Reactive dog behaviour can be reduced with thoughtful, kind training. Careful use of healthy food rewards will help. Yet, there are some important things to consider, here they are.
Reactive dog behaviour seems to be at an all-time high. A few years ago, dogs wandered much more. Latchkey dogs and strays met other wandering dogs and learned socially from each other. We had different expectations of dogs and delivered less pressure for them to be perfect. Presently we deal with an increase of puppies that are bred in farms, along with dogs that are socially starved. Many dogs simply don’t experience the social learning, that they need. They become a bundle of anxiety and this shows in their behaviour.
We also live in a consumer driven throwaway society. Dogs are picked up as puppies and dropped as adolescents after their crucial learning time has been wasted. As we become rescuers of the throwaway dog, our role is set.
We need to help them live in the world.
To the dog that reacts, it’s a world fraught with danger. People approach with outstretched hands and deaf ears whilst other dogs race up to their space, with few social skills of their own. Big metal boxes roar by on wheels and children scream - all the time!
Reactive dog behaviour means that the dog can’t cope with something, or everything, in his immediate environment so he reacts. Most often he tries to chase the scary thing away, sometimes he hides and looks scared. Each is a reaction and the outward signs betray inner tension.
Every dog can cope in some situations, it's a case of individuality. When the situation is too stressful, the dog’s ability to cope suffers. His body is flooded with stress hormones and he believes that he’s in danger. This is when the dog reacts. It isn’t bad behaviour or the sign of a naughty dog. When a dog reacts, he’s not being dominant or pushy. He’s not showing aggression because he wants to fight or bite for the hell of it.
Reactive Dogs and Food Rewards
To incorporate food into a schedule for reactivity we must remember one very important rule. We don’t allow the dog to become stressed. That's really - in my opinion - the only rule there is. Whilst hardened theory trainers may argue that feeding a dog after he has reacted is rewarding his response, I don't. If my dog reacts I put something in his mouth - something tasty he can bite hard and focus on whilst the worrying stimulus passes. And it works, it helps my dog relax and so I use it. I urge you all to consider what works as it can be easy to get caught in the rules and opinions and forget our personal power.
Back to stress now. So many times, people take a dog into a situation then try to feed the dog treats. They mean well and are trying to associate the food with the trigger. The ultimate aim is to make the experience pleasant for the dog, but in this case it won’t work.
When the dog is already experiencing a strong stress response, he won’t take the food. It makes sense biologically, because who pauses for a treat when they are in real danger? If your dog is starting to change their body language, they are likely to be stressed.
For positive results, we keep the dog a safe distance from the reactivity trigger and we reward his calmness with a treat. We can even drop a handful of tiny treats on the ground and allow the dog to sniff and forage, which is a very relaxing act. I carefully drop treats, perfectly timed, on the tip of my foraging dog’s nose. In response, he sniffs them out as his priority, even when he could potentially get stressed with the environment. He’s getting a sniff, he’s also learning something very important, that he doesn’t need to chase someone off and can choose the pleasant foraging game instead.
Then we gradually decrease the distance keeping the dog relaxed. If at any point, he won’t take the treat, it’s a perfect indication of stress. Increase the distance again and allow him to relax. This process could take a very long time but it does work.
Important Note: We can’t control the environment fully because humans are mindless and will allow their dogs to run up. They often even lean in themselves or dangle a child your way. Therefore, you might find yourself in the bushes with your foraging dog. You might even find yourself shouting at someone and waving a fist. If this happens don’t be hard on yourself. We have all been there.
If you're interested in learning more - take a look at my books or courses over at Canine Principles. There's a free rescue dog course over there too - Just scroll to the bottom.