Depsite the many things that may be going on inside your dog's mind, we can get their focus back on us.
One of the greatest challenges you will have with any dog, but especially if you are living with a fearful and/or reactive dog, will be gaining their focus back to you. The outdoor world is a distracting environment for all dogs, let alone our modern urban environment! There are people, other dogs, wildlife, vehicles, bicycles, loud noises and so much more. We must also consider that a lot of these items may seem scary to our dogs. We bring dogs into our crazy human world and expect them to understand it all.
One of the my best analogies for this is describing my Aunt. She had lived her entire life in a rural small town setting. After retirement, she decided to move to Calgary to be with her daughter and new family. She purchased a condo by her daughter and somewhere that she could easily navigate with minimal driving. The busy city life frightens her. She had to do mulitple trips before she would travel on her own to my cousin's house. And this is a person; someone who understands what vehicles, and bicycles, and those noises are. It put it into great perspective on how confusing our world must be for our dogs. And if you combine this with a dog that is easily aroused or fearful, this creates a challenging pairing.
If you have not already, please read through our post on The dogma of Distraction Training and Auto Watch. It is critical that we gain a proper perspective on how distracting the outside world is for our dogs as this can often lead to a constant source of frustration. We must understand our dogs are stressed, not intentionally ignoring us. Their focus is away from us as they are more interested in something else whether it be a dog, person, or plastic bag blowing in the wind. I will discuss some key points to assist in gaining focus from our fearful/reactive dogs.
Set Them Up for Success
I say this over and over again because as dog owners we continually put our reactive and/or fearful dogs in situations that are too much for them. We must create a better environment for them. We understand that the outside world is distracting in itself, especially if you live in the city. So, your responsibility is to take your dog into a situation that is not too overwhelming and where they are able to slow down and think. If you are take your dog out and they continually snub you and/or the food, struggle to remain still, demonstrate any vocalness such as whining or move away from your touch, they are not intentionally doing this to frustrate you, but instead are communicating that this environment is far too stimulating for them. So add it to your list of distractions, perhaps in your Difficult category and set it as a goal. Think of how proud you will be when you get there and have success! But you will struggle to get there if you continue to try to fight through your dog's arousal levels, versus setting them up for success and stepping back to an environment that allows them to better focus.
The other side of this is to ensure you are still challenging you both. At this point, your dog should have a solid foundation with the auto watch, so get to places where you can effectively practice it. Along with situations that are too distracting, you want to ensure you are not continually taking them to environments where they never see their triggers. These quiet places are great to have when you just need a break, but you must realize that if they are never working through their triggers, or we are not progressing the intensity and decreasing proximity to them, we will struggle to work them through them. This is the same for dogs living outside of the city. You must take them to situations where they can experience and work in the urban setting.
Let Them Watch
Yes, that's right! Sometimes just let your dog watch. As long as they are not reacting, why would we not just let them observe? One of the most common mistakes I see is how we constantly interrupt our dog every time they look at a trigger and how it frustrates and irritates our dogs. We also begin to anticipate a reaction so we want to interrupt our dog before they react, which in turn, causes them to react! Just try it: if you are out and your dog focuses (can be alert but not reacting or trying to flee) on another dog, person or rabbit, just stop moving, stay calm and let them watch. Once they do look back to you, say 'yes' and reward! And if they begin to become too aroused, simply provide a bit more distance and work on auto watch. But wait it out. Let them take the world in. This is an excellent tool to keep the situation calm and create cognitive focus.
Don't Be Cheap!
With a reactive dog, when you are taking them out you must always have treats, and they must be treats that your dog loves. At this stage in the training you must reward EVERY time your dog looks at you. There is tremendous power in the simple skill of offered attention. And not only should we reward offered attention, but we should be rewarding every thing we want to see more of. Often, our dog may walk by a trigger, not react, and we are thrilled, but we do not acknowledge the dog. When this happens we should be calmly providing the dog big rewards to let them know that was the right choice! Reward and do not be cheap when your dog is offering ideal behaviour. And do this in all environments, not just when the trigger is present.
This is another item that we have already discussed, but it is another that we need a constant reminder of. The key to training a reliable response is to actually allow the dog to figure out how to make the food reward appear. And ideally, we want a fearful/reactive dog to determine that the presence of the trigger is the cue to look back to you instead of reacting.
For example, you are set up in a large green space, stepping down on the leash with your dog that reacts to other dogs. You see a dog approaching, so ask your dog to look at you. Or perhaps you try to stand in front of them or push on their bum. None of this works and in the process we escalate our dog and create a reaction. Even if they do look to you when they hear their name, they are looking to you because they heard the cue, not because of the other dog. In our Reactive urbanK9 program, we teach your dogs that the presence of another dog means they can look at the other dog, but that they turn back to you. This is truly changing the association of the triggers versus just gaining reliability with the name attention cue.
Minimize Arousal Levels
This does not just mean that we keep them below threshold with other dogs so they are not reacting, as there are many other small cues that indicate your dog is becoming too aroused. Some of them may have an inability to sit still, taking the treats hard, breathing rapidly, small vocalizations such as whining, or even offering a variety of skills in rapid succession. We must become keen observers and perceive our dog's body language as indications of their emotional state.
If your dog struggles with sitting still, simply cue them to sit, or use your food lure to put them into position. If they cannot, you are too close. If your dog begins to take treats hard, breathes rapidly or whines, but they are still able to focus on you and the trigger is not getting closer, then continue to work them. Stay calm and deliver the food slowly and watch for these to minimize and settleyour dog. This is working them through their stress. Do not remove them. It is a common practice to remove stressed dogs from these situations, but your dog now has a solid foundation. By still taking treats and demonstrating they can focus, they are capable of focus and learning and the true power is working them through this. You live with a reactive dog and will still see many moments of reactivity, so let's teach them to work through that stress to truly build confidence and focus versus removing them from it.
If your dog starts to yo-yo back and forth between you and the trigger in rapid succession, use your food to interrupt this. If it is a person they are focusing on by yo-yoing back and forth quickly (they come take the food quickly and immediatey look back out), we need to bring their focus back without us reacting to this. When they do come back, offer treats calmly and one after another, and at a pace that does not allow the dog to focus back on the trigger. Once they settle and focus back on you, continue to work on auto watch. Think of it as a focus reset!
Remember how greatly our behaviour influences our dogs. This also applies to focus. If you want them to focus on you, you must focus on them. If you do not want them reacting to the trigger, we must not react either! Much easier said than done, but together we will get the confidence of both of you, and in each other, built back up!
We know life is challenging when you live with a reactive dog and heartbreaking if they suffer from fear concerns. We are here to help and support you along your journey to alleviate your dog's concern. This section of our blog outlines the key information and training skills to work your dog through this. However, reading is not enough. If you are not already, then get your dog signed up for our Reactive urbanK9 program!
Be patient. Have fun. And celebrate every success!
Attention is important to keep your dog focused and thinking.
When your dog is experiencing fear and/or reacting, they are in a high state of arousal. They are in flight or fight mode and their body is full of adrenaline. During this time, it is impossible for learning to happen and their focus will be directed towards whatever is causing this stress. This is not the time to work the dog as they are in an emotional state. We must first get them thinking and then work from there. To do this, we begin with the auto watch. When we get our dogs focused on us, we trigger the cognitive part of their brain and learning can begin to happen. It slows the dog down and enables us to have much more success in training!
Teaching the Auto Watch
1. Your dog should understand 'yes' and offered attention.
2. Have a handful of small treats and step down on your dog's leash.
3. When they look away (ex: at another dog), say 'yes'. Your dog should hear the yes and look back to you in anticipation for their reward. When they do, offer them a treat. If they do not, you are too close or may need to just wait them out.
4. Repeat this 5-10 times until your dog is quickly looking back to you when they hear 'yes'.
5. Now wait for your dog to look back to you before saying the 'yes'. Once they do, say 'yes' and reward. This is the auto watch; look to the distraction, but look back to me.
Be aware of your dog's focus and excitement levels. If they are moving around, use your food to lure them back to place or just ask them to sit. You must stay still and not react to their excitement levels. Do not just practice this with other dogs, but with anything that gets your dog's attention away from you.
Your dog's focus may be on the food and they may go into food brain. If this happens, keep the food out of sight. Do the universal 'nothing in my hands' gesture to your dog. Look down at the item and watch in your peripheral for your dog to look away.
You want your dog really thinking about what they are looking at. As the dog begins to understand the auto watch, ensure they really observe the other dog. Be aware of the dog doing this in fast repetition as it may cause their arousal levels to increase. Keep them calm and do this by ensuring you are also maintaining slow movements. Keep praise calm and deliver treats slowly.
Your dog can learn to quietly watch the world out the window
Now that you and your dog understand auto watch, the emergency u-turn and stepping down on the leash, how do you put it all together? You must start all of these skills in a controlled setting (at home and in the classroom) and now it's time to take them out into the real world and apply them in those settings. As you introduce the skills, it is ok to avoid your dog's triggers outside (people, dogs, rabbits, etc), but now you must begin to expose them to these items. Review our posts on Prevention and Management and Proactive vs Reactive to understand how to best set these up.
Outside on a Walk
Remember to be in the right environment for your dog and use your emergency u-turn if the situation is too much for your dog!
1. Have your dog in a sit and step down on their leash.
2. Practice the auto watch.
3. Remember the 3 steps (yes, if they do not respond, then lure them to you, if they do not respond, then drop the treats). If that does not work, you are too close and need to increase distance!
Practice this as often as possible and in short, positive sessions. Do not always practice just with your dog's triggers. To make it reliable, practice it with anything that gets your dog's attention! Remember to also reward all offered attention! Be aware of the leash tension and your voice, breathing and excitement. Stay calm and ensure you have a confident posture! Remember that some sessions will be better than others, so do not get discouraged when your dog has a reaction. Expect them, learn from them and remember all of your other success!
Reacting at Windows or in the Yard
This is normal, and part of your dog's job for us, however, we want to ensure we can easily interrupt it and that is an alert bark versus a situation where your dog is practicing the behaviour. This is also a self-rewarding behaviour! Your dog barks, and they keep walking, so in your dog's mind they have just done an excellent job at scaring the intruder away! The key is prevention and management. If your dog is barking at the window, block access or put up window film so they cannot see out (you can get removable window film at most home hardware stores). For dogs that bark outside, you can create a dog run area, put up snow fencing to block access to a fence where they can see traffic going by or ensure it is only used for bathroom breaks; do not leave your dog unsupervised outside for long periods. You cannot allow them to practice the behaviour, so you must disable their ability to react when you are not there or do not have the time to work on it.
1. When your dog does bark, call them to you and give them big rewards when they come! This may take a long time to start, so just continue to cheer them on. Do not go to them!
2. Have them sit and remain with you until you release them (using an 'all done' or similar cue).
3. If they get too excited with this exercise, keep your praise calm, but offer multiple small treats to make it rewarding for them.
4. Be consistent and practice, practice, practice!
As you practice this, your dog will begin to let out a small bark but come running to you for rewards. Ensure you keep the rewards big until the dog consistently runs to you versus reacting out a window or in the yard.
Reacting in the Vehicle
If your dog reacts at people or dogs in the vehicle, you can try to confine them to a crate so that they cannot see the outside environment. If that is not possible, limit travel time while you set this up.
1. For people, set up sessions where people approach your vehicle and offer your dog food. To start, have yourself and familiar people do this and reward calm behaviour. When moving to strangers, you may need to deliver the food at first.
2. For dogs, set up sessions with other dogs approaching the vehicle and work on the auto watch with your dog.
3. For when you are driving, do not react to your dog's reactions. You could try having someone in the back to work on attention with your dog and the auto watch while you go by distractions. Or, have some treats in the front with you and throw them back to your dog to find while you drive by the trigger. This prevents the behaviour from happening, and in turn, creates a positive when these things comes into sight!
As always, prevention and management is the key, setting your dog up for success and set up the training sessions versus waiting for the situation to arise when we are not prepared to do the training!
Keep both you and your dog happier by setting up for success!
If you struggle with your dog reacting too often out on walks or find each venture outside too stressful, you are being reactive vs proactive with your training. Please review our post on Prevention and Management to understand how important this is when we are working through a treatment plan for our fearful/reactive dogs. We must understand how to set our dog up for success and become proactive in our training! This not only allows your dog to progress through the program faster, but also makes it much more enjoyable for yourself and your dog!
Go to the Right Environment
As we discussed, you need to go to a space that sets your dog up for success. This may be in open on-leash parks, green spaces or just wide roads in our community. It may also be certain times of the day. Mid-day we are less likely to see as many dogs, and we should avoid pick up and drop off times for schools as there are likely to be a lot of kids out and the environment will be busier which will make it more challenging for your dog.
Set Up the Training
Don't just take your dog out for walks and wait for the dogs, or people or bikes to appear. Take them out to places where you can set it up. For example, if my dog reacts to bikes, I will take them to a place near a bike path, but with enough space that I can keep my dog at a distance where they will not react. If your dog struggles with people, recruit friends and family to set it up. If you find it hard to find dogs, go to a vet clinic, dog daycare or pet store and work with your dog in the parking lot while dogs go in or out. There are always ways to set up the training, so get out with your dog and do this!
Always be working on attention with your dog. Watch their arousal levels and keep their pace slower. If your dog is already out in front and ignoring you, you will have minimal success at getting them back to you if one of their triggers comes into their sight. If you do see something approaching and can give your dog adequate space, move to that spot, step down on your dog's leash and begin working on the auto watch right away. Do not wait for your dog to react to set this up. And if you struggle with loose leash walking with your dog, purchase an anti-pull harness from us right away. This will calm your dog and improve their attention, which is a key part to the success of the Reactive urbanK9 program!
If you find every walk stressful and struggle taking your dog out, then you are not in the right spot. Take your dog somewhere with more space. Keep your sessions short and build off the positives. Running to the grocery store or the bank? If the weather is good, why not bring your dog with you and do a short training session before and after you go in?
You have a reactive dog, so you will have situations arise that are too much and they may explode! Things also do not just continue to get better, so it is normal to have set backs. The key is to learn from them, understand what trigger caused your dog to react and figure out how to set up that situation better next time. Laugh it off with your dog and sit down for some quiet time. Be proud that you are out with your dog and know that you now have the knowledge and tools to keep them moving forward!
Teach your dog to wait patiently to develop good self control
We have discussed the importance of calming our reactive dogs and the effects of stress on them. Self control is a critical part of modifying reactive behaviour in dogs as many of them do not handle their emotions well and frustrate easily. Working through self control concerns allows us to be working on the foundation of their arousal levels to enable them to better settle themselves when they see other dogs or triggers that cause a reactive response. As we see their self control improve, we will also begin to see their threshold increase and make great progress in resolving their reactivity concerns.
So what exactly is self control? It is defined as the ability to control oneself, in particular one's emotions and desires or the expression of them in one's behaviour, especially in difficult situations. For our dogs, this translates as calm, focused behaviour in situations that may typically elicit reactive or over-the-top excited responses. The more we assist our dog at being calm and learning patience, the better response we will receive from them during these excitable times.
Self control is an easy skill to teach and build into everyday life. The key is to teach your dog that in order to receive anything and everything they perceive as a positive, they must offer calm behaviour. This could be a sit with attention, or just standing calmly.
You can teach this with everything your dog perceives as a positive such as your attention, a toy, their dinner, getting their leash on, getting to go out the door, saying hello to a person, going to explore a new scent and so much more! Each and every time your dog wants to gain access to the rewards, simply wait for calm behaviour before providing them access to them!
For example, your dog gets really excited with a ball by barking and jumping when they see it in your hand. Simply wait for them to stand on all four paws calmly, or sit, and when they do, say 'yes' and throw the ball. Or, let's say your dog gets really excited and runs around when they see you take out their leash. Simply sit and wait for your dog to settle. You may even cue them to down, but as you approach, if they get up, stop your approach and wait for them to settle. Once they calm, you can say 'yes' and release them to put on their harness.
This truly is an easy skill to train throughout every day and should just become a habit for us. Every time we see too much excitement or arousal levels get too high, we simply wait for the calm behaviour and reward that!
Teach your dog to be calm when the doorbell rings
Most dog owners dread the chaos that ensues when the doorbell rings, but this can be especially stressful when you live with a fearful and/or reactive dog. Having people over may be so stressful that we avoid this entirely, or when it does happen your dog may embarrass you with their reactive behaviour or not even allow your guest to move within your house! It can be a stressful and discouraging situation, but the below information outlines how to set it up to have a successful visit and teach your dog a better response for when that doorbell rings!
To begin, let's go through the steps for when family members come home and how to deal with your dog's excitement levels. We must teach them that hellos are calm and that sit and calm behaviour is what gets them attention. This is a critical step because as always with our fearful/reactive dog, we must work on calm behaviours first to ensure we keep arousal levels low.
Excitement with Greetings
1. When your dog jumps up, you should turn away and ignore them (say nothing and do not make eye contact). Ignore your dog and offer no attention until it keeps all four paws on the floor. Most dogs are rewarded by us for jumping up because we still give them attention; even if it is negative.
2. Wait for your dog to be on all four paws, and praise immediately while the dog is standing or even sitting. The reward is your attention, but keep your praise calm.
3. If your dog gets too excited and jumps again, just turn away again, and wait for them to put all four paws on the ground.
4. If your dog decides to continue to jump at your back, leave the room. You only need to be out of the room for 5-10 seconds, and there needs to be a door between you and your dog.
5. Return to your dog and follow the above steps.
6. Continue repeating this exercise until your dog no longer jumps. You can set this exercise up by coming home (entering through the front door) often.
7. Another option for this exercise is to enforce sit when you come home. Have a treat ready in your hand and ask your dog to sit. This way your dog is working for you and earning your attention.
8. Practice this often and set it up! Work with everyone your dog is comfortable and gets excited to see.
A great option to this is to enter your house and completely ignore the dog (no eye contact or anything). To do this, you may need to do something to keep your attention off your dog such as going on your computer, reading the mail, etc. Initially this may take quite a while, but once your dog settles and lies down, you can then say a big hello. We are teaching the dog that they will only get attention when they are calm. Be consistent with this and teach your dog that hellos and goodbyes are calm as it is important to help manage the arousal levels of your dog.
Changing the Doorbell Association
We are going to change what the doorbell means to your dog. We will be teaching them that when they hear the doorbell, they should go to their kennel or behind a gate. We are removing the dog from the situation, which is necessary for our fearful/reactive dogs. This keeps them out of all of the excitement, allows us to greet our guests and set up for a successful introduction. This is part of us being proactive versus reactive with our dogs as we are always aiming to set them up for success. To train this, follow the below steps:
1. Ring the doorbell (your dog can see you do this as they are likely to still react).
2. Cue the dog to go to their kennel or behind their gate and lure them to their spot. Do not physically pull them, but lure them. Drop treats on the ground, if needed, to keep them moving. It may take a while at first, but with practice, it will quickly speed up! *Note: your dog must be kennel trained or comfortable behind a gate. If not, please read our post on Alone Training.
3. Toss the treats in the kennel or behind the gate, and close the door/gate behind them.
4. Walk away and wait for your dog to settle. Stay out of sight and ignore all barking or whining.
5. Once your dog settles, walk back to them (turn and walk away if they begin to bark/whine again). Let the dog out and completely ignore them and go about your business. We want to teach them that coming out is no big deal. The good stuff happens behind the gate and we want them coming out in a calm manner.
6. Repeat until your dog happily goes behind the gate/into their kennel and is calm. Expect that you will always have some initial barking, but the dog should quickly go to their spot when they hear the doorbell versus running to the door.
7. Repeat all of the above with family members or people your dog knows and is comfortable with coming to the front door and ringing the doorbell. Have family members do this every time they come home and set this up with friends/family who your dog knows and is comfortable with. Ensure the also follow the above Excitement with Greetings steps.
8. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!
Strangers Coming to the House
After your dog is now moving away from the door, it is time to start working with strangers coming into the house. Follow the below steps to set up a successful interaction with new people coming into the house and begin to teach your dog that strangers are well-behaved treat dispensers versus something scary!
1. Follow steps 1-4 under Changing the Doorbell Association
2. Greet your guests and bring them into the house. Take your time and get them seated.
3. Review the key points with them (treats in hand, no eye contact, no fast movements and stay seated).
4. Bring your dog out and have a trail of treats going to your guests to keep their approach slow.
5. Keep the session short and positive and do not push your dog. In the beginning, end the session and put your dog back in their spot to avoid any set backs. Bring them out as often as possible for short sessions.
6. Work through the steps outlined in Handling for Your Fearful Dog blog post. Ensure your guests always have food on them and coach them on how to respond if your dog reacts: toss treats, stop movement and do not respond.
7. Continue working to standing, moving around the house, etc. As you progress, you can begin to have your dog out when people come through the door. Keep sessions short and know that you may make mistakes. Learn from them and set it up differently for them moving forward.
8. Repeat, repeat, repeat! The more sessions, the better. Have friends for drinks, dinner, etc. and use those that will listen well to start, and build up to the more excitable or scary ones for your dog.
Always remember to keep things calm and monitor the situation with your dog. If your dog has a bite history with people, work with your trainer first to ensure you are setting this up safely. If your dog reacts, remember you have pushed them and do not get angry. Teach them their spot is a safe and positive place to be as this becomes an important management tool for our fearful/reactive dogs!