Last week, I wrote an entry detailing my new approach to working with Maisy’s reactivity. Unsurprisingly, people have reacted with confusion, mostly because this is a rather unorthodox plan, and not at all what is normally recommended. Heck, if someone came to me and asked me how they should work with their reactive dog, I wouldn’t be pulling up that entry! Instead, I’d pull up this one, because today, I’d like to talk about the more usual methods.
Be aware that this entry is just an overview. If you have a reactive dog and you’re just starting out, you really want to find a good positive reinforcement trainer. There is so much at play with reactivity that it’s just easier and safer to have a second set of eyes looking at what’s going on.
Still, there are four main things that basically every good trainer will help you do:
1. Determine the dog’s triggers and thresholds
2. Counter-condition the emotional response
3. Help your dog develop impulse control
4. Teach alternate behaviors
I’ve written about thresholds before, but it needs to be repeated: it is absolutely critical that you do your best to stay under threshold when you’re working with a reactive dog. A dog that is in the throes of a full-out, overly-emotional response is not going to be in a place where he can really work through his issues.
So, the first step in working with a reactive dog is to figure out what causes the dog’s reactive response, and the proximity to the trigger in which the dog reacts. For example, one of the first triggers I identified for Maisy was bicycles going by, but only if they were closer than about 25 feet. Over time, I’ve decreased that threshold to about 6-8 feet, which is far more manageable.
In order to reduce the threshold, you need to start doing counter-conditioning. This addresses the emotional component to your dog’s reactivity. Counter-conditioning is pretty easy, but it takes patience. It does not happen overnight- I’ve spent over a year doing this with Maisy. Here’s how you do it: take your dog close enough to the trigger so that he notices it, but not so close that he loses it. Then feed a constant stream of treats until the trigger leaves. What this does is teach your dog that Big Black Dogs (another of Maisy’s triggers) aren’t scary. Instead, they are a reliable predictor that good things (treats) are going to happen! Therefore, Big Black Dogs become a Really Good Thing, not something to lunge and growl at.
Another component to reactivity is a lack of impulse control. I think this is the part that I’ve actually spent the most time working on with Maisy. Helping her learn that she can control her behavior has really helped boost her confidence and help her relax, which reduces the fear that drives her reactivity.
There are a lot of things you can do to develop impulse control, and again, a good trainer can help you figure out which ones will be best for you and your dog. One of my favorite impulse control games is doggie zen, which teaches the dog that the get what they want, they need to exercise self-control and look to you instead. Another impulse control activity that I really like is the Relaxation Protocol. As the name implies, it is more about relaxation than controlling impulses, but it does help.
Finally, you need to add in some alternate behaviors, something the dog can do instead of lunging and barking. Alternate behaviors (also called incompatible behaviors or default behaviors) should be heavily rewarded when offered. Maisy has a few things she does instead of behaving reactively. The two she does most are lying down (especially with her chin on the ground), and looking at the trigger and then immediately looking at me. Alternate behaviors are helpful because they teach the dog a better behavior, and it helps remind the handler to reinforce good behavior.
There’s a great program out there that combines all of these things: Control Unleashed. It is amazing! It has games for impulse control, for dealing with triggers, and for teaching alternate behaviors. It also helps build your relationship with your dog and creates focus in a distractible dog. All dogs can benefit from Control Unleashed, but anyone who owns a reactive dog absolutely must read this book and incorporate the techniques, and if possible, join a class based on the book.
So, given all of this, how did I arrive at my unorthodox training plan? Well, I’ve worked all of the steps above, and I’ve worked them hard, with regular classes, training plans, and many hours on my own. And it’s worked. My counter-conditioning has been very effective. Her “reactive behavior” isn’t really reactivity any more. Reactivity is primarily fueled by emotions and a lack of impulse control, but that’s not what’s going on with her anymore. Her body language is much more loose and relaxed. It’s not about impulse control either; when I give her a job to do (i.e., a chance to earn reinforcements), she very rarely displays reactive behavior.
It’s also important to note that I’m still following all of my advice. I’m still counter conditioning triggers, I’m still working on impulse control exercises, and I’m still rewarding alternate behaviors (in fact, I’m increasing the amount of treats she gets for alternate behaviors). The only thing that has changed is my response to her behaviors that look like reactivity (i.e., lunging and barking). Like I discussed in my last entry, she figured out that she can make me give her a treat by performing the behavior formerly known as reactivity. So, I’m not doing it anymore on the theory that she’ll quit doing the behavior if it doesn’t pay.
Instead, I’m completely ignoring the outburst. If I feel like she is truly over threshold, I will increase distance between her and the trigger, and then counter-condition by rewarding an appropriate behavior, but I’m not making a big deal about it like I used to. If she’s obviously relaxed- for example, if she has “helicopter tail” (my term for a big, loose tail wag that makes complete circles and engages her entire body), or if the bark is a “play bark” (identifiable by pitch), I am completely ignoring her for 15-30 seconds, and then asking her for something (usually asking her to get into heel position and do pivots, although I’m trying to randomize that as well so it doesn’t create another component to her behavior chain).
It’s definitely working, and I’m really excited to see some of the changes in her. It’s still exhausting at times- we were both worn out after class last night- but I’m seeing a huge difference in her. I can’t wait to share her progress with you.