Before I go any further--I NEVER suggest aversives like prong collars or e-collars when working with reactivity. I mean, I never suggest them anyway, but for this behavior I am adamant about it. Reactivity is based in fear. Punishing a dog for being afraid is not to going to help. In fact, it could make it far worse. If you have been told to use a tool like that to manage reactivity, please keep reading. You may find another way.
In my experience, reactive dogs are NOT aggressive dogs. They are fearful dogs. If you have an aggressive dog or a dog that you feel may bite, I suggest conditioning them to a basket muzzle for your (and their) safety.
But first, what IS reactivity?
Reactivity is tied to the fight, flight or freeze fear response. Most reactive dogs are NOT aggressive dogs. What you are seeing is a big display of "oh my goodness, I am so scared of that thing, I want it to go away!" Normally, it starts with a stiffened body posture, then some whining, then some barking, then some growling, lunging and full on freaking out.
Then you, as the owner, start to tighten the leash (or maybe you already did that when you saw the dog approaching). You try to get your dog's attention, and you can't. You feel trapped, hopeless, and mortified that your dog is behaving that way.
And it results in a stressed out owner because you have no idea what is happening. And you don't know what to do.
The most important thing to remember is that your dog doesn't WANT to react. If we can find a way to build their confidence, condition a new response to the trigger and help the dog learn to relax around the things they find scary.
Asking them to "get over it" isn't going to work. That is a technique called flooding and the premise is that you force them to face the thing they are afraid of and they will eventually get over it. Nope. They won't. They will shut down completely, which will make you THINK they are over it. Think of it this way--you are afraid of spiders. Someone tells you "we are going to put you in a room with a thousand spiders. You will just have to get over it." Would that sound good to you? I doubt it. So, we need to not do those things to our dogs. You may tell yourself "but it is just a stroller. How can that possibly be scary?" It doesn't matter how it is scary. All that matters is that your dog is worried about it. And we need to make them less worried.
Since both Gracie and Garmin were (and are) managed differently, so I will share the training I did with both of them.
Gracie wasn't reactive from the beginning. She didn't start until she his adolescence. And since we know that a lot of reactivity stems from fear, it makes sense that she would show this new behavior around that time. It is important to not that she was never reactive in classes or in public--she only reacts on walks. And only to dogs on walks. Her reactivity seemed to be very conditional. But it was reactivity nonetheless.
When she first did it, I didn't know what to do. I wasn't a trainer yet. I was just a dog owner who adopted an anxious, fearful, reactive dog. I spent a lot of time forcing her to walk by dogs (wrong). I would make her hold a sit while dogs walked by (also wrong) or I would shove treats in her mouth as a dog walked by (closer to being right, but for a dog who is over stimulated, treats are little compensation and most of the time the dog won't/can't even take them).
I was told I needed to show her who was boss and force her to act right. I was told I needed to pop her leash whenever she reacted.
I didn't want to do any of those things. So I started reading. And I stumbled upon the "Look at That" game, which actually taught the dog to look at the thing they were worried about. I thought it was crazy. And counterintuative, but I decided to give it a shot. It all starts with no distractions. You teach your dog a "look" cue. So, Gracie and I did it. She had a great "look" cue indoors. Then, you take it outside. Ideally, you do this with a calm dog as a set up, but I didn't have a lot of friends with dogs, so I had to try my best with dogs on our walks. So, I would see a dog at a distance, Gracie would see the dog, I would say "look" and she would look at me. Praise, treat, repeat. We did this for a while, always at a safe distance, and then one day a miracle happened. She looked at a dog and then looked at me. No cue needed. She did it on her own.
We started to decrease the distance between dogs. We would walk a little ways off the sidewalk and work on the "Look at That" game as dogs went by. Now we can walk by dogs at a close distance and all she does is glance at them and then back to me. She even does it when she hears a barking dog. Bark, look. The behavior has become a reflex for her and instead of reacting, she simply looks at me. It has made my walks with her much more pleasant. She still reacts IF a dog surprises her, but for the most part, she is managed well. And still has an awesome default "look" when she sees a trigger. And she is also a therapy dog and has her advanced CGC title, so she has come a long way!
Enter Garmin. He came to me after I had been training dogs for about 2 years. I swore I would do things differently. He would NOT be reactive, anxious or fearful.
And he was anxious, reactive and fearful.
His reactivity was different. Very, very different. When he would see another dog (or person. Or bike, stroller, skateboard, lawnmower--you get the idea) he would freak out immediately and then redirect that frustration on whatever was closest. And that was either Gracie or, most likely, me. I had lots of lovely bruises up and down my legs when Garmin was younger.
Since I had worked with Gracie, I thought I knew what to do, so we started with the Look at That game.
He wasn't having it. None of it.
His safe distance was infinite it seemed. Even a speck of the trigger in the distance and he was in full blown freak out mode.
I tried the open bar/closed bar technique with him. It didn't work.
I kept trying. And failing. Miserably. I was told to put an e-collar on him. I refused.
So I started walking him in empty parking lots. At odd times. And that worked for a while, until other people started finding my empty parking lots and treating them like off leash dog parks.
Each time he was rushed by a dog, his behavior worsened. And I was more lost than ever.
In March of 2016, I attended ClickerExpo in Cincinnati, Ohio. There I sat in on a seminar conducted by Emma Parsons, a trainer who, like me, ended up with a reactive dog. She told her story and I swear I was listening to my story--she had hoped to have an agility dog, instead she got a reactive dog. And she mentioned all the things she had tried that didn't work. And then she showed something that did. She called it "the dance."
Essentially, here is how it works: you walk your dog towards the trigger. The second the dog sees it, you mark (either with a click or a word) and then you move backwards--AWAY from the trigger and reward. Then you move forward again. Dog sees trigger, you mark and move backwards and reward. Repeat as you decrease distance, always keeping dog under threshold. The key is to mark that precise moment that the dog sees the thing and DOESN'T react. Moving them away from the trigger is rewarding (yay! I am getting away from the scary thing) and then they get a yummy treat (double yay!)
I was mesmerized. And energized. And I couldn't wait to come home and try it with Garmin.
So I did. We started the following week. And I was amazed at what he could do. He was flawless. And since starting this technique, we have had very few reactive episodes. In fact, he can take walks in neighborhoods with low foot traffic now and he can go to public spaces around people without reacting. And it is a beautiful thing.
Essentially, we were playing a version of the Engage/Disengage game. It is one of my go-tos for clients and others who ask me about reactivity. And one that a current client credits with her dog's success.
Garmin is still reactive, but he is on the road to recovery. In fact, he was just in a grooming salon with other dogs around and didn't react once. Not once. And that is a huge win.
The techniques I listed above are the ones that I have used with great success. That doesn't mean those are the only things that work. Here are some other links and ideas.
Grisha Stewart has a program called BAT 2.0 that has been very successful for lots of dogs. I have not had the opportunity to use it, but I have read up on it and find it very beneficial to dogs.
Emma Parsons has written two books: Click to Calm and Teaching the Reactive Dog Class that have great techniques in them. I have them both and refer to them often when working with reactivity.
Patricia McConnell wrote a booklet called Feisty Fido that includes a reactivity protocol. She also has a great article on dog reactivity on her website.
Dr. Sophia Yin also wrote articles about the subject. Those can be found on her website.
There is also a protocol called CARE for Reactive Dogs. I have never used this one, but I know people who have. There is a Facebook Group dedicated to this method as well.
The Bottom Line
Your reactive dog CAN be helped. It will take time. And you will need to be patient. The most important thing to remember is that you are on your dog's timeline and not yours. You may think "we have worked at this same distance for a week now, surely we can move forward," but your dog my tell you that is a whole lot of no. Listen to your dog! The second you move to close, you will potentially damage any progress you made. With reactivity I have found that slow and steady definitely win the race.
If you have a set back, it's okay. Take a breath, give your dog a day or two to decompress and then try again. Set backs in reactivity are common, but usually dogs who have a strong reinforcement history bounce back and you are back on track in a few days. Just remember that you CAN do this. And celebrate each and every small step forward.
If you have a reactive dog and need help, please don't hesitate to reach out to me at LLRcanineobedience@gmail.com. Reactive dogs are close to my heart, and I will happily help put a plan in place for you that teaches you and your dog how to best conquer this hurdle.