Although the “this is how to work with a reactive dog” information was interesting, Suzanne’s take on the causes of reactivity took things to a whole new level for me. She said that one of the major reasons dogs become reactive is because we as handlers fail to give our dogs the tools and information they need to be successful in the environments we’ve created for them. This is especially the case for performance dogs, both because the environments are more demanding, and because the dogs themselves are generally different, personality-wise, than the typical pet dog. Today, I’m going to talk largely about the way the performance dog’s personality affects reactivity.
Performance dogs are usually chosen because they are smart, confident and highly responsive to humans. These factors make the dog very good at their jobs, but they also come along with certain drawbacks. For one thing, Suzanne pointed out that responsive dogs typically have more trouble modulating their emotions and actions. Plus, as a result of being smart and confident, they tend to assume that they know what you want, and then react based on faulty assumptions. And of course, there is the ever-present problem of mistaking overly aroused, out of control dogs for ones with “drive.”
The problem is often compounded because it’s so much more fun to teach skills, especially fast-moving, highly-active ones. As a result, we often shape our dogs into frantic beings who don’t know how to relax. What we really ought to be doing with them is laying a groundwork of self-control, such as through off-switch games, also called jazz up and settle down.
We can also get more impulse control from our dogs if we teach them to wait for explicit directions, especially when it comes to exciting things like greeting people and other dogs. We can help them out by teaching them that just because they want to go say hi, it doesn’t mean they get to. If saying hi is dependent on receiving permission from the handler, the dog doesn’t make the assumption that he’s allowed to say hi to everyone.
Further, by keeping these greetings short, we can ensure the dog is successful in his social encounters. Some dogs become reactive because, while they desire interaction, they don’t have the social skills to maintain an ongoing interaction with strangers. We can help them build these skills by following the three second rule: we cue our dog to go say hi, count to three, and then call the dog away. Suzanne said that most dogs won’t disengage, even when they’re uncomfortable, because to do so would be rude. We can relieve that discomfort by calling them away, assessing their feelings, and allowing them the option to return-or not- dependent on their comfort level.
These responsive dogs are often quite human-centered, as well, which means that when they’re faced with a novel situation, they will look to us, their humans, for information on how they ought to react. When we fail to give them the information they’re seeking, they sometimes decide that they’d best do something, because it’s clear we’re not going to. We can help them by acknowledging them every time they check in with us, even if it’s as simple as a smile and nod. “Yes, I noticed that bicycle. Interesting, isn’t it?” This way, the dog knows if they ought to worry or not, instead of making an assumption.
Unfortunately, we handlers sometimes do something even worse than fail to give information: we end up giving the wrong information. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that tension runs down the leash. Suzanne stressed that it’s important to allow slack in the leash whenever possible. We don’t want to let the dog pull us, of course, but especially during greetings, we should move closer and allow slack in the leash. This can go a long way towards reducing the tension in a social encounter.
But tension isn’t just communicated via the leash. Performance dogs are often quite sensitive to human moods, so we need to make sure that we keep our bodies as relaxed as possible, too. When faced with a trigger, instead of stiffening and holding our breath, we can be deliberately relaxed by keeping our bodies relaxed and moving loosely. A soft face, tilted head, and even breathing will go a long way towards telling our dogs there is nothing to worry about.
I got to experience the profound difference this can make the very same day I learned about it. I took Maisy for a walk, and while we were out, saw one of her triggers: someone riding a bicycle. Reflexively, I stopped dead in my tracks so that we could let it pass us without getting any closer. Of course, Maisy lunged and barked. I immediately realized that her response was the direct result of my behavior. I had, in essence, “frozen,” which in dog body language means that I was worried about something. Since I obviously wasn’t going to do anything about that scary bike, Maisy took it upon herself to protect us.
I decided to take Suzanne’s advice, so the next time we saw a bike, I kept walking, moving in a large arc away from the bike instead of freezing, and made a conscious effort to remain loose and unconcerned. It was hard, but you know what? Maisy looked at the bike, looked at me, and decided that there was nothing for her to worry about. Amazing!
Since then, I’ve been working hard at controlling my body language so that I’m sending Maisy the right signals. I’ve also been doing my best to pay attention to her requests for information, and to respond to them appropriately. It’s paying off, too. In the last two weeks, she’s done really well in a variety of challenging situations, including everything from walks by bike paths to small, crowded pet stores. I am so proud of her.
So, what do you think? How does your body language affect your dog? Do you know? Or, are you like I was, and inadvertently sending the wrong signals? I’d love to hear what your experiences have been.