Prevent Reactivity Through Socialization
Working with reactive dogs is one of my specialties, and as much as I love helping rehabilitate dogs with this issue, I wish that it wasn't such a common problem. It is agreed upon by many dog trainers that reactivity is now the most prevalent behavioral issue, and the rates of occurrence are still on the rise. I recently wrote a blog post on techniques to help heal a dog that is already experiencing reactivity issues - but the best strategy is prevention. Here are some tips to assure that you prevent reactive responses in your puppy or adult dog. The biggest contributing factor here is socialization. Have you socialized your dog to big dogs? Little dogs? Happy dogs? Quiet dogs? Black dogs? Brindled dogs? A wide variety of breeds? High energy dogs? Low energy dogs? Barking dogs? Adult dogs? Puppies? Tall people? Short people? Men? Children? People on skateboards? People on bikes? People moving quickly? People moving slowly? People with hats? People in the dark? You get the picture. Socialize your dog like crazy. And then socialize some more (if you would like a complete socialization checklist, please let me know and I will provide one). Thorough and complete socialization is akin to giving your dog a vaccination against reactivity. It is the ultimate preventative. If we have had a training session together, no doubt we have discussed socialization. It seems to be a common belief among dog owners that socialization is only applicable to puppies. On the contrary. Socialization is lifelong process and should be a part of your dog's daily routine. Every time your dog is out of the house, you can be socializing by providing your dog with positive experiences around new dogs, people and situations. For example, let's say you are out on a walk with your dog. A construction crew is working down the street and they have a big loud drill and other noisy equipment. What do you do? Most people would walk the other way and avoid the situation - why risk the possibility of scaring the dog? That is certainly one option, but there is another option and it's a great one. Take the opportunity as a real life training scenario, grab some high value treats and work your dog. As you approach the scene, watch your dog closely to determine his stress level.
At the very first little sign of stress, stop and give lots of attention and food - you are classically conditioning your dog to associate the construction chaos with positive things. For a more detailed explanation of this exercise, check out the blog post mentioned earlier. Classical conditioning can be used in any and all situations in which your dog is shy, anxious, fearful or unsure about something in his environment - and it is a cornerstone of socialization. Which leads me to another important aspect regarding this issue - identifying triggers at the onset. Pretty much all dogs will develop a sensitivity to something (or many things) over the course of their life. If these sensitivities are not addressed, they can become full blown reactivity in no time with only a handful of negative exposures. What do I mean by sensitivity? Any kind of adverse reaction - anxiety, fear, avoidance behaviors, uncertainty, tension, etc. If you notice these kinds of behaviors in your dog, you can nip them in the bud by identifying the trigger and classically conditioning the trigger. It is a simple, usually quick measure that will prevent the dog from forming negative associations and reactivity. Physical and mental exercise should also be mentioned here. If the dog is not receiving enough stimulation, the pent up energy will increase the likelihood of the dog having reactive (rather than responsive) behaviors. Make sure your pup is getting plenty of walks and active play times every day. Training exercises, training games and smart toys will provide mental stimulation and should also be incorporated on a daily basis. And finally, if you find yourself in a situation in which you fear your dog may react negatively - KEEP CALM! Take a deep breath, remember that dogs will be dogs, and maintain a happy, lighthearted, playful tone with your dog. If you get tense and stressed out, your dog will feel it and will be more likely the react. You are far more in control of your dog's behavior than you think!
Christine Fasan is the head trainer and canine behaviorist at K9H. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.