Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year in Review, Part 3: My Education and Growth

One thing Maisy has really done for me is turn me into a better dog owner and trainer. If Maisy were not reactive, I very likely would not have spent so much time learning about training, nor would I have developed some of the skills I have worked very hard to acquire. In this entry, I want to share some of the things I’ve done to become a better trainer, as well as some of the things I’ve changed at home to help Maisy feel better.

I think one of the biggest skills I’ve developed is in my ability to read dog body language. Like most owners, I was pretty oblivious to what my dog was telling me with her body. Now I can generally pick out the main components of what’s going on. Although I still struggle to read the body language of other dogs, especially the brief and subtle displays, I’ve gotten much better at reading Maisy’s body language.

I went to one dog-related seminar this year in March, when I spent two days with Pat Miller (who, incidentally, thinks Maisy is cute). It was a great seminar, and I learned a lot. We covered a variety of topics, including a general overview of operant and classical conditioning, dog body language, and a special afternoon session on Constructional Aggression Treatment.

I did a lot of reading, and currently belong to 42 dog-related yahoo groups. I also read the following books:
The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson
Bones Would Rain From the Sky, by Suzanne Clothier
Getting in TTouch with Your Dog, by Linda Tellington-Jones
Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt
The Hidden Life of Dogs, and The Social Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Don’t Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor
A Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, by Caroline Knapp
Click Your Way to Rally Obedience, by Pam Dennison
Reaching the Animal Mind, by Karen Pryor
Click to Calm, by Emma Parsons
Through a Dog’s Ear, by Joshua Leeds and Susan Wagner
Ring Wise: A Handling Manual for Competition Obedience, by Marie Sawford
On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas
Successful Obedience Handling, by Barbara S. Handler.
(I’m working on a few more, but I probably won’t finish them by the end of the year.)

I also watched two dog training DVDs: The Language of Dogs, by Sarah Kalnajs and Crate Games, by Susan Garrett.

I volunteered as a trial steward at a UKC obedience trial in November, and I learned a lot. I watched everything closely, and took away some great tips which I have incorporated into my work with Maisy. I also learned that trials are only as stressful as you make them. The judges genuinely want each team to do well, and the other teams barely pay attention. This has gone a long way towards reducing my ring nerves, although I know there’s a lot of work left to do there.

I also made a lot of changes in Maisy’s life. One of the most important things I did was introduce treat dispensing toys for her meals. Maisy eats supper out of these every day. She has a Buster Cube, a Tricky Treat Ball, a Bob-A-Lot, and our favorite, the Tug a Jug!

These toys are vital to keeping us both sane. Maisy has a lot of energy, and being able to expend some mental energy during meal times really cuts down on her anxiety. I also improved Maisy’s diet by switching over to pre-made raw for breakfast, with high-quality, grain-free kibble for supper. She takes probiotics and fish oil daily.

Maisy switched to a holistic vet this fall, and has received regular chiropractic treatments. She’s also got her first massage today! I have never seen this dog so relaxed. This may sound like extravagance, but keeping her pain free is incredibly important when managing her anxiety.

Maisy and I have gone to a ton of classes, including CU-style classes, rally and advanced obedience. We have had a couple of private lessons, and even took a few tracking lessons this fall. It was really neat to watch Maisy use her innate abilities, and really taught me that I have to trust her as much as she has to trust me when we’re working together.

Finally, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t share what might be my favorite Maisy-related moment from 2009: the night in March when she got me out of a speeding ticket.

I was driving to a dog training class, and was apparently going a bit too fast. Okay, I was at least 15mph over the limit, so I knew when I saw those lights in my rear view mirror that I was going to get a ticket. The officer walked up to the passenger’s side window to ask for my license and proof of insurance.

I couldn’t find it. I apologized profusely, but the officer looked at me sternly. Then he noticed Maisy, who was sitting safely buckled in her seat, wagging her tail in large, loose circles, and with the biggest doggy smile possible. He did a double take, then smiled at her.

“You know what?” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Just slow down.”

I thanked him, and then, as I drove away, I thanked Maisy.

And I need to do that again today. Thank you, Maisy, for everything you have done, for everything you have taught me, for loving and trusting me, for simply being yourself. I could not ask for a better dog.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year in Review, Part 2: Skills and Attitudes

Earning titles and ribbons is fun, of course, but Maisy and I learned a lot, too. This is the second of three entries reviewing how Maisy and I spent 2009, and in this entry, I’ll talk about the skills we’ve developed, and the way Maisy’s attitude has changed.

Obedience wise, Maisy and I worked on many, many things. I’m really proud of how far her heeling has come. Just over a year ago, loose leash walking was still pretty tricky for us. Now, Maisy has a decent heel position. She can heel on and off leash with a lot of attention (although that depends on the distraction level, of course). She has learned to find heel position with either a hand cue, a verbal cue, or my body position.

In addition to improved heeling in straight lines, she’s really improved her ability to stay in heel position while I move in odd directions. The halt-left pivot 90 degrees was the most terrifying thing to me when I signed up for our first trial, but now she can left pivot 360 degrees even with distractions! She can also do the halt-sidestep right-halt and remain in a pretty good heel position.

I’m thrilled with her ability to heel past the distraction of a food bowl with treats in it! Although she has a momentary lapse now and then, she usually doesn’t even look at it anymore! I’m especially proud that I was able to teach this without using the words “leave it” excessively.

Maisy’s heeling has probably improved more than mine, but this year, I have learned about walking at a brisk pace and improved my foot work. I’m better at walking in a straight line (which is harder than it sounds), too.

Maisy’s fronts, while still not where I want them, have improved a great deal. In fact, they are nearly perfect at home! Not only does she come in centered and straight, she’s getting much closer! One thing I had to improve while working on fronts was about treat delivery. Once I took the bait bag off my hip and became consistent about giving the treat in the center of my body, her fronts improved a lot.

I introduced a lot of new concepts to her as well. Although we have a lot of work to do to finish these behaviors, Maisy and I have started working on jumps, retrieving a dumbbell, using a pivot board, and backing up.

I also successfully desensitized Maisy to a Dremel for her nails (although I wouldn’t say that I’ve fully counter-conditioned her- she doesn’t love it, but it’s better than using a nail clipper), and really improved her eye contact and attention behaviors through doggie zen. I’m also really proud that I finally figured out how to legally use treats in the APDT rally ring!

On the reactivity front,I think that one of the biggest areas in which Maisy developed skills this year is her ability to relax. In January, we started our first Control Unleashed style class, which is a class specifically designed for reactive dogs. A big component to CU style classes is teaching the dog to relax and be calm in the face of triggers. One method to accomplish this is through mat work, which may be combined with massage and TTouch. Maisy really struggled with this. She seemed very uncomfortable, and wiggled all over the place in an effort to get away from me when I first started massaging her.

The instructor also encouraged me to reward calm and relaxed behaviors at home. This is harder than it sounds; when your dog is lying quietly and being good, you tend to take them for granted. This year, I really had to learn to look for and reward calm behaviors. It was a weird experience for both of us. Back in January, I wrote the following in my journal:

THIS IS SO HARD. I tried doing this [rewarding relaxed behavior] today- I gave her verbal praise for lying nicely in the living room and she just looked at me like “what the hell? I’m not DOING anything.” A couple of times she’s gotten up and run away.

These days, Maisy is very comfortable on her mat, and I see her relaxed around the house a lot more often, and while she doesn’t love massages, she does appreciate a few well-placed pets. Not only is she more willing to relax by stretching out in the house, she has become more snuggly with me. She often chooses to curl up next to me, which is incredibly endearing. I also think this is a sign of our improved relationship due to all of the work we’ve done together.

Maisy’s fear has also decreased. Over the last year, she has learned to go through agility tunnels (on her own terms, not on my cue), and sit in a canine-eating hula hoop. She is also generally more willing to interact with objects. Although she has no interest in stepping on an A-Frame or a teeter, she is quite willing to go sniff them for a treat. This is huge for her!

Another neat way her fear has decreased is her willingness to move things. Maisy has a lot of fear of movement, and until recently, she wouldn’t even nose aside a door to retrieve her beloved tennis ball. Now, though, she is not only nosing aside doors but actively pushing her way in to the room where I feed the cats, and escaping from her crate. For three years, we’ve never once latched her crate at home- we knew she wouldn’t try to open it. Recently, however, we’ve found her out and about when we get home. Most people would probably be upset by this, but honestly, I’m just thrilled that she’s become so brave! I also like that it offers her the choice of remaining safely inside her crate or leaving on her terms while we’re gone.

Her reactivity has fluctuated a lot this year, and it’s hard to know where we stand on that front. Still, I think it’s improving. It seems like her reactivity has become less emotional and more of a habit or learned behavior, which truly is a good thing, even if it is still frustrating. I’ve identified a lot of her triggers, and am becoming better at both preventing reactivity and interrupting and managing it, and Maisy’s become better at seeing a trigger and offering an alternative behavior (usually frantic eye contact) in the expectation of a treat. Good dog!

Overall, Maisy has become a very easy dog to live with. I probably wouldn’t even know that she’s reactive if it weren’t for the fact that I want to go to obedience trials. She’s genuinely mellowed out and become less anxious at home. She’s also pretty good in low-pressure environments. Although we still have the occasional issue while on walks or at a pet store, she’s usually good in those environments, too. People tend to look at Maisy with admiration, and once, a lady in a pet store looked at Maisy, and then looked at her dog and said, “Why can’t you be more like that dog?” Since I have thought that endless times, I was so thrilled that Maisy was finally the “other dog.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Year in Review, Part 1: Trials and Accomplishments

With the end of the year upon us, I thought it would be nice to look back on all of the experiences and accomplishments that Maisy and I shared. Although there’s still a lot I’d like to work on with Maisy, I’m really proud of how far we’ve come. This post will be the first of three reviewing our year together, and will cover our trial accomplishments this year.

When January began, I never dreamed that we would spend the year going to trials, but perhaps the fact that we went to TCOTC’s run-throughs on New Year’s Day should have been a sign of what was to come. I had no idea what to expect from a run-through, and was surprised when I was told that we were ready to tackle rally obedience in competition. There were no ribbons or awards, but I loved working as a team with Maisy, and decided I wanted to try this whole trial thing.

Here is a video of our first time ever doing a rally course at the run-through:

We went to the Minnesota Mixed Breed Club’s APDT rally trial held on January 31st and February 1st. We experienced our first Q, and our first NQ at this trial (apparently, you have to do all the signs). Maisy and I ended the weekend with 3 Qs and our first title! We also earned an Award of Excellence (because all of our scores were over 190: we had a 195, a 197 and a 200, which was 4th place, 3rd place and 3rd place, respectively) along with our shiny new RL1 title

Next, we went to a trial in Illinois in June. I was very nervous about this trial! I was afraid that our previous success was just a fluke; the first trial was held at our home club and I didn’t know how Maisy would hold up in a strange location. As it turned out, she did great. It was a very tight space, but Maisy did really well chilling on my lap. The competition was stiff, but we still did well: a 200, a 206, a 207 (and 5th place), and a 204.

Only a few weeks later, we went to a trial in Des Moines. This trial was a huge success for us. Maisy had excellent scores, including her personal best of a 209 (which was a 2nd place), a 204 (and 2nd), a 208 (and her first 1st place!), a 208 (5th place), and a 201. But, the best part was that following one of our runs, the judge commented that Maisy looked “very happy.” I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a nicer compliment.

August brought two more trials. The first was another MMBC trial. This trial was a truly mixed bag for me. We had great successes mixed with great disappointments. Despite the wonderful things we accomplished in this trial, due to her reactivity, the sense of connection was lost, and I didn’t enjoy it as much. This trial really solidified my understanding that dog sports are another expression of my relationship with my dog, not about a chance for accolades.

Anyway, we had scores of 188, 206, 206, and 205, and earned a 1st place, two 3rd places, and Maisy was the high scoring mixed breed dog of the day on Sunday! We also completed our RL1X title, which is the single-level championship title.

Only a few weeks later, we headed to Omaha for another trial. Maisy did much better at this trial. Although she did have some reactivity, I had learned from the MMBC trial and managed her better. She had scores of 198, 203, 201 and 204. We also tried level 2 for the first time! Ironically, it was this spur-of-the-moment entry that gained us our highest score and our only placement of the weekend: a 208 and 2nd place! (We had to do a run-off for the placement and we won it!)

What all that boils down to is a total of 5 trials and 2 titles. Our highest score of the year was a 209. We earned 1st place twice, 2nd place three times, 3rd place a whopping four times (we’re apparently very good at 3rd place!), 4th place once, and 5th place twice, plus the high scoring mixed breed dog honor! We also have one leg towards our level 2 title. What a great year! Check out all those ribbons!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Emotional Exhaustion

I cried in the car on the way home from dog training class on Thursday.

It was the third week of level 3 obedience, and Maisy had been doing really well. The first week, I could tell that she was a bit uncertain, but she hung in there. She and I worked together, and though she had a few stressful moments, she managed to express that without going over-threshold. The second week was even better. Again, she had a few stressful moments, but was largely calm and relaxed- she was even able to watch dogs do restrained recalls!

Oh, but the third week.

When we got there, there were several things different. First, our regular instructor wasn't there. Second, the ring was set up slightly different (usually our instructor puts her dog in a crate behind a barrier; a slight difference, but we both noticed). Finally, a new dog was present, a large poodley-dog that I hadn't seen before.

Maisy doesn't like change. She was stressed from the beginning, so I did my best to keep her sub-threshold by playing Look At That, and rewarding calm behaviors heavily. She held in there okay, so I decided we could try the group heeling warm up.

It didn't go well. She pulled and lunged and barked and growled. I quickly realized that she needed a break, so I took her outside the ring to the other side of the opaque ring barriers. The first week, that was enough to help her remain calm, and while it helped on Thursday, it didn't help enough. She kept standing on her hind legs, trying to see over the barriers, and continued to bark and growl. I finally gave up on heeling entirely and just played Look At That ring barrier. In retrospect, I should have tried moving even further away.

We did eventually make it back in the ring, but it took almost half an hour for her to calm down enough to concentrate, and it was only once I made a box out of the ring barriers that she truly calmed down enough to work. She did wonderfully then, and after five or ten minutes of calm, contained behavior, I decided to leave class early so that we could end on a good note.

And then, I cried in the car.

I don't cry often with Maisy. She's a wonderful dog- reactive, yes, but she tries so hard for me, and she's made a lot of progress. But sometimes, I just find it so emotionally exhausting to work with her. Sometimes I wonder if I should just scrap my plans of doing obedience trials with her, and start fresh with a new dog.

But I don't want a new dog. I want Maisy.

Maisy is amazing. She's very cute. She's smart, but she's also very biddable. She wants please, or at least she wants to earn that piece of hot dog. She's enthusiastic and loves to train. She's playful and friendly and absolutely hilarious at times. She's also a cuddler, and I absolute adore the way she curls up next to me. She's up for anything, and she'll try anything for me. Simply put, I love her.

Even with reactivity, Maisy is a dog with a lot of potential. She already has titles, and she's never gone to a trial without placing in the ribbons at least once over the weekend. It will take longer than it might if she weren't reactive, but I know that she and I will go far together. Still, I mourn the potential she has that's been lost to her reactivity.

I mourn the normal dog that she'll never be. I want a dog that can go to class without freaking out. I want one that makes me look brilliant, not like the idiot who can't control her dog. More than that, though, I want Maisy to feel normal. It breaks my heart that she feels so stressed that she feels she needs to react like that in order to stay safe. And I hate that I put her in those situations to achieve goals that she doesn't care about. And I wonder if that's fair.

It's a heartbreaking thing, sometimes, to live with a reactive dog. Which is why I cried in the car last Thursday night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On Thresholds: Figuring out what to do when Maisy reacts

Since learning that Maisy is a reactive dog, I’ve learned a lot about how to work with her, both to keep her from reacting, and to help her calm down once she does. One thing that still confused me, though, was about thresholds. Specifically, about what I should do when she goes over-threshold.

First, a quick lesson: a “threshold” is the point at which your dog can no longer remain calm in the face of a trigger. These triggers are not static; they can change dependent on the situation, such as location, time of day, or even the dog’s mood. They can also “stack” on one another, where two mild triggers together become a single, scarier one. For example, Maisy tends to find men carrying bags of dog food on their shoulders scary. She also finds a particular PetSmart more stressful than others. She can handle being there just fine, and she can handle seeing men carry bags of dog food when we are at other pet stores. But if she sees that happen at the “scary” PetSmart, she is almost guaranteed to react.

It is important to learn to identify a reactive dog’s thresholds to different things because once your dog reacts, she can no longer think rationally. During a full-blown reactive response, the part of the brain that processes learning is shut off. This means that once your dog has gone over threshold, your sole purpose is damage control: you need to prevent anyone from getting hurt, and help your dog calm down.

The reason I’ve struggled with how to best manage Maisy when she’s become reactive is that there are conflicting opinions on what to do. Some people say that once your dog has gone over threshold, you should immediately remove them from the situation and help them calm down because they are no longer capable of learning. Others say you shouldn’t do this because if you do, your dog is learning they can get out of something by demonstrating reactive behavior. I can see both points.

Further complicating the matter is that Maisy seems to have two motivations behind her reactive behavior: truly emotional and over-threshold responses, and learned behaviors in which she appears to be over-threshold, but isn’t. I can tell she isn’t actually emotionally upset because her body language is fairly relaxed, and because she will self-interrupt herself, and return to me for a treat. This is a very clear example of a behavior chain but it’s not really reactivity any more. It just looks like it.

This means that when Maisy demonstrates reactive behavior, I need to quickly assess her body language and decide if she’s truly upset or not. I’ll talk more about Maisy’s reactivity as a learned behavior and the way I respond to those instances in the future. But what should I do when she really is upset?

I already know that I don’t want to force her to stay in a scary situation (also called “flooding,” something which can have dangerous side effects), but I do want her to learn to calm herself down in the face of a trigger. As a result, in the past I have settled on having her move away from the trigger a considerable distance to a location where she could still see it, on the theory that this reduced the intensity of the trigger while still allowing her to learn to calm herself in the presence of a visible trigger.

Over the weekend, though, I had two very similar experiences where she became emotionally reactive and either went over threshold or was very close to doing so. In both instances, the best way to move away was to go out of sight. I was astonished by how much more effective this was. In both cases, the intensity lessened much quicker while we were out of sight. Even better, when we returned to the situation, she was much calmer than she has been in the past when we’ve re-approached a trigger which had remained in sight. I found this interesting because we both did pretty much exactly the same things we usually do in order to calm down.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it was easier and faster for her to calm down out of sight of the trigger; she’s always been very visual. However, I am surprised by how much calmer she was upon returning to the situation. As a result, I’ve decided that when I know she is truly emotionally upset, I will honor that, and allow her to leave. If I can’t tell if it’s emotional or learned behavior, I’ll err on the side of caution by allowing her to leave anyway. In order to prevent this from potentially reinforcing the reactive behavior, once she’s calm, I will have her return so that she also learns that she can remain calm and control her emotions, even when there's something scary nearby. I think this strikes a nice balance, and I’m excited to continue working with her with this new, best of both worlds approach. As always, I’ll keep you updated on how it goes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Maisy's reactivity

A four month old Maisy and the elliptical. Although you can't tell from the picture, she was barking and lunging at this scary new thing.

In my last entry, I told you a bit about reactivity in dogs. I think the easiest way to sum it up is in an equation:

anxiety + poor impulse control = reactive behavior

Today, I’m going to tell you how that applies to Maisy. Let’s start with the first component: anxiety. This is probably the largest contributor to Maisy’s reactivity. I’ll talk more about this in the future, but I believe her anxiety is the result of both genetic and environmental factors.

Anyway, Maisy was always a fearful puppy. Although I didn’t know it at the time, there were several incidents during her early puppyhood that I now recognize as warning signs of what she would become. I wrote this in my journal when she was four months old:

Maisy isn't a barker at all, but once in awhile, something will totally get her going. For example, a soda can. Seriously, there's a soda can next to the bathtub (left over from my hot bath), and that totally freaked her out. Also, the elliptical. That scared her so bad [the first time she saw it in use] that she refused to go in the living room for several hours.

When she took her Canine Good Citizen test at 10 months old, she passed all of the elements with flying colors. However, the evaluator wrote in one comment: “Seems a little worried.”

These days, she tends to be worried about a lot of things, but she has two main “triggers”: sudden environmental changes, and new or unfamiliar things. The latter is likely due to insufficient socialization as a puppy. The former, though, is something that has always been with her; that incident with the soda can is a classic example of an environmental change (which likely seemed sudden to her, since it wasn’t there when she left the room, and it was when she returned).

Sudden environmental changes are one of the hardest things for her, probably because it is difficult to prepare her for them. With new or scary things, I can give her the space and time she needs to get used to them (and I’ll discuss how I do that in a future entry). But when things suddenly change, there isn’t much I can do to prepare her. Some of the things which might startle her include people or dogs “appearing out of nowhere” (typically coming through a doorway that she hadn’t noticed), or loud and unexpected noises.

The second component is poor impulse control, which is a classic hallmark of reactive dogs. Maisy has this as well, but it’s gotten better with time. Unlike genetics and a lack of socialization as a puppy, I can fix my mistakes a bit easier. We spend a lot of time working on relaxation and impulse control.

Because Maisy is a corgi mix, almost all of her impulse control issues are about movement. More specifically, it’s about wanting to chase something that is moving, and being unable to do so, resulting in frustration. Typical things that makes her want to give chase include bicycles, skateboards, children playing with balls (she loves balls), and selected other dogs.

When you put these two things together, the end result is reactive behavior. Maisy’s reactivity is very typical: She will lunge, growl and bark at things. The interesting thing is that I can usually tell if her reaction is coming from a place of anxiety and fear, or if it’s an impulsive, frustrated response.

When Maisy is reacting out of fear, she tends to freeze first. This is often a very quick thing, making it easy to miss, with almost an air of uncertainty about her. It’s like she’s trying to decide what to do. Once she does, she almost always chooses to lunge towards whatever is scaring her. If she’s on leash, she will hit the end of it, but if she’s off leash, she will lunge towards the scary thing while keeping a safe distance- usually 10 to 15 feet. Depending on how scary the thing is, she will either growl or bark. If you rank things by how scary they are, for the least scary thing, she will lunge and give a soft “wuff” as a warning. For scarier things, she’ll lunge and growl. For the scariest things of all, she’ll lunge and bark loudly and repeatedly.

It’s a different story when she’s reacting due to frustration and impulsivity. It may seem like a fine distinction, but instead of lunging, she’ll rush forward. If she’s on leash, she’ll strain and pull, but if she’s off leash, her reactivity diminishes (probably because there’s less frustration involved), and she will give chase. Either way, she may growl, but it takes on a different sound, becoming more playful in tone. And, she’s quite likely to bark, perhaps more likely to bark than growl.

Interestingly, other dogs seem to fit in both categories for her. Some dogs are scary for her, and while it’s hard to predict which dog is going to evoke a fearful response, they are often large and dark-colored. They may have erect or cropped ears, as well. And, regardless of size, any dog (or person, for that matter) that stares at her is guaranteed to provoke her. But some dogs intrigue her, and she will want play with them, which is evident by her use of play bows and/or a “helicopter tail,” my term for a tail that goes in wide, loose circles. These are also very brief signals that can be difficult to see.

When I set out to write this entry, I knew that both anxiety and impulse control issues were contributing to her behavior. What I find fascinating is how her behavior differs depending on the emotion behind her response. The differences are very subtle; so subtle, in fact, that I wasn’t fully aware of them until I began writing. Previously, I’ve always responded the same way, regardless of what was going on. But, upon further reflection, it does seem that I can either prevent or interrupt her behavior easier depending on why she’s reacting.

Going forward, I will be very curious to see if I can identify her emotional state during the heat of the moment, and then adjust my responses in a proactive and ultimately more helpful manner. This is why I'm so excited about this blog- writing tends to help me organize my thoughts, think through what's going on, and come up with new ideas. Kind of like training, I guess. Anyway, I'll keep you updated on our progress!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

So, what is reactivity, anyway?

In my previous entry, I told you that Maisy is “reactive.” What I didn’t tell you is what I mean by that. The short answer is that a reactive dog is one who overreacts to stimuli, usually by barking, growling or lunging. To a dog geek like me, though, the long answer is much more interesting…

When a dog is confronted by an experience, whether it’s something the dog has seen a million times before, like other dogs, or whether it’s a novel stimulus, such as the sudden appearance of a man carrying helium balloons, the dog must decide how it’s going to react.

Some dogs, the so-called normal ones, are relatively unconcerned by the stimulus. They may or may not be interested in whatever it is, but either way, their internal process can be described as, “Oh, another dog. I’ve seen those before. No big deal.”

Another dog might be momentarily unsure, especially if it’s a new experience, or a sudden change in the environment, but will recover quickly and go about his business. “Woah! What’s that? Oh, it’s a guy carrying balloons. Well, that’s a bit odd, but I guess it’s okay.” These dogs are also what we might call normal.

Reactive dogs, though, are the ones that overreact. “Holy crap!” they shout, “I’ve never seen that before. I think it’s going to eat me!!” Of course, dogs don’t actually shout, so what you and I see is a dog who is growling, barking and lunging.

"But wait!" I can hear some of you thinking. "Isn’t that a sign of an aggressive dog?"

It can be. If you encounter a strange dog who is growling, barking and lunging at you, it can definitely look aggressive. But where the aggressive dog actually means you harm, the reactive dog typically just wants you to go away. The aggressive dog is probably reacting from a place of confidence, or acting offensively, while a reactive dog is usually reacting from a place of insecurity or fear, and thus acting defensively. 

Author's update, April 2011: In the two years since I originally wrote this post, I've come to believe that reactivity and aggression are more like a continuum or a spectrum. Most experts I've spoken with don't use the term "reactivity," and instead call it "fear aggression." Indeed, much of what I've read since posting this suggests that the vast majority of dog bites are due to fear, not confidence. As a result, I no longer differentiate the terms based on the dog's emotions.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Dogs, like most animals, including humans, have a fight or flight response. The aggressive dog chooses to fight. The fearful one would rather pick the flight option. Unfortunately, our dogs so often don’t get to make such choices. Stuck behind fences or on leashes, they get backed into metaphorical corners. Since they cannot escape the scary situation, they may try to intimidate whatever they’re scared of, in essence saying, “See? I’m big and scary. You should be afraid of ME instead. Go away!” It’s an act of bravado; last thing the reactive dog generally wants to do is actually fight. (Don’t think this means the reactive dog is safe, though. If he feels threatened enough, he may bite.)

Not all reactivity comes out of a place of fear, though. Some dogs, especially young ones, get very excited when they see other people or dogs. When this happens, they may rush forward, eager to greet a potential new friend. When they find they can’t, either because they’re on leash or behind a fence, they often become frustrated and bark. “I want to come see you, but I can’t!” they say. What you’re seeing is a lack of impulse control on the dog’s part. Reactive dogs almost universally have issues with self-control.

Of course, we owners don’t like this behavior. If we perceive it as the dog misbehaving- after all, he knows better than to pull when on the leash- we might discipline him by yelling or giving a leash correction. And while some dogs understand that their person is telling them, no, don’t pull and rush toward that other dog, others get the message all mixed up. “Wow, I tried to be friendly to that other dog, and my neck ended up hurting. I don’t like that dog.” The dog may decide that other dogs are a Bad Thing to encounter, and will begin to bark and growl the next time they see another out of anxiety and fear that it will happen again.

On the other hand, if we are simply embarrassed by the dog’s over-exuberant and rude behavior, we might become worried, tense, and tighten up on the leash in our attempts to control or contain him. Dogs are very sensitive, and can discern even the smallest change in our body language, and may begin to wonder if they misunderstood the situation. “Wow, my person really doesn’t like that other dog. Maybe I shouldn’t, either.” Again, the dog might begin to overreact in anticipation of our response.

Thus, we can see that reactivity can be both an emotional reaction and a misdirected frustration response or lack of impulse control. No matter why the reactivity started, though, the dog continues the behavior because it worked. Maybe they got the scary thing to go away. Maybe you loosened your leash and released the pressure. Maybe it was something else that we can’t figure out, but the bottom line is: behavior only continues when it has been rewarded. It then becomes a pattern, an almost-instinctual way to respond. This habit is reactivity.

Genetics and early experiences (called socialization), greatly affect whether a dog is one of those normal ones or not. The way we react, or don’t react, also influences the dog’s responses.

In future entries, I’ll tell you about Maisy, what her reactivity looks like, and how it affects our lives. I’ll tell you what I did right, and perhaps more interestingly, what I did wrong so that you can learn from my mistakes. I’ll tell you what I’ve done to help Maisy overcome her fear, and how I manage her environment so that her fear doesn’t get the best of her.

Until then, enjoy your dogs!

Thursday, December 3, 2009


On the first night of every dog training class I've taken, all of us students took turns introducing ourselves, our dogs, and shared our goals for taking the class. Since this is a dog training blog, it only seems right that this, my first post, is an introduction. So, here goes:

Hi, my name is Crystal, and this is my dog Maisy.

I am a 30-something social worker by day, and an amateur dog trainer by night. All of my co-workers will tell you that pretty much all I talk about is dogs, though.

Maisy is a 3 year old wonder-mutt. When I got her, I was told she is a "corgi-poo." All I have to say is that if that's true, I got ripped off in the "guaranteed not to shed" department.

When I got Maisy, I was a cat person. I didn't even like dogs. Somehow, though, I fell in love with this funny little dog, and impulsively brought her home. I knew I needed help training her, so we enrolled in a class. And then another. And then another. Before I knew it, I was dreaming of obedience titles.

I am not a professional, and I cannot give advice. What I can do, though, is share what I've learned with you. I am constantly reading about dog training, and have amassed a small library on the subject. I have studied everything from learning theory to body language, have read general training manuals to highly technical research, and as a result, fancy myself to be fairly knowledgeable on the subject.

Technically, Maisy's full name is Maisy, RL1X, AOE-L1, CGC, which is just a fancy way of saying "totally awesome." And Maisy is, indeed, totally awesome. To say I love her is an understatement. Maisy is an absolutely amazing dog. She's cute, she's funny, and she's super smart. Maisy loves to work, and training her is a joy.

While wonderful, Maisy is not an easy dog. She has a lot of allergies, OCD-tendencies, and a bad back. She's also fearful and anxious, with a tendency to "tell off" the scary thing. This is also called reactivity, which brings me to my goals.

I called this blog "Reactive Champion" because I intend to use it to chronicle our progress from a bit crazy to obedience champions! Along the way, I plan to make educational posts that are useful to a broader audience. I'll be writing about what reactivity is and how to work with a reactive dog. I'll share information on the latest research on dogs, and how it relates to me and Maisy. I'll chronicle our struggles and our triumphs. I've made mistakes, and I'll tell you about them. I've also had great success, and I'll tell you about that, too.

And someday, I will share the best thing of all: the story of how we became obedience champions.