When Training a Reactive Dog, Life Happens...
by Mirkka Koivusalo, MSc, PhD, owner of Mindful Behaviors and co-owner of the Toronto Centre for Canine Education
If you have ever owned a reactive dog, you most likely know how important it is to train only when your dog is under threshold and not when he is already barking and lunging. This is the goal: manage the environment the best you can and always set your dog up for success.
Nevertheless, life happens. No matter how hard we try, we cannot completely eliminate a reactive dog’s outbursts, and, frankly, I don’t even think it is realistic to try to do so. In real life there will always be that incident when the neighbour’s dog runs off-leash up to you, you have a had long day, and you are not quick enough to ask your dog for an alternative behaviour.
And there we go. You have spent so much time and effort training your dog, and it feels like this one incident has ruined it all. I don’t think anyone but a person who has had “The Hound from Hell” can relate to this.
One of the questions that we need to address is, “How quickly does my dog recover from the barking/snarling festivity?” Reacting to life is as natural for dogs as it is for us. We can get very angry at traffic, strangers walking across our front lawn, etc. But we are capable (most of the time anyway!) to recover from emotional outbursts. With thorough training, dogs can do the same.
Of course, the goal is for the reactivity to become less and less frequent, but it is important to keep in mind that it will never truly go away. It will always be there.
So what should we do when the poop hits the fan? We need to patch things up with successful repetitions. I once taught Control Unleashed-type workshops in Finland, where the participants were very savvy trainers. Many of the dogs had some level of leash reactivity, but they already had a beautiful, happy conditioned emotional response to other dogs: to them, other dogs meant good things would happen!
So we tried to push the limits a little bit further. And yes, unintentionally life happened, and some of the dogs had an emotional outburst when they got too close to another dog. But the beauty of this happening in a controlled training setup was that we could learn from this experience and patch things up. We would re-gauge the distance between the dogs and start again from a point where both dogs were still able to make good choices and respond to their handlers.
Of course, in real life recovering from setbacks is more challenging because we cannot completely control the environment. Sometimes we just have to move away and cut our losses. On the other hand, quite often, with a little bit of imagination, it is possible to turn a reactive outburst from our dog into a successful training session. Increase the distance to the best of your ability and ask your dog to do behaviours that are the safest bet and reward for them heavily.
The hardest part is to make yourself cheerful and happy on those occasions, but do your best. Remember, dogs do not fake feelings. They are not exhibiting the reactive behaviours to annoy us. They just cannot help it.
So when life happens we have no other option but to take a deep breath, adjust the training, and work through it!