Coping with a Reactive Dog Part 2
Are You An “After Dark Dog Walker?”
I wonder how many people reading this can identify with being an After Dark Dog Walker? I can. Been there and done that way back in the 80s with one of my German Shepherds. This was many years before I was a trainer and before scientific training methods were mainstream. Much easier to walk them late at night in the dark where one is less likely to meet other dogs and have to deal with the barking and lunging and other people’s disapproval or anger.
What I wish I had known then is that Dogs who yell “Stay Away!” are normally worried, frightened dogs. Leash reactivity is usually based in fear and should never be punished. If you had a fearful child, you would do everything you could to comfort that child and help them get over that fear. I feel that dogs are no different. Punishing a dog for being reactive to objects, people or situations will only make the reactivity worse and is, in my view, cruel. We should be helping those dogs using kind and humane training methods.
If a dog starts reacting to other dogs unexpectedly, the dog could be going through a second fear period which can occur when the dog is in its late teens or around a year old, until approximately 18 months or so, and you need to treat this carefully. You also need to look at whether your dog has had a frightening experience recently while on leash.
I find that a lot of people want to allow their dog to greet other dogs while they are on leash. I always suggest to my clients they either don’t do that (preferable) or if they must, adopt the “3 second rule”. You stop for 3 seconds and then walk on swiftly. It’s my view that most dogs should have time off leash or, if the dog can’t go off leash, walks on a long line in a park as an alternative. Dogs need some freedom to explore which provides them with mental stimulation. If a dog has the opportunity to do either of these, there is absolutely no reason for the dog to greet other dogs while walking on a normal leash.
If you are walking along a path or trail with your dog on leash and another dog appears ahead, coming towards you, upon meeting, your dog cannot perform their natural greeting behaviour. This can cause anxiety in the dog. Approaching another dog on leash head on can feel confrontational to some dogs. They understand that the leash will prevent them from being able to avoid a dog that’s coming towards them if that dog seems a bit scary to them. Therefore, the dog’s stress levels rise which results in stress hormones being released and if this happens, it can end up with an anxious on leash dog yelling “stay away or else!”. This can also trigger the same behaviour in the oncoming dog, and it can all turn nasty. This might happen after your dog has been scared by another dog while on leash and so feels that he has to get in there first and tell the other dog to stay away, just in case it happens again.
Some dogs might seem OK greeting other dogs on leash at the beginning of their walk. Then they meet one particular dog that sets them off (there may be a trigger that the owner doesn’t quite notice) and for the rest of the walk, the dog will snark at every other dog they meet.
This is called “Trigger Stacking”. When a dog starts to get anxious, the stress hormones in the body are released. Those hormones include Adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone), Cortisol, Testosterone and Aldosterone. Even though your dog may have appeared to be OK with meeting the first few dogs on your walk, it’s possible that he was stressed by it, releasing stress hormones even though you didn’t notice any stressful reaction. After that, your dog is in a state of anxiety and when that anxiety gets to a certain level, he may then bark and lunge at the next dog. After he’s done it the first time, even more stress hormones flood in and so his reaction to dogs on the rest of your walk gets worse and worse. The triggers stack up.
What you may not realise is that those hormones don’t just disappear at the end of your walk. They can stay in the body for anything from a day to several days. The more your dog is exposed to the thing that causes him anxiety, the higher the levels keep rising and they take much longer to dissipate. If the exposure to the anxiety is constant, say every day, for a couple of times a day (for example, if you walk your dog twice a day) then those stress hormones don’t get a chance to dissipate and your dog will be constantly reactive to that scary stimulus. In these cases, I believe it’s important to give your dog a break. Do other things with your dog to stimulate his brain and keep him occupied, or take him to quiet places where it’s unlikely you’ll meet other dogs.
Some people with reactive dogs use choke or prong collars in order or them to feel they have control over their dog in these situations. They may even decide to use a head collar as they feel better if they have control of the dog’s head – especially if they have a large or giant breed. If I am honest, I can see how someone with a reactive dog might think that way. It’s pretty worrying having a dog like this.
However, I’d ask those individuals to put themselves in the dog’s shoes. The dog may be anxious when you start out on the walk because he knows you always meet other dogs and the dog anticipates it. After a while, the scary thing appears - anything that makes the dog anxious. The owner knows this so the leash tightens a bit because the owner is expecting the reaction. The owner’s breathing changes automatically and the dog senses both of these things. The dog feels the need to yell at the scary thing and tell it to stay away! It lunges and it’s wearing a choke or a prong collar. The sensation around the dog’s neck from either of these is going to be very unpleasant, if not downright painful. The dog might have trouble breathing – even more unpleasant. Add to that, the owner maybe yanking on the leash in a panic.
What does the dog learn from this? The dog learns that it should be even more afraid of those things, because every time they appear, aside from the stress hormones ramping up, now pain and not being able to breathe become part of the equation too. This causes even more stress and more of the hormones to flood the body.
If your reactive dog is wearing a head collar, this may also cause issues. I’m terrified of spiders. If a spider came into a room with me, what if someone tried to stop me seeing where the spider is, grabs my head and turns it away so I can’t look at it. What happens? I panic! I need to see where that spider is because I need to make sure it’s not going to jump on me or crawl up a leg or something. The more someone tries to stop me looking the more panic and stress I feel. I might end up shouting or lashing out order to be able to see that spider.
For a lot of dogs, a head collar is an aversive tool. If you try to use the head collar to turn the dog away, and the dog can’t see that scary thing, the dog might experience even more stress and panic which will make the reactivity worse.
I always recommend that clients with reactive dogs should use a harness. It will not cause the dog panic because it can’t breathe, or cause pain. In some cases, the reactivity of a dog is reduced once a choke, prong or head collar is removed and a harness used instead.
I will discuss harnesses in a future blog post because some are better than others.
I do not ever recommend using a shock collar on any dog. It’s true there are trainers who recommend shock collars for aggression or reactivity cases. Using a shock collar on a reactive dog can make the behaviour much worse and could cause a whole raft of other behaviour issues.
Using pain and fear to train a dog works, there’s no doubt about it. Trainers who use pain and fear to train dogs always use the argument that it works. However, they won’t explain to the client that it works because it merely supresses the unwanted behaviour. It does not take into account the reason for the behaviour and therefore goes nothing towards helping to change it. Given an example of a dog with leash reactivity through fear, punishing him for the behaviour will not reduce the dog’s fear. It only stops him from showing the fear. Therefore what will happen is that one day, that fearful stimulus will be strong enough to overcome the dog’s fear of punishment. The dog has learned not to give any warning sign that it is afraid (it got punished for that) and so the dog may violently react without any warning whatsoever. If that is the case, you have made a dangerous and unpredictable dog.
Using violence to train a fearful or aggressive dog only begets violence. Just as importantly, your relationship with your dog will may end up being severely damaged, if indeed you manage to maintain a relationship with your dog while using those methods. How could a dog trust you when you cause it pain and fear?
Positive training aims to change a dog’s emotional response to a stimulus and thus change the behaviour by using science based, punishment free humane methods. The results of this are long lasting and one does not end up with a dog that reacts suddenly without a warning. You will also create a solid bond and relationship with your dog based on trust and expectation.