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Working with Fearful and Reactive Dogs

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

Working with dogs who are fearful, and who may be reactive, is an art and a science. You know these dogs when you see them because they are obviously upset. They may be lunging, barking, snarling or they may be cowering in a corner or frozen in place. It's not subtle. There is no absolute cure for this behavior but we can modify the dog's feelings and improve the behavior quite a bit, in many case. Let's take a look at how to do that. This information is intended as an overview and not as a DIY guide- it is wise to get professional help from a trainer who is skilled and experienced at working with fearful and reactive dogs.

1) First we determine threshold - the level of intensity the dog can handle near a trigger. Near might mean a football field or it might mean 50 feet or 5 feet. We can gauge the dog’s comfort at a given distance by looking at things like body language and ability to eat. What does the body look like? Ears, tail, corners of lips, lean, hair shedding or standing up, panting? Also, does the dog take treats soft, hard, or is the dog unable to eat at all? We want a fairly soft treat taking. If the treat taking is getting harder (more painful for you) we are likely close to threshold and maybe even going a bit too far.

Before we just go experiment we imagine the trigger, the scary thing, has a knob that we can turn up or turn down. How can we turn it up? How can we turn it down? How can we be sure to start so low with the trigger that we won't provoke a reaction? We create a written plan with anticipated steps to increase the scary volume bit by bit. Factors to consider include:

- distance from trigger

- duration of exposure

- gate or thundercap to limit visual stimuli

- minimize sound

- scent (it's very difficult for us to influence this one in most cases but watch wind direction)

- motion or lack thereof

- position (facing away, facing toward, sitting, standing, etc...)

- speed

- angle of approach (walking parallel, walking toward, walking at an angle or in a curve)

- behavior (of other dog /person /etc.., e.g. reaching, looming, appeasing, play bow, forward lean, eye contact…)

2) Ideally, avoid triggers for 1-2 weeks prior to training to de-stress your dog. How do you do it? Be creative! For instance, cemeteries are usually good places for walks where you don’t see other dogs. Block the view of other dogs through windows and doors with film or curtains or by blocking access to the rooms. Block sounds with audio books, classical music, white noise, and/or exhaust fans. In the meantime, practice skills that will help you to help your dog avoid and cope with scary things:

- find it

- leave it

- target

- put an offered coping skill on cue (shake off, sniff ground, etc...)

- loose leash walking with "Let’s go!" cue and frequent check ins with handle

3) For triggers we see out on walks, get a front clip harness (Freedom, Sensation, Balance) and consider whether you should train your dog to wear a basket muzzle on walks if he is reactive towards humans. I don’t tend to use head halters unless the dog weighs more than the guardian, and only then if the dog is conditioned to like it and the guardian has very soft leash hands. Dogs often dislike head halters and I find that their behavior may be suppressed but the underlying emotion is unchanged, leading to worse behavior in the long run. Think about how you will deliver food. Do you need a food pouch? Mine is a Doggone Good Rapid Rewards pouch. How high value is your food? Think stink! Tripe, poached liver, mackerel, cheese,... I often use a Kong filled with pureed food or squeeze cheese so I can deliver a quick lick. It's fast and if your dog takes food sharply, doesn't hurt, though I like to gauge with my hand how sharply the dog is taking treats at various intervals.

4) Triggers presented under threshold predict high value food consistently and reliably until we get a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) or basically a bright, happy anticipation of food associated with the trigger at a certain intensity. In the beginning we might plan for very short exposure to the scary thing with just 1 or 2 exposures at odd intervals of time. Later, we might build to a half hour work with maybe up to 6 exposures to the trigger with random intervals of work time and down time. Along the way we rule out things that the dog may associate with food instead of the trigger, like bag crinkling, hand reaching for food, treat pouches, etc…

The trigger appears, we wait a second, then feed and maybe even talk in a calm, happy voice if that helps our dog. The trigger disappears and the food stops.

Over time, the dog will start to look automatically to you in the presence of the trigger. That's one way we know it’s time to turn up our imaginary intensity knob - in just one way. So maybe we decrease distance, but we won’t decrease distance AND add motion. If you aren't seeing this progress, decrease the intensity of the trigger. You might have misjudged your threshold. You might be pushing too far in sessions. Watch out for greedy trainer syndrome, thinking let's get one more rep, let's get 1 foot closer. We can use other protocols where we also include a reward like increasing distance from the trigger. Sean Howard's Simplified BAT Protocol is a lovely example.

NOTE: For dog reactive dogs, group classes are ideal for practice around helper dogs who won’t react back and who have skilled handlers so I refer those cases. These are trainers who at times offer classes for reactive dogs (Reactive Rover, Kranky K9, and Barky Dog are the types of names you may see.)

Baltimore City: Maryland SPCA

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