How To Help A Reactive Dog
Welcome to the first installment of K9 Holistics Dog Training Q&A. If you have a question about dog training or behavior, you can submit it via email or through our Facebook page (please include your email address, dog's breed and age).
Today's question comes from Claire Papargiriou via Facebook. Claire writes: "5yrs. Neutered Eng. Bulldog male. Rescued at 11 months, lives now w/ fixed bossy female, Maltese. Not dog friendly. Can't go to vets without him barking & pulling towards other dogs. He gets along GREAT with his Maltese."
If I were meeting you for a training consultation, Claire, my first question would be regarding the dog's fight history. How many fights has he been in with other dogs, and how many times has he bitten hard enough to send the other dog to a vet? This information is important to determine what level of socialization we are able to do with the dog, because this is primarily a socialization problem. If your dog has been in many fights but never seriously bitten another dog, that is a great sign - your dog has bite inhibition and I would feel confident working him in close proximity to other dogs. If your dog has sent another dog to the vet, we would have to be very cautious, and I would recommend that he is muzzled (at least at first) when working closely with other dogs. I would also strongly recommend seeking the help of a professional behaviorist if your dog has bitten another dog to this extent. If the dog has not been in a fight, then we don't know whether he would bite or not (and to what extent), and I would err on the side of caution and work him in a muzzle. Please remember that to work with a muzzle, you need to spend time training the dog to enjoy wearing the muzzle.
On to the training. Like I said, this is a socialization issue. My guess is that the dog has had few experiences of interacting positively with strange dogs outside the home. But he may have had many negative experiences. A key part of the training protocol is to give your dog the opportunity to have calm, positive experiences in the presence of other dogs. If the behavior is at it's worst when you bring him to the vet, I would recommend that you speak with your veterinarian and ask if it is ok to do some training there. The primary training method you will use is simple classical conditioning coupled with desensitization - we have to help him associate strange dogs with positive things. The best way to start is to enlist the help of another dog who is unfamiliar to yours and who is not reactive around other dogs. Have the other dog stand with her owner about 100 yards away from you and your dog and remain stationary. You will slowly approach the other dog, remaining calm and relaxed. When your dog starts to pull on the leash or display reactivity - that is your dog's threshhold and you need to stop there and work the dog. Don't wait until the dog is going bonkers to stop - you want to stop at the first sign of reactivity.
Now your job is to get the dog calm. Reward all behaviors that are moving in this direction. This would include sitting, laying down, looking at you, cessation of barking or pulling, looking at the other dog without reacting (heavily reward this), looking at the other dog and then looking back at you, not paying attention to the other dog, etc. You can reward your dog with food treats, praise, calm affection and even his favorite toy (as long as you can control his excitement level). If the dog will not take food, he is too stressed and you need to put a little more distance between him and the other dog. Spend as much time as you need at this threshold to get him calm and either sitting or lying down. Once you have calmed him and he can remain calm for a minute or two, you can begin approaching the other dog again. When the dog starts to react, stop and repeat the same process. Once you have the dog calm, you can move forward again. You will repeat this process as many times as necessary until you and your dog are within 10-15 feet of the other dog. It may take more than one session to get that close. Be patient. Once your dog is able to remain calm within 10-15 feet of the other dog, now walk the two dogs together side by side (keep at least 4-5 feet between them though!), rewarding your dog for calm behaviors the whole time. Practice this exercise with as many different dogs as possible. The more exposure your dog gets, the faster his rehabiliation will be. Please note: If there is any question at all as to whether your dog will bite the other dog, do not allow the dogs to interact without the supervision of a professional. Safety first!
Once you have some practice working through the desensitization process, you can begin working at the vet. Start working your dog before you even get out of the car - my bet is that when you pull into the parking lot, he starts getting worked up. Sit in your car and wait for him to calm down, all the while rewarding calm behaviors and attentiveness to you. Once he is calm, open the door but don't go anywhere. Wait for him to calm down again and reward appropriately. Now take one step out of the car and get him calm again. Repeat this process one step at a time until you are at the door to the vet's office. Now turn around and go home! Don't even go inside! We are giving him an opportunity to have a positive experience at this location full of praise and affection and yummy food! Repeat this exercise a few more times until he is no longer getting anxious or stressed when you pull up to the vet.
Now you can go inside. You will definitely need to clear this with your vet and any other patients who happen to be at the clinic during your training. Make sure they know what you are doing and that you have permission to conduct a training session in their office. If your dog has a bite history as mentioned in the beginning of this post, this would be the time to muzzle your dog. You are going to walk inside the office - one step at a time - getting your dog calm after each step. Hopefully there will be another dog in the office, which may cause your dog to become more reactive. Stay calm, and work your dog just like you have been doing. Reward calm behaviors heavily. Get him sitting or laying down. If he is overly stressed, you can take him outside for a few minutes, calm him down, and then go back inside and try again. You will need to repeat this exercise until the dog is no longer reactive. Usually it's somewhere around 5-7 sessions when the reactivity really starts to fade and a new behavior pattern emerges, but every dog is different.
Dealing with reactivity is a slow process and requires a lot of patience on the part of the owner. It can be very stressful, but do your best to stay calm and approach it with a sense of compassion for your dog. He is reactive because the situation is highly stressful for him and he is experiencing a great deal of tension. If you feel unsure about the training, I would advise you to seek out a behaviorist to at least walk you through the process one time. And please remember, we are using the muzzle as a safety precaution in case the dog gets of your control. Not once during this protocol do we have the two dogs actually close enought to interact. Without knowing your dog personally, I can't be sure that would be a safe recommendation for both dogs. The primary goal of this training is for your dog to be calm and relaxed in the presence of other dogs. If you are wanting to take the socialization a step further so he is interacting with new dogs, I think it would be wise to work with a behaviorist.
Thank you, Claire, for submitting your question. I hope that you found this informational and helpful. Please feel free to email me if you have any additional questions or concerns. Best woofs to you and your pups!
Christine Fasan is the head trainer and canine behaviorist for K9 Holistics. She specializes in German Shepherd Dogs and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds. K9 Holistics offers dog training and behavior modification in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County. We also offer pet care services including dog walking and pet sitting. Please contact Christine at email@example.com