Over the years I have helped hundreds of reactive dogs and their families. I decided to write about how the dogs seem to be feel based on all of my experiences. People always ask “How do I train my dog to be less reactive?” or “Can a reactive dog be cured?”. My answer is absolutely Yes! Generally, the amount of time it will take depends on the level of reactivity. But I can guarantee it won't happen if you don't put in some effort.
Roughly one out of ten highly reactive dogs may need a more intense approach (I’m talking medications and lots of long distance practice, not punishment). If your dog reacts to many things (bicycles, skateboards, plastic bags, people, dogs) you would want to start with the least scary thing first. Typically dog to dog reactivity is the one that takes the most effort so you would work your way down the list. If this is the case, make a list of all the things your dog is reactive to and start with the one that they are least reactive to work on first. Never give up, all reactive behaviors can be changed.
Three things your reactive dog wants you to know (written from their perspective):
- Be patient with me. I really, really don’t want to be punished for my actions and would appreciate it very much if you put products on my that feel good (think comfortable) while I navigate the world. My actions are linked to my feelings and I need support physically and mentally.
- I want you to teach me how to change the way I feel about the things I react to. I would love it if you’d put in some effort to learn how to help me. This will also allow you to build an even stronger bond with me. How great is that?
- I need space to make good choices and learn. If I've already reacted, we were too close to my "trigger" and I need a moment to regroup. Do this by speaking to me in a calm tone and guiding me away from the problem - far enough away so I can take a breath and let out a big sigh (or, for some dogs do a “shake off”). I would like to watch dogs from a distance while I get used to this, please keep me far enough away for me to learn more about dogs and don't forget to let me know when I'm doing it right!
Note: A shake off is best explained as what a dog does after a bath. They shake off the excess water. When a dog does this outside of being wet they are relieving tension or stress. Sometimes when I’m working with a reactive dog I will take a mental note of how often they do this. Pay attention to your dog. If they “shake off” this means they were recently stressed. What was going on just before? You’d be amazed and even surprised how much your reactive dog might do this. If your dog doesn’t, that is not an indicator they aren’t stressed, they may sniff, pant or scratch instead. Dogs have different ways of relieving tension but the shake off is fairly common.
Let’s put dog reactivity in perspective. Can you imagine being afraid of spiders and every time you saw one someone slapped you across the face? How would this make you feel about spiders? What if they gave you $100 instead? This is the difference between punishing a reactive dog and rewarding them for appropriate behavior. When we put prong, choke and shock collars on reactive dogs we are adding problems for them. We may want a quick fix but this is most definitely not in the dog’s best interest and it creates a problem of suppression. When we force dogs to suppress their feelings rather than taking time to change them we can inadvertently create a pressure cooker. We are taking away their right to choose and this could come out in other ways behaviorally.
The real question about dog training is “can the dog keep it together without the product?”. If your dog has to wear a shock collar in order to walk past another dog have we really trained them? I would argue no but that would be another blog. Back to the topic!
You might even consider occasionally renting an area on Sniff Spot so your reactive dog can have some freedom and you don't have to worry about other dogs or people randomly showing up.
Now that you know a few things that your reactive dog wants you to know I urge you to seek more information regarding how to help them using either positive reinforcement (counter conditioning and desensitization would be a part of this) or force free. They are similar and typically any trainer committed to either would be a great starting point. Please don’t let someone talk you into using a shock or prong collar on your reactive dog, you are not keeping their best interest in mind if you do so. I offer an intensive online reactive dog training program for a price that is affordable to all. You can learn about that here.
I understand trying to walk a reactive dog is frustrating and sometimes downright embarrassing. If we can take some time to think about how the dog feels we can be better as dog parents and trainers.
Keep in mind that your reactive dog lives in a world full of scary things. They need us to guide them and teach them that things aren’t as bad as they seem.
I wish you and your dog the best life possible!