by Mirkka Koivusalo, MSc, PhD, owner of Mindful Behaviours
The very last day of July this year, my two dogs and I landed in Finland. The dogs, of course, had no idea that their Mom had moved them across an ocean with the intention of living in this little land of forests and lakes. I was wondering how city life on the other side of the Atlantic would pan out with two dogs who have social boundary issues.
For the first two and a half months the dogs were blissfully happy because we lived in the middle of nowhere at a cottage. There were no other dogs and, barely any leashes required on walks, just roaming around in the woods and eating blueberries. The holiday in the wilderness came to an end though, as it was time to get urbanized again, this time instead of Toronto though it was the Helsinki area.
I did not know how the dogs would react to being back in the city after the completely stressor-free countryside experience. The first few days in the suburbs were interesting. With all the Finnish dog smells around, their noses were glued to the ground. They had had two and half months without any doggy social media, and they had a lot of catching up to do. They were so focused on the smells of other dogs that they totally ignored the actual dogs passing by, and I was wondering if that would last.
Well, it didn’t.
After a few days they started paying attention to the Finnish Fidos and Rovers, and there are a lot of them! I thought that the suburbs of Toronto had a lot of dogs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were higher here in the Helsinki area. It was time to go back to some reactivity 101 training.
There were a couple of differences that I saw right away compared to Toronto. The leash laws in Finland are very strict in urban areas, and people are generally very respectful of them. I had not encountered any loose dogs running up to my dogs’ faces in the street, at least so far so good (but I guess this is hardly surprising for a nation that waits at the red pedestrian lights forever even if there are no cars around).
The other thing that stood out for me is that a majority of people walking their dogs have clearly done a leash-walking course. I was surprised to see how many people start reaching in their pockets for treats as soon as their dog sees another dog.
When I lived in Toronto, my impression was that this was still a rarity. In my new neighbourhood, several people give us plenty of personal space when we want to pass them, and they reward their dogs for one behaviour or another while they’re at it, regardless of whether their dogs are reactive or not.
So is life with a reactive dog in Helsinki easier than in Toronto? When it comes to suburbia, Helsinki actually seems more crowded and challenging, but the awareness that people have when passing each other helps a lot. Managing the environment so that your dog remains under their reaction threshold is easier here.
I vividly remember the discussions with people who live in downtown Toronto with reactive dogs, and for whom environmental management can be almost impossible at times (but cheers to my amazing friends and colleagues in Toronto, who are doing an amazing job helping them – and thumbs up from Finland, I still cannot believe I’m here instead of there!).
However, no matter where you live, the training principles remain the same: the core pillars of systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning. It is all about changing the dog’s emotions, which means associating the appearance of the stimulus with the dog’s favourite reward.
Everywhere in the world, behaviour is behaviour, and the rules to help shape behaviour work the same way.
When your dog sees or hears another dog at a distance that is far enough away that they are not reacting yet (the golden training zone), feed them their favourite treat – whatever makes your dog’s eyes roll in their head because it’s so good – for as long as the stimulus is present.
When the stimulus disappears, so do the treats. Repeat until you get the conditioned emotional response (CER) where your dog tells you, “Hey, human, there it is, feed me already,” and then start rewarding when your pet starts to automatically turn his head toward you (called the “auto-watch”).
The next steps are to decrease the distance and to generalize. Sounds easy, right? Well, as I’m sure most owners living with a reactive dog know, we all have to visit the basics again at times to solidify a cracking foundation.