I am happy to report that my extremely reactive dog Indi has not reacted at a dog once so far in 2013. How amazing is
that?! He has been worried by dogs, but he has not felt the need to go into full reacting and lunging to make a dog go away. Managing a reactive dog is the hardest part of the whole process as it means you have to control every access your dog has to the outside world, understand your dogs limits and know how to avoid the trigger at all possible costs. Mastering this, is the first step into rehabilitating a reactive dog.
With Indi, I now understand him more than I ever have. I understand his limits and I know what will trigger him to react. It has taken me a long time to do this as I have had to watch everything and evaluate it. I think this may be the longest he has ever gone without a reaction, and it certainly shows when we do see other dogs as his stress levels are very low so he can cope with things much more easily. He still has a clear threshold, and if he does go over that then he will react. However, this doesnt mean all our training is for nothing as I certainly do not expect him to go the rest of his life without reacting. In fact, I predict he will bark and lunge quite a few times this year because I cannot control everything. This is a very important point, as its common to hear ‘oh he hasnt done that in ages, I thought we’d sorted this!’ A reactive dog will never be ‘sorted’. Even dogs who can now greet other dogs in an appropriate way, whereas before they were barking and lunging, will revert back to there old ways if they feel the need to. Once dogs learn a way to respond to something, it is not just going to disappear. Owning a reactive dog means you will have to manage them their whole entire life.
The meaning of managing a dog is to avoid the trigger. This takes practice as it means you have to do things that you might think are embarassing or make you look weird. When I first started training Indi, I used to be so worried about the way others saw me that I put Indi in a position where he felt the need to react, when I didn’t need to. For example, if there was a dog coming I wouldnt just turn around in the opposite direction, I would carry on in the hope that he wouldn’t react. I had to teach myself to ignore everyone else, and focus on my dog. If a dog was coming my way, I had to find a way of making sure that Indi did not feel threatened. I would cross the road and go down a completely different route or I would just turn around and walk in the opposite direction. In the summer, I would crouch in the crops and hide from the dog coming towards us. I’ve had to run away from other dogs a few times, if there behind us and walking faster. Anyway that I could, I made sure Indi didn’t react. It didn’t always work of course, sometimes I couldnt get away fast enough or dogs would appear before I had a chance to respond. Or, there’d be a dog off-lead that comes bounding over despite me hiding from them. You can’t control everything, but you have to try.
It helps to have a car. I now do, and am already feeling the benefits. I don’t have to lead walk everywhere anymore, which means most of the places Indi is walking now are open spaces. This makes life so much easier, as open spaces mean you can see everything and even use the other dogs to train. If you have a reactive dog, walking them through town or in woodlands will not help. Open fields are the way to go. However, if you do have to walk them somewhere where you may meet a dog, plan your route so there are places to escape. Also, walk at the quietest times. I always walk Indi in the afternoon or the evening. If I have to walk Indi at a busy time, I go to the most open, quietest place possible. Between 8am and 11am and 3pm and 5pm are the times to avoid.
One thing I’ve heard people say is reactive dogs should not be off-lead. My reactive dog is off-lead on almost every walk. Indi has a 100% whistle recall, he responds to my commands well, is trained to do an instant down, has a good wait and is generally obedient. I ask him to wait while I check round blind spots, if I see a dog in the distance I recall him and put him on the lead and if I’m caught by surprise I either whistle recall him or ask him to do an instant down wherever he is. Therefore, I feel I can trust him enough to be off-lead. He hasn’t ran at a dog barking for well over a year now, and the last time was when camping with flyball dogs, who never seem to have a recall. So, the last time he ran at a dog on a walk was well over 2 years ago. I don’t let him off the lead unless I am 100% he won’t run at the dog. If I think the dog will run over, or that Indi might be worried then hes straight on the lead. If you have a reactive dog, and can’t let him off-lead then use a long line. Dogs need to run, and with a long line you have the control you need if a strange dog does appear. Even if your dog doesn’t hurt the other dog, they need to be under control. Indi never hurt a dog when he ran at them barking, but that doesnt mean the other dog wasnt scared. Thats how reactive dogs are created, including both Kez and Indi. In fact, all dogs should be on a long line if they don’t have a recall! But, its 100x more important if your dog is reactive as, even though they might not hurt the dog, the other dog could easily start a fight or cause your reactive dog to bite. A dog that is reactive, is more likely to bite. That is a fact.
So, if you want to train a reactive dog you have to manage the dogs exposure to the trigger. Its not just on walks, its in every single aspect of life. If your dog reacts at the window in the home, make sure the blinds are closed or don’t let your dog have access to the windows. If your dog reacts to the dogs in the gardens next to yours, then you need to change your fencing or make sure your dog only has access to the garden when the neighbours dogs are not in theres. When you leave the house, make your dog wait at the door first so you can check theres no dogs about before you let them out. I’ve had to quickly shut the door again and let a dog pass before I leave the house many times. While out on walks, if you see a dog do everything you can to avoid it. If you can, use the dog to do BAT. And, along with all that, make sure you teach your dog to focus on you and respond to you no matter what is going on. Teach your dog to look at you reguarly on walks, dogs will do this naturally to check where you are going. Reward it, by calling them to you and giving them a treat.
The most important point is… take your time. Kez isnt at this point yet as I am still finding her threshold and trying to understand her. She is a lot harder, as she can cope with a lot more. Unlike Indi, she can walk past dogs without reacting, if I handle it correctly and if she feels safe. Working out the difference between when she does feel safe, and when she doesnt is still a working progress. I have to manage everything, and watch her reaction to it all so I can learn what she can cope with. I don’t walk her directly past other dogs, we always cross the road or take a different route. She is always on the long line, which means I have easy access to her at all times. I also try to train everytime we see a dog, working out what works and what doesn’t. I certainly understand her more than I ever have, but I still have so much to learn.
Enjoy your dogs, being reactive is only a small part of them. Learn about them, and understand them. The only reason dogs react is through fear, so don’t push them above what they can handle. If you have a dog who barks and lunges at other dogs, and then you force them closer to a dog than they can handle, its like forcing a person who is scared of heights to stand at the edge of a tall building. That person will probably make a lot of noise… its the same as what dogs are doing.