do your research into the trainer and if you are unhappy with any of their methods either don't go, or if you're already there, leave! You have to do the right thing for YOUR dog.
There are a few organisations that qualified trainers can belong to, I am a fully qualified IMDT trainer, we sign a code of ethics that we must adhere to and I am regularly reassessed to make sure I am continuing with my learning. Unfortunately Dog Training is an unregulated industry, so basically anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, scary right! Because of this I would always recommend a trainer that is affiliated with a governing body, feel free to contact them to make sure the trainer you are seeing really is a member of their organisation. The IMDT have an option on their website “find a trainer” where you can enter your postcode and your nearest trainer will come up. Choosing the right trainer is crucial.
I really hope you have found this beneficial, I have given you the basics but there are so many other things you can be doing to help your dog. Please don’t feel like you're on your own, get in touch with your local trainer who can guide and support you…..
GOOD LUCK FROM ALL OF US AT CHORLEYWOOD DOG TRAINING