The biggest killer for a reactive dog is…unpredictability.
The foundation of training a reactive dog is management to keep the dog’s stress level down and to prevent them from practicing the unwanted behaviors. We talk about this constantly in our Cranky Canine classes. I have always understood that management is difficult in a city of over 5 million people and certainly have experienced it myself, too. Nevertheless, I always wondered, why on earth do people find it so difficult. Well, this summer I certainly discovered that for me it was impossible.
Unpredictable environment is the hardest thing for anyone who has fears or anxieties. If you cannot predict what is lurking around the corner, you are in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and stress. This has been my dog Forbes and myself for the past six months. Forbes has never been a big fan of certain male dogs with a forward stance and a stare, especially when encountered in our neighborhood, or ‘his breeding ground’ should I say or speculate. Life used to be pretty manageable until two high-rise condos appeared last winter beside our houses and this spring our whole neighborhood was turned into a construction site due to new public transit railway being built literally 30 meters away from our front door. As a result, the only patch of grass in right in front of our house was turned into the doggie toilet and an unofficial off-leash dog park to probably over 100 different dogs every day. That was it, the Ladies Man turned into a chronically stressed dog, whose threshold for reacting was extremely low.
Despite my best (or at least pretty good) management efforts to make life predictable, I cannot predict for example loose dogs running up to our window to harass my dog inside his own home. Or being ambushed at our back patio even at 2 am. I have given up on hope to be able to manage the environment. My heart sometimes pounds so loudly when we approach the ‘hot spot’ of our neighborhood from our walk because I am so afraid of unexpected dogs around the corners. What we always ask our students to do when a situation is happening, is to use a treat magnet to direct the dog away to get a little bit more distance and then ask the dog to do a behavior that they know well. Or just feed your dog until the other dog passes. I have failed to be able to follow our own advice. We have to get home through a maize of dogs sometimes, or of course I could just wait around until all the dogs are gone. That might take a long while. I try and just stop and feed Forbes when cornered, but it is difficult because he bites my hands so hard that they bleed (hard mouth is one very clear sign of stress), and dropping treats on the ground does not seem to do it.
I was in a very lucky position because we had one empty spot in our Cranky Canine class last month, and I was able to take the class myself. The teacher became the student. And guess what, I was so nervous before the first class that my hands were shaking. The huge benefit of the classes is that they force you to practice like crazy. I am also so grateful to my colleagues and friends for teaching me. But I still couldn’t cope with the environmental unpredictability which causes Forbes to go over his threshold. As I didn’t know what else to do, I decided to resort to just kneeling down beside him and hugging him when we got cornered. I told Caryn about this and she asked me if I had ever tried a Thundershirt on him. DOH! No I hadn’t, why would I do what I tell students to do?!
So the Thundershirt came on for our ‘walks of horror’ as I have decided to call walking in our area, and I saw a little improvement. He was able to respond to his strongest cues (DROP IT!!!) and was able to orient back to me much faster. Yay! I took Forbes to school with me last week wearing the shirt, and everyone said that his pupils were less dilated and he seemed calmer. And then he actually decided to have a nap in the classroom while being a decoy dog. So I think I have found a management tool that I can use to access his brain a little faster when it drops out of his skull in moments of heightened emotion.
Of course the work isn’t done yet, and once again I understand so well how dog reactivity is a topic that makes people very emotional. It is easy to become resentful, and positive punishment seems like an attractive solution, because it makes the shame go away momentarily. I’m not a saint, I have thought about it! But I know better than that, and I really don’t care anymore about the public opinion of shoving treats in the dog’s mouth every chance I get. And to be able to survive next spring, I am really hoping to live in a different neighborhood by then!