Thursday, April 5, 2012

Help! I think my dog is reactive! What should I do?

It was the fall of 2008. I was all settled in at my first post-college job, and I finally had the time needed to pursue dog sports. Excited, I signed up for an obedience class at a local training club. Maisy was just barely two years old, and while there had been warning signs that she wasn’t exactly normal, I didn’t know enough to recognize that. I’d heard of reactivity, but was thankful my dog wasn’t like that. So the first time she barked and lunged at another dog in class, my heart sank.

I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I knew so very little. I couldn’t read Maisy’s body language, I didn’t understand how stress impacted dogs, and I had absolutely no clue what I should do next. What I needed was someone to help me, but our instructor- as wonderful as she was- couldn’t. This is not unusual; there is a huge difference between training obedience skills and modifying undesirable behaviors, and most trainers are experienced in the former with little understanding of the latter.

I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’ve chronicled much of it on this blog. Unfortunately, this knowledge came a bit late, so today, I want to share what I wish I’d known back then. If you’ve just realized that you have a reactive dog and are wondering what you should do next, here are my suggestions.

Take a Break
One of the biggest mistakes people make with reactive dogs- myself included- is to keep putting their dog in situations they can’t handle. It’s easy to do this. At first, I simply didn’t understand what was triggering Maisy’s behavior. It’s hard to avoid things if you don’t know what those things are.

Later, I kept putting her in those situations in order to “socialize” her and “train through it.” This was a mistake. Every time I put Maisy into a situation she couldn’t handle, she learned that I couldn’t be depended on to keep her safe. Maisy is a resourceful little dog, so when it became clear I wasn’t doing anything about the situations that made her uncomfortable, she decided to. She barked and lunged. And every time she did, she got better at it. Reactivity became a habit, and anyone who’s tried to break their own bad habits knows how hard it is. This really slowed down our progress.

This is why my first (and possibly most important) suggestion is to simply take a break. Stop exposing your dog to things he can’t deal with. This might be training classes. It might be trials. It might even be going for walks. Don’t let your dog rehearse behavior you don’t like!

Consult an Expert (or Two)
Of course, it’s both impossible and undesirable to avoid the world forever. Most of us want to do things with our dogs and to take them places, so while taking a break is good in the short run, it’s usually not a long-term strategy.

While on your break, you should use the time to consult with an expert. If the behavior change is sudden, a vet check may be in order. Medical concerns can change the way a dog acts. Although Maisy’s issues aren’t solely the result of her health, they do get worse during allergy season or when her back hurts. Get your dog checked out.

Next, find a trainer. I’ve written before about why I think you need a trainer. Reactivity is a spectrum; there’s a huge range of behaviors your dog can display, and the reasons behind them can be just as varied. It is highly likely you will need some help parsing it all out. As I already noted, you don’t want just any trainer. While there are very talented folks teaching obedience, agility, etc., you need someone who’s had experience and success with behavior issues.

Read, Watch, Go
If you have a reactive dog, you need to learn and you need to learn fast. If you’ve hired a trainer, it is possible to skip this step… but I don’t recommend it. There are many ways to approach reactivity, and it’s helpful to understand multiple perspectives. Even if you have the best trainer out there, sometimes hearing things from a different point of view will help give you the clarity you need.

Start by learning about different training methods. I strongly favor positive, reward-based methods. It’s not that other methods don’t work- they can- but there is a higher risk of fallout. Check out this position statement by the AVSAB for more information.

Next, learn about dog body language and stress signals. It’s amazing how much we miss simply because we don’t know to look for it. There are tons of DVDs, books, and websites devoted to learning to understand what you’re dog is telling you.

Continue your education by learning about the different protocols designed for reactivity. From basic desensitization and counter-conditioning to more sophisticated programs like Control Unleashed and BAT, there are lots of ways to approach the problem. Find out more about them, and discuss them with your trainer. Find out what she prefers and why. Together, choose one that you both feel comfortable with and that seems like a good fit for your dog.

Finally, build up a support system. Blogs, email lists, and in-person friends are all places you can go to exchange ideas, commiserate about set-backs, and celebrate successes!

Keep Records
I know, I know. It’s really not that much fun, but records can be incredibly valuable. It wasn’t until I started logging incidents that I realized just how anxious my dog was. I was so accustomed to her behavior that I didn’t really recognize it as abnormal. Seeing it all in black and white helped me understand just how much help she needed.

This doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking. Your records can be as simple as a brief note on a calendar or as complex as an Excel spreadsheet. The format is less important than simply doing it. They will help you identify triggers, notice subtle behavior patterns, and track your progress.

These are the things I wish I had known almost four years ago. I’ve learned much since then… most of it the hard way! Although there is no shortcut through reactivity, the sooner you enlist help, the quicker it will be.

For those of you who have been there, done that, what do you wish you’d known? For those of you who are new to this, what other questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you!


Ximena said...

Such amazing advice being given today with reactive dogs -- this, I think, coupled with Love and a Leash's post today, is such monumentally helpful info for people who are struggling with their dog's anxiety. Elli's not like this at all, but it's still important knowledge to have!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Ooh, I love that post over on Love and a Six Foot Leash. Thanks for mentioning it! :)

Susanna said...

Great advice!! If I could emphasize one point to people dealing with reactivity for the first time, it would be that reactivity can look like aggression but it usually isn't; it's usually about fear, anxiety, and/or stress. That's what you've got to deal with.

I was so lucky: Trav's reactivity became obvious (really obvious) at our first Rally class. Our trainer uses reinforcement-based methods and also does behavior modification. I learned solid techniques from her, esp. about the importance of keeping Trav under threshold, which usually meant far enough from the trigger that he could still think straight.

Plus the class was small (6 teams) and the place (an indoor horse arena) large, and I wasn't told to come back when my dog could behave better.

Kerry M. said...

I like the "take a break" advice. The biggest mistake that I made when I first got Huck over a year ago was that there was a dog he HATED in my first training class with him, and I made him stay in that class.

I thought it was a good exercise for him to learn to be in the presence of the dog without reacting, which I agree with still in theory, but the training room was small and I couldn't get more than 15 feet away - far too close. So he would erupt a few times a class for short bursts. I don't think we made it through a single class without an outburst and I would absolutely not stay in that class again.

Since his issue is only some dogs, not all dogs, it would have been trivial to switch classes to find a class with dogs that he had no animosity towards.

However, while I would absolutely do it different today, I don't beat myself up about it, because I was doing what I thought was best at the time. It was because of Huck and my intention to help him overcome his reactivity that renewed my interest in training and it has been a fascinating year!

Anonymous said...

(Hey look! I'm in your picture!)

I don't have any advice, but I think this is a fantastic post. Looking back, I just wish I'd known what I was seeing and how to "classify" it. If I'd been able to intervene, appropriately, when we first got Shanoa I think she'd be so much better off today. I just didn't know.

The only thing I'd add, in addition to education and finding a great trainer, is to consider getting in to see a veterinary behaviorist early in the process. That's another thing I wish I'd done much earlier.


Ninso said...

The biggest piece of advice I'd have is, you have to go all in or you're not going to get anywhere. Unless you're ready to commit 100%, don't even bother working. That might mean implementing some inconvenient management strategies, pulling out of sports or training, finding new ways to exercise your dog. It's a commitment. A very rewarding one when you do make progress, but sometimes it takes awhile to get to that point where you just decide you've had enough.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Great comments here.

Susanna, you were indeed lucky. I was in an intermediate obedience class when I first recognized Maisy's reactivity. The instructor was excellent with skills, but couldn't advise me on behavior.

Kerry, I agree. We all do the best we can. No point in beating ourselves up about the past.

Nicky, I really wish I'd gotten in with a vet beh sooner, too.

Ninso- you said that so well! I agree completely. :)

Thomas Chan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I know this post is a few months old but we're at the very beginning of this journey with our 1.5 yr old boy - thank you for this post.

It's been a rough few months and although we're working with a behaviorist it's been slow going. I'll be honest, there are moments when I still mourn for the dog I wish I had and wonder where we went wrong. Since we brought him home at 12 weeks, we socialized the heck out of him and we had him enrolled in some form of group classes from puppy kindergarten and puppy agility and now rally and intermediate obedience. Moving out of state when he was 9 months old seemed to trigger his reactivity though there must have been signs of stress we missed before... Anyway, I'm glad I found your blog.