Does your dog go ballistic when he sees another dog? If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. These days, dogs who become over-aroused in the presence of other dogs make up at least half of my private consultation work.
Animal behavior professionals have ongoing discussions about why we seem to be seeing so many more Reactive Rovers than we did in the past. They have several theories, all probably containing some truth. Here are four of them:
1. Herding breeds like Border Collies and Australian Shepherds who enjoy great popularity in today’s dog world are genetically programmed to be sensitive to direct eye contact and prone to having space issues. Many animal-aggressive breeds, Pit Bull Terriers and others, are also genetically programmed to respond with arousal to the presence of other dogs.
2. Whereas in times past dogs were given a great deal of freedom to roam in a community and learn how to play well with others, today’s responsible dog owners keep their dogs safely confined at home. Dogs have less opportunity to learn how to act appropriately around other dogs and less chance to fulfill their need to socialize with members of their own species.
3. Once upon a time, dogs who misbehaved were simply left at home, or worse, euthanized. Today’s dog owner is more likely to look for reasons – and solutions – for inappropriate canine behaviors and be more willing to invest resources to fix them.
4. In recent years, high-arousal dog sports have taken center stage. Where competition obedience dogs are expected to be calm and controlled, albeit enthusiastic, today’s Agility and Flyball dogs, for example, are encouraged to compete in a state of high excitement and arousal.
The term “dog-reactivity” covers a panoply of behaviors, including: -- Fear-reactive dogs who want to hide behind their humans’ legs or run full speed away to escape the danger. -- Barrier/restraint-reactive dogs who get frustrated and aroused when they aren’t allowed to greet every passing canine. -- Territorial dogs who react with strong aggressive challenges to any dogs who intrude on their perceived territories. -- Dogs who can’t tolerate other dogs invading their close personal space. -- Those who simply feel a compelling need to read the riot act to every dog they see. Some dogs are selective, choosing a specific breed, color or color. While not all reactive behavior manifests as aggression, much of it does to a lesser or greater degree. Some owners are in denial about the aggressive element of their reactive dog’s behavior. This is unfortunate, perhaps motivated by society’s – and the insurance industry’s – increasing aversion to unruly, potentially dangerous dogs. In the long run, however, it’s more useful to acknowledge the behavior than ignore it.
Reactive dogs are a threat to other dogs. They can put humans at risk of being bitten while breaking up dog fights or as victims of redirected aggression, and ultimately the dogs may lose their own lives if they injure another dog or person. At best, their quality of life diminishes as owners become less willing to overlook the behavior and more likely to leave their dog at home rather than risk an altercation or have to deal with the misbehavior in public.
The fact many owners are willing to make the effort to modify dog-reactivity is encouraging, especially for the dogs. While a recovering reactive dog may never be a good candidate for dog park play, many can learn to control themselves in the presence of other canines, at least well enough to lead reasonably normal lives. Some even develop a close circle of friends with whom they can play without fear of eruption.
The most effective behavior modification programs create an environment where your dog can be around other dogs without over-reacting – where he can stay sub-threshold. That means presenting the trigger stimulus, in this case another dog or dogs, at an intensity below the one that causes your reactive dog to erupt into full arousal.
At this sub-threshold level, you can work to change the dog’s opinion, association and resulting response to the presence of another dog through counter-conditioning. Here’s how:
Begin by determining your dog’s threshold distance – that distance where he’ll notice another dog, become concerned but not go bonkers. Introduce a neutral dog on-leash at this distance.
The instant your dog notices the other dog, start feeding him a very high-value treat, such as canned or boiled chicken. As long as he can see the other dog, keep feeding small bits of chicken. As soon as the other dog leaves, stop the chicken. Keep doing this until you notice a change in your dog’s reaction. When the other dog enters the room, instead of tensing up and saying “Uh-oh, another dog,” he turns to you with a doggie grin and says, “Yay! Where’s my chicken?!” This is a conditioned emotional response, or CER.
When you are getting a consistent CER from your dog every time the other dog enters, you can increase the intensity. You have several options. Choose one at a time, work for the CER at that intensity, then increase it again. If you increase intensity and your dog starts erupting at the presentation of the other dog, you’ve increased intensity too much or too soon. You may need to decrease your initial threshold distance. Remember, you’re trying to stay sub-threshold. • Distance: Perhaps your initial threshold distance is 40 feet. When you get the CER at 40 feet, you might decrease the distance to 39 feet. Or 35 feet. Or 30 feet. Some dogs can increase intensity in large leaps; others need smaller steps. • Motion: If your neutral dog was entering at 40 feet and stopping, have the dog walk back and forth at 40 feet, until you get a consistent CER. Then have the dog trot back and forth at 40 feet. You can vary the concept of motion – have the neutral dog stay still and walk with your dog. Do parallel walking with both dogs in motion, walking the same direction, with appropriate distance between them. • Number of dogs: When you have a CER with one neutral dog, add a second neutral dog. Then a third. • Size of dogs: If your dog is more reactive to large dogs, you might start with a neutral dog in the 40-50 pound range, then move up to 50-60 pounds, 60-70 pounds, etc. Be sure to achieve a consistent CER each time before moving up to the next weight class. • Sounds: Some dogs are reactive to the jingling tags of other dogs or the sound of another dog barking. Add jingly tags to your neutral dog, or use one or more neutral dogs who will bark on cue. • Angle of approach: Many dogs feel greatly threatened by the direct approach of another dog – as they might encounter routinely when walking on a city sidewalk. Start with the neutral dog walking at a 90-degree angle to your reactive dog and gradually decrease the angle of approach until the neutral dog is walking directly toward you – but several feet off to the side so the dogs don’t actually meet head- on. This is a difficult exercise for a reactive dog – be sure you’re getting consistent CERs each step of the way!
As nice as set-ups are, unless you’re a hermit, you and your dog will inevitably have real- life super threshold encounters. Walking around the block, you turn a corner and there’s a dog in your face. You enter your vet’s waiting room with your dog after carefully scoping out the territory. Just as you settle into your seat, the door opens from the exam room area and an exuberant Labrador Retriever comes flying through, towing his owner at the end of a retractable leash. Help!
You can practice several exercises to prepare for encounters that need evasive action: Emergency Exit: Practice a “turn and run away” maneuver in non-emergency times. Teach your dog a cue, such as “Run away!” that means, “Let’s run the other way very fast.” To teach this, say your cue, then turn quickly, inviting your dog to run with you. Make fun noises, pat your leg, toss a favorite toy in the new direction – anything to get the dog excited about running with you. Make it fun, so when you walk around the corner and see the other dog, your dog hears the cue, gets happy and spins on his heel to run away with you – before he has time to react to the presence of the other. Targeting. Teach your dog to touch his nose to a designated target – your fist or the palm of your hand – on cue. Offer your palm or closed fist to the dog at nose level, and when he sniffs it, Click! a clicker or say “Yes!”, then feed him a yummy treat. If he doesn’t sniff your hand, smear a tiny dab of baby food or squeeze cheese on it to get him started. When he’ll touch your hand with his nose consistently every time you offer it, start saying “Touch!” just before he connects. Practice until he bumps his nose into your hand solidly every time. Dogs tend to love targeting. Get yours so happy about targeting that you can use it to keep his attention focused on you – instead of on the other dog in the veterinary waiting room. Watch me: Teach this cue – or a similar one – to mean, “Make eye contact with me and keep making eye contact with me.” You can just Click! the clicker or say “Yes!” and then feed a treat whenever your dog makes eye contact with you. If you reinforce the behavior often, your dog will start offering it on purpose. Then you can add your “Watch me!” cue. Or you can move a treat toward your eyes to lure eye contact, adding the cue and fading the use of the lure when he starts offering eye contact. Again, this puts your dog’s attention and focus on you instead of on the other dog. If your dog is still sub-threshold but not giving you a CER, you may be able to interrupt his increasing arousal by having him look at you. Tug of War: Dogs can concentrate on only one thing at a time. If you teach your dog to play a low-key game of tug, you may be able to occupy his brain with the sight of his beloved tug toy when another dog arrives unexpectedly on the scene. Use a long, soft braided rope tug toy to keep dog teeth far from human skin. Offer the toy and say “Take it!”, let him grab it, resist gently while saying the cue “Tug!”, then trade him a treat for the toy with the cue “Give!” Be sure to keep it low-key. A high-arousal all-out game of tug will only serve to feed his reactivity.
Often, a client who comes to me with a dog-reactive dog has already tried a variety of other approaches to modifying the behavior – many of which actually have exacerbated the behavior rather than decreasing it. Old-fashioned training methods that advocate the use of pain and force to dominate the dog and suppress unwanted behaviors are not appropriate in general, and are particularly inappropriate with aggression-related behaviors. They’re likely to worsen the behavior -- give the dog an escalated negative association with the presence of other dogs.
Tools and techniques we urge you not to use with your dog-reactive dog include prong and electronic shock collars; scruff shakes; flooding, which entails presenting the stimulus – other dogs – at full intensity until your dog gives up; and verbal and physical corrections. While considerably gentler than the inhumane techniques I’ve described, even relatively mild corrections can increase your dog’s stress around other dogs and be counter productive to your behavior modification program.
If you are the owner of a reactive dog, don’t despair. With some effort, most dogs can be improved, some to normal or near normal behavior. Jolanta Benal, who recently attended a Reactive Rover Camp with her Pit Bull mix, Juni, is thrilled with his progress. Since she lives New York City, she rarely has the opportunity to work with her dog sub-threshold -- dogs are everywhere in the Big Apple. But after three days of sub-threshold work at camp, Juni’s behavior changed, Benal said. His calm manner around other dogs in real-life encounters is nothing short of remarkable.
Resources for Reactive Dogs Recognizing the growing need, an increasing number of dog behavior professionals offer resources for reactive dogs, from private work and group classes to camps, seminars and books geared to the “difficult” dog. Owners whose dogs are more than mildly reactive usually find they need some help. Good resources are worth a gold mine. Here are some that might be useful to you:
Books: -- Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., (Dog’s Best Friend). -- How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong by Pam Dennison (Alpine Publications). -- Scaredy Dog by Ali Brown (Tanacacia Press).
Trainers: -- Animal Behavior Society, www.animalbehavior.org/Applied/CAAB_directory.html, certifies Ph.D. and veterinary behaviorists as Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. Certification constitutes recognition by the Animal Behavior Society that, to its best knowledge, the individual meets the educational, experiential and ethical standards required by the Society for professional Applied Animal Behaviorists. -- Association of Pet Dog Trainers lists member-trainers at www.apdt.com. Click on the “Trainer Search” button. Caveat: Not all APDT members use dog-friendly methods. Be sure to interview and screen trainers carefully to be sure you’re comfortable having them work with your dog. Some offer classes and camps for reactive dogs. American College of Veterinary Behaviorists offers a listing of veterinary behaviorists at: http://www.dacvb.org/Typo3/DACVBHome/index.php --Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers certifies pet dog trainers and keeps a list of such Certified Pet Dog Trainers (CPDT) at: http://www.ccpdt.org/rstr/index.html
Peaceable Paws LLC Pat Miller, CPDT, CDBC 301-582-9420 www.peaceablepaws.com
Pat Miller is a Certified Dog and Horse Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland (US), and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” “Positive Perspectives,” “Positive Perspectives 2,” and “Play With Your Dog.” Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, writes for Tuft’s University’s Your Dog, and several other publications. She shares her home with husband Paul, five dogs, three cats, five horses, a donkey and a potbellied pig.