26/09/2019 - News & Tips
If you know that sinking feeling when another dog appears on the horizon and your pooch starts acting up, then this blog is for you. We’re looking at reactive dogs and how to help them enjoy life a bit more.
To understand why your dog behaves badly around other dogs, you first need to understand how dogs learn and how they communicate.
Think for a moment about all the humans you know. Some are shy, some are noisy, some are “huggers” some don’t like being touched. Everyone has their own character and we each have different thresholds or tolerances. How many people do you know who will come right out and tell you when they’re offended? I’ll wager you can match that with the number of people you know who stew over things and then “explode” seemingly for no reason. Sometimes you can see if someone is unhappy by watching their facial expressions and body language. Ignore those signs and you’ll see a bigger reaction. Interesting too how each and every one of us will decide whether we ‘gel’ with a person within a few moments of meeting them.
Dogs are no different to humans, they all have different characters. Every dog will have a different tolerance threshold. Some will seem to put up with anything, others will speak up as soon as they feel unhappy. Your dog may be OK with some dogs and not with others. And yes, there are subtle signs to let you know how your dog is feeling….you just need to know how to spot them BEFORE a situation escalates out of control.
Now let’s think about communication. Dogs don’t speak the same language as us. For the most part, a dog will remain silent and use body language to “say” what they need to say. Growling, barking and snarling are a last resort. As a dog trainer, I have learned that when a dog is growling, barking and maybe even biting, it’s not about aggression – it’s about communication.
Your dog has learned when he or she growls at something, eg another dog, the “thing” listens. If growling doesn’t work, barking will send the scary thing away, as a last resort, biting will do the trick. After a couple of experiences, some of the warning signs get dropped and the dog goes straight into “shout and lunge” mode.
If your dog lunges, barks, growls and snarls at other dogs it could be a sign that your dog is actually afraid. And that’s fine – it means we can help them.
Now that you understand that your dog has a kind of phobia of other dogs, you can take some logical steps to help him or her overcome that fear.
We all have phobias (I’m not telling you mine!) and the way to tackle them is NOT to overwhelm the senses, but to gradually build different associations in the brain. In other words, to de-sensitise. Would you cure someone with arachnophobia by tipping a box of spiders over their head? No. You would gradually get them used to having spiders close by. And you’d make sure that they felt good about every little accomplishment.
Dogs learn by association, so we can use that to help them associate having other dogs nearby with good things happening. We also need to work out what the dog is trying to tell us? What do they want to get from their behaviour? Are they barking to tell the other dog to stay away, or do they want to be closer to the dog and don’t like being held back by the lead?
First step is not to try and tackle this problem all by yourself. Contact a qualified dog trainer who will help you to interpret your dog’s body language and gauge the level of stress he or she is feeling. That done, the two of you can work together to develop a suitable training programme.
I tend to vary my rehab program for reactive dogs according to the dog and the owner. There are lots of different exercises and techniques we can use but usually they involve something along these lines.
We begin by working in a controlled environment well away from other dogs and from distractions. We’ll use scentwork, training exercises and games to calm the dog and teach focus and impulse control. We need our dogs to be able to have fun outside and focus on us not constantly be looking for the next thing to bark at.
Once I feel that I know what the dog is trying to achieve with the barking and lunging I will move onto the next stage. Testing the theory.
We use a 3 stage approach for this
1. Let them process – Sit at a safe distance and let them watch the world go by. If they choose to interact with you then you can reward them with treats and fuss. If they choose to lay down, reward them.
2. Assume – If we think the dog wants space, then when you see another dog, give them some space BEFORE they start to bark and lunge. Overtime they will see that they don’t need to bark to create space
3. Socialisation walks – Going for walks with other well socialised adult dogs will help the dog see what dog behaviour looks like, it helps the do realise that other dogs are not so scary and that its possible to walk and ignore other dogs. These should be structured and set up by a professional though.
One of the most valuable tools in any dog owner’s toolbox is scentwork. It’s great for calming excitable dogs and reducing stress in reactive dogs.
At Delders Dogs we offer scentwork classes especially for reactive dogs. The classes are small, there are lots of safety measures and of course there are qualified trainers on hand to prevent problems. Each dog is given plenty of space whilst being encouraged to do what dogs love best – lose themselves in the joy of sniffing.
The canine students learn to feel more confident when other dogs are around. Their impulse control improves and they develop the ability to ignore distractions whilst focussing on their owners. It’s a win-win situation.
If you’d like to learn more, about scentwork classes for reactive dogs, please contact Adam or Stella at Delders Dogs.
Get one to one training advice to help your reactive dog
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