Ever gotten so mad at your reactive dog you broke down into tears or taken your anger out on someone else who didn't deserve it?
This article is for you.
We've all been there. You turn the corner, get caught off guard by another person or dog and your own dog decides it's not the day for reasoning with anyone but themselves. Today they decided to explode into a fit of rage and embarrass you in the process. You walk out of the situation confused, angry and upset. These are feelings that you're used to, and unfortunately, they've been a daily occurrence for longer than you're willing to admit.
The good news is that you're not alone. Below are some tips to get you started with thinking about how you can alter your day-to-day routine to better connect with your dog. It's important to note, however, that not any one of these tips alone will solve your dog's reactivity nor are we suggesting that these recommendations are all-encompassing. Solving reactivity requires a foundational understanding of certain training tools and techniques that are best done under the supervision of a professional trainer.
As always, if you find yourself struggling, please reach out so that you can marry the tips we've outlined below with actionable next steps:
1. Put It Into Perspective
Oh, the irony. Here's where I'm going to tell you to stop caring about what other people think when I, myself, care a great deal about what others think. In fact, I tend to overthink everything.
But we all know that's not healthy, don't we? And it sure as hell isn't healthy when you have to deal with an upset dog right after a bad encounter on one of your daily walks. There's a good chance that they're acting out of fear and they need you to support them in their journey to rehabilitation.
The reality is, the individual or dog that your dog just freaked out on, probably doesn't care as much as you do that they were just barked or lunged at. And why is that? Because they're not obsessing over fixing your dog's reactivity as much as you are. Chances are they forget about it the second they get to where they were going.
After every bad encounter I want you to say to yourself, "Eh, that sucked but that person is probably not as affected as I am in this moment." Do this again and again and again until you stop caring about what that person thinks of you or your dog.
Why is this important? Because only when you can put your full energy into helping your dog and not letting yourself become distracted by others that you'll be able to get them to where they need to be!
2. Tune In
As humans we're trained by society that our success is dependent on how much we're able to multi-task. This "skill" may be great in the workplace but it's the very thing that gets you into trouble on your walks.
When you take your dog on a walk, you must be tuned into your environment. Most reactive or aggressive dogs are always on the lookout for potentially scary situations that they feel they need to protect themselves in. If you don't catch it first, your dog sure will and you'll leave feeling defeated. Show your dog that you're present in the moment and you'll be amazed how much they begin to trust you to take care of them when things get scary.
While you're tuning into the environment, pay attention to your dog's body language. Ears go up before reacting? Great! Jot it down. Study these movements. And the next time your dog's ears go up, that's when the training begins. The KEY is to catch the reaction before it even happens. Once they explode, there's no use in trying to get through to them. That's like someone throwing you into a shark tank and asking you to do long division when you're in there. Not happening, right?
You'll be amazed at what you'll start catching when you hone in on your dog's body language.
3. Advocate, Advocate, Advocate
Learn what your dog's thresholds and triggers are. Write down every time your dog reacts to something in their environment, note what (or whom) it is and how far away you were when your dog reacted. You'll quickly see some trends and be able to become your dog's newfound protector in shielding them from these situations. For example, if your dog reacts to another person:
What did they look like?
What time of day was it?
Was it raining?
How far were you away from them? 10ft? 15ft? 50 ft?
Do they react to all people? Or is it only people in hats?
Once you have a good idea of your dog's triggers and thresholds, you can make your life easier on walks by managing your dog in these situations by providing more space between them and the trigger.
NOTE: This is not us saying to avoid these situations all together. After all, life happens and you can't possible plan your day around what your dog does and doesn't react to.
More importantly, these trends will help you define where exactly your dog is struggling and you can target these scenarios to teach your dog how to behave by using the training tools and methods we talk at lengths about in our online content or in person during one of our training programs.
Even after all the training in the world, always advocate for your dog. If you know your dog doesn't like children or people running up to them, you must speak up for them and block these types of situations from occurring.
4. Have an Open Mind
If your dog has severe reactivity to a stimulus in their environment (i.e. another dog, person, sound, anything) then chances are you're going to have to find ways to break their focus, and break it quickly.
Sure, you could try standing a football field away from another dog and then work your way closer week after week until your dog gets close to that strange dog (and probably will react anyway). But who has that kind of time? And is it really all that effective? We've found otherwise.
It's likely that at some point you're going to need to correct your dog for the bad behavior. That does not mean that treats and positive reinforcement shouldn't be the foundation for your training but it also shouldn't be the end-all-be-all.
How do you correctly correct your dog? Say that 10x fast. :)
We recommend investing in a Mini Educator e-collar (we provide them in our training programs) and please if it's not us walking you through how to use it, find another professional if you have to, but never try learning these on your own.
What is NOT a correction? An opportunity to unfairly correct your dog without providing to them guidance to what you want them to do instead. The fact is, you should never have to correct your dog over and over again if you're providing enough guidance, the correction should only have to be done once with reminders maybe every so often.
Become comfortable with this thinking of providing meaning to the words "Yes" and "No" to help your dog advance to places solely treats (or food) wouldn't have ever brought them to in a million years. It's that simple and it works.
5. Cut Yourself Some Slack
At the end of the day, none of us are perfect, including your dog. We must remember that dogs are animals at the end of the day and no amount of Instagram famous furbabies will change that. Like people, dogs have bad days and they're not always on their A-game. If your dog reacts out of nowhere one day, cut them and you some slack. If it was your fault and you missed the timing before your dog went into a full blown reaction, identify what you can do better next time and move on! There's always tomorrow.
Additionally, even after your dog becomes less reactive, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to love being around other dogs or people. Like people, dogs have dynamic personalities and some simply enjoy being independent over socializing at a dog park.