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10 tips for positively supporting your reactive dog and keeping them safe

Reactive dogs are not easy dogs. I know. I've had two. Our first girl Rita, now 14 years old, used to be dog selective, some she would LOVE and happily play with for ages, others, not so much and in fact she would to try and kill them (She would latch on and shake them until you separated them from each other, often resulting in the other dog being injured). Rita was not only dog reactive but also responded to some humans in very much a similar manner, walk too close when she didn't feel comfortable with you there and you'd get a snarly, toothy and growly response (don't even get me started on how she felt about the poor postman). Rita was out first dog. Far from the dog I imagined ending up with but alas, here she was. Unfortunately for Rita she came into my life before I knew anything about behaviour, training or even a dogs basic needs. I did her no favours and punished her harshly when she was reactive, because 'that's what i'd been told to do', that's no excuse, but it is a reason as at the time I knew no different. It is safe to say that I made her behaviour worsen and instead of taking steps to help her feel safe, secure and more confident in her environment I was drawn into the 'dominance' fallacy and made her life even worse. 





Move on a few years and Milo appeared on our doorstep, quite literally. All I knew about him was 'There is a 2 year old dog that needs a foster home today, otherwise he's being euthanised tomorrow'. There was nothing 'wrong' with Moo, he'd not really been trained in any way and he was poorly socialised but what he did have was anxiety,. Again, hands up here, I did him no favours by using outdated and harsh training methods to begin with, to add insult to injury he was attacked by a few dogs in the village over a period of a few months (we have epidemics of 'my dog is friendly' people every so often, when actually their dog has zero social skills and doesn't know how to take no for an answer, as a side note, if you see a dog on lead, call yours away from them until you've asked their owner if it's ok for your dog to approach. Tangent over... For now.) Milo's anxiety around other dogs worsened after this and we got to the stage where if he saw a dog on the opposite side of the park he would tense up, bark, growl and pull towards them, as the got closer he would lunge and try to nip. For a long while I ignored this or punished him, not realising that this was in fact a fear response. The more I learned the more I was able to help him. Through taking the time to learn about his needs, applying science-based, and ethical training and by working with him consistently we are now able to pass most dogs on narrow alley ways while he can calmly walk past them, he can have other dogs approach him without instantly panicking (though of course this also depends on how the other dog approaches!) and when he doesn't want another dog around him he can say no without it turning into a scene that could be mistaken for world war 3. 


Working with reactive dogs is often a lifelong journey, what progress you can make will depend on each individual dog's reason for their reactivity and will come down to things such as their genes, their day to day life, the consistency of their rehabilitation and training, their environment, any accidental or unavoidable set backs (e.g. other loose and rude dogs, emergency vet care) etc. However, with careful management and consistent training many dogs will be able to learn to feel more relaxed around their triggers, resulting in fewer incidences, and less extreme responses.


For the case of this post we will focus on reactivity with the assumption that it is fear based, here that will include triggers causing the animal to feel afraid, anxious, unsafe, threatened, uncomfortable etc and resulting in them to feel the need to defend themselves (Fight or flight). In most cases, this is the (crude) summary of reactivity. Though there are many reasons a dog may 'react' such as:


Fear, anxiety, phobias, PTSD, C-PTSD, lack of socialisation, responding to another poorly socialised dog who has not learnt how to interact nicely, expectation of punishment or flooding, a way of saying 'no' or 'leave me alone please' or physical illness and pain etc.


Below I want to briefly outline some of the things to consider that may help your reactive dog, but do bear in mind that working with a qualified behaviour consultant who uses up-to-date methods and who can advise on your individual case will be of great benefit, I wish I had done that, rather than muddle through for years alone and make things worse despite good intentions:


1) Muzzle train - This is number one, because if you have a reactive dog who follows through with an attack or bite if given half a chance, like Rita used to, having a muzzle not only prevents your dog injuring anyone, but also stops them panicking or being worried after they do so. There are a tonne of reasons for muzzle training and as far as I can see the only bad thing about it is the bad press muzzles unfairly get. So long as you ensure the muzzle fits your hound well, and you use a style such as the Baskerville, BUMAS, or JAFCO where they are still able to eat, drink, pant and use facial expressions to communicate. With careful training you can teach your dog to cooperative in having their muzzle on and feel relaxed about wearing it. It is a great safety option. ( Pop me a message or check out the MuzzleUp! Project for more information).


2) Keep them comfortable -  A well fitted harness (CosyDogs, TrueLove, or Perfect Fit harnesses get good feedback, I use a CosyDogs) and a long line  are my go-to essentials. Making sure that if your dog does react they don't end up pulling and hurting themselves, anything perceived by the dog as punishment needs to be avoided if we want to change their perception of their triggers.


A longline means if your dog is approached by another off lead 'my dog is friendly' dog whose owner should have probably had a Furby instead then you can keep the line soft and loose, ensuring that your dog doesn't feed off your own tension. I can't currently give a recommendation for long lines as my previously supplier now longer sells. However I am looking into the Rock It Dog Designs longlines as they look nice, and most importantly are sold based on your dogs weight (for safety) and are made from BioThene which means they wont weight heavy if they get wet from ground dew. - I will post a review once I have one.


Both of these pieces of equipment are for safety measures only, and should not be used to keep your dog safe ans secure, or in emergencies where another dog won't leave you alone and the owner is illusive (there are a surprising amount of these dogs around) you can turn your dog and march them away just to get them safely out of the situation. 


I also found that getting a yellow 'Nervous dog' lead slip has helped. Some people still ignore it, but a lot of people are happier giving us space and are more understanding because of being able to see it. You can buy these easily online from a lot of retailers, and find different messages to suit you and your dog. I like using yellow as it supports the Yellow Dog UK campaign.





3) Keep your distance - Once you know your dogs trigger then the first thing to do is find their threshold, How far away do they need to be to feel relaxed and safe, how far away do you need to stay from their trigger to avoid a negative response? Once you find their threshold and comfort zone, don't leave it until they are more relaxed and consistently calm at that distance - this may mean that you have to carefully choose the most quiet times of day to go for walks, be careful to stay at the opposite side of a field from other dogs, cross the road when someone with another dog is walking toward you on a pavement, turn around and back track if you're walking down an alley and another dog appears (though I'd recommend avoiding narrow spaces such as alleys if you have a reactive dog as it's just asking for trouble). Once you find a distance where your dog is able to quietly observe but not react then you've got a good place to start. If a trigger moves toward you, turn and walk away from it with your dog, increasing the distance between you. Your dog needs to learn that they can safely get away from the thing they feel uncomfortable with and that they can trust you not to make them get to close to it. 'But isn't this just avoiding the problem?' Well, yes. Why wouldn't we want to? Exposure to a trigger where we place the dog over threshold will only worsen their reactive behaviour and their feeling of needing to defend themselves, as well as potentially harming their trust in you. What we want to do is to change their emotional response to seeing their trigger - and to do this, the first thing we need to establish is helping our dogs feel safe and calm.




4) Reward 'check ins' - You want your dog to turn to you for guidance or support, but in order for them to do that they need to learn that they can. Encouraging your dog to check in with you while out walking is a great way to encourage this. Get yourself a treat pouch and fill it with your dogs favorite snacks (broken into small bite-size pieces) each time your dog acknowledges you (be it a glance in your direction, or coming over to say hi) say 'good' and offer them a piece of the food. If they don't take it it could be because they are already too over aroused and anxious, there are too many distractions around or the food isn't high value enough. Start this in calmer environments first so your dog gets the idea, and start by reinforcing even the smallest glaces your way. (again, if you want advice or support for a more detailed plan feel free to contact me).



5) Teach a 'follow me' cue - It is helpful to teach your dog that when you say 'this way' they follow you as you change direction, it prevents you needing to pull them or drag them after you if you need to change direction to move away from a trigger. You can start this at home or in the garden by walking with them on a loose lead (the lead should always have a 'smile' in it) and then saying 'this way' or 'follow me' (whatever works best for you, but try to use only 1 cue so as not to confuse your dog). I'd recommend saying this in a way that sounds like there is something worth investigating/being excited about.  At this point they should turn to you and you can say 'good' and offer them a food reward. Repeat this, turning in lots of different directions with them, the aim is that they will turn and move with you, all the while keeping a 'smile' in the loose lead. Once this is solid and reliable at home and in the garden you can start practicing it out on walks, though start in areas with least distractions and build up. The more you practice the more reliable it will become.



6) Give your dog a positive and alternative option - Your dog see's a tall man in a hoodie approaching, your dog notices him as he gets about 15 metres away, but you're on it, you have moved your dog to a safe distance away from where the man will pass and remind your dog that while he could stare at the man, he could also choose to either play with you or find the treats you laid out for him when the man was 25 metres away (I told you, you were on it!!). Now the man is closer and dog realises he's not paying any attention, dog can make the decision to turn his attention to something else, something that encourages playful or calm behaviour - the kind of behaviour that is incompatible with a reactive response. (This needs careful application, and remember your dog needs to be doing this at a distance far enough away from their trigger that they won't go into flight or fight and are able to choose the 'better' options calmly.)



7) Plan for rest and recuperation - We all need down time, your dog is no exception. While exercise, enrichment and mental stimulation are important, rest is also vital to your dogs well being. An over stimulated dog can = a highly anxious or reactive dog as they don't have time to slow down, relax and process their experiences. About once a week I give Milo a 'rest day' (though I judge what he needs day to day, sometimes he has less rest days, and sometimes he has more). On these rest days we tend to go for a couple of very short walks, am and pm, around the block at the most quiet times of day and on the least populated routes (we wouldn't walk at all but he won't wee or poo in the garden!). Then we just don't do much else. Maybe a simple low key enrichment activity or a bit of nosework but as much as possible I encourage him to rest and have calm time (and a LOT of snuggles, he loves his snuggles). I just give his brain time to unwind and it has made a huge different to his ability to cope with life and unwind.





8) Encourage exploration - I sometimes set myself the challenge of 'how long can we make this walk last?' that walk to the local field and back which could easily take 15 minutes? Can we make it last 30 minutes, or even 45 minutes instead? Our dogs love to explore, and there are many benefits to encouraging them to slow down and take the time to do this. You can encourage slowing down, by simply slowing down yourself, heard of mindfulness? Now is a great time to practice. Or you can explore with your dog, part a bit of hedge and encourage your dog to investigate whats in there, find a empty plastic bottle, 'Oh wow! What is THAT! Dog, look at this amazing thing I found!' - Make everything interesting, rather than your walk being about from marching from A to B. I will add here, I don't expect my boy to walk slow until he's had his pees and poos. He can't relax until he has, and I wouldn't want to make him feel uncomfortable, so as soon as he's been to the toilet that's when we get into 'adventure/exploration walk' mode. As with everything dog related, we must meet their needs first and foremost before having any expectations, and finding a good spot to use for toileting is one of these needs.


How does this help with reactivity? A dog who knows their environment well is more relaxed in it. When they come to a point where they spot a trigger in the distance, they will only have to worry about that, rather than the scary trigger, the dark corner over there, that flappy bag that's been in the hedge for a year but he only just noticed. In addition, a dog who is able to calmly explore, and take their time on a walk is likely to have lower levels of stress to begin with, this could be the difference between: 


A Relaxed dog exploring calmly + Trigger = Tension increase and on edge but still able to calmly observe trigger from a good distance away.


Over aroused dog exploring manically, with already high levels of stress hormones + Trigger = Reaction resulting in going over threshold and feeling the need to lunge and bark etc.


9) Take time out for yourself if you need to - Having a reactive dog can be a frustrating, exhausting and emotional experience at times. It is ok to take time out for you. Want a peaceful walk, then go for a walk either on your own or with your family and leave your dog at home, it is ok to do things for you. In order to help your dog you need to be in a good state of mind, and be able to make calm and rational decisions. Self care is important. Make sure you set some time aside for YOU each week where you get to do something you enjoy and relax without the pressure or responsibility of taking care of your dog (or family).



10) Ask for help - Working with reactive dogs can be complex and overwhelming, and in some cases high risk. Ideally to manage it and reduce the incidents you will need a shaping plan designed specifically for you and your dog focusing on the application of carefully planned counter conditioning and systematic desensitization, I highly recommend consulting a qualified and ethical professional for advice from the first episode of reactivity you see, but especially so if the behaviour is happening more regularly, if it is worsening or if you have been trying to resolve it for a while with no success for a while. The sooner you work on resolving an a behaviour like this, the better the prognosis. If there is a sudden onset of reactive behaviour then a vet should be your first port of call to ensure there are no physical issues such as pain that are causing the problem.

 




Having a reactive dog can be hard, and managing or resolving the behaviour can take a long time. But it doesn't mean the end of the world and there are things you can do to reduce the reactive responses and help your dog feel safer and happier.

If you have any questions feel free to contact me.


Good luck, and stay safe,


Jen & Moo 💙



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Disclaimer - Please note that this is general information, each dog, owner and environment is vastly different and will need variations in the approach to help manage and resolve the problem - if you try to work with your dog yourself bear in mind that you are responsible for the outcomes.

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 Jenny Barker 2021© 



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