reactive rover

The positive reward based method to stop and help reactive dogs

Isn’t it embarassing every time you walk outside or go to your vet’s office and your dog lunges to bite a stranger or another dog. There is advice out there on the internet on how to deal with this issue. But I’m going to explain a method that I have found some success with in the past on dealing with reactive dogs.

First, I want to talk about a study done by Dr. Emily Blackwell and Emma WIlliams. They took 630 dog owners whose dogs showed reactive/ aggressive behavior, such as lunging, barking, growling, and biting.

They had these owners take a survey asking them about their knowledge of positive reinforcement and if they understood dog behavior on a basic level.

The purpose of this study was to find out what influences an owner decision to use outdated punishment- based methods and what are the barriers and motivators to dog owners using positive reinforcement based solutions.

The results of the study showed that there is a potential for extreme negative emotional responses and feelings of failure are experienced by owners when their dog reacts badly towards another dog or person. Therefore the owners confidence needs to be built up.

They also need to be shown how to use positive reinforcement based methods and how they work in different situations. There is a reason why punishment is not always the answer as stated below.

“Current evidence suggests that positive reinforcement-based behavior modification techniques are both humane and effective in the treatment of aggressive behavior in dogs and that the use of punishment-based techniques are likely to be detrimental to the welfare of the dog and can lead to an increase in aggression. However, many dog owners continue to use punishment-based techniques in an attempt to inhibit this problematic behavior. “

The researcher also wrote "When learning to use positive methods, people are likely to need practical support that demonstrates the effectiveness of reward-based training and also provides an opportunity to practice under expert guidance, so that people feel truly confident in using the techniques themselves in a range of challenging scenarios."

So it isn’t that people dont want to use positive methods. Dog owners just don’t know how to. They need expert guidance.

As a balanced dog trainer I use both positive reinforcement and positive punishment. The key is to know when to use each. I always err on the side of positive reinforcement if I think it will not only harm my dog but damage our relationship.

I know it can be frustrating when your dog is exhibiting these behaviors. First we are going to be going over positive reinforcement and why you should use it. Then we will go over some reasons why they behave like this. ( Its not always what you think)

What is positive reinforement and why should I use it?

Positive reinforcement is giving a dog a reward to increase the likelihood that they will repeat the same behavior they were doing.

Why should you use it?

First let me ask you this. If you had a fear of heights and I told you to come to the edge, would you come? What if I told you its going be okay and that nothing will happen to you. Would you come then? Probably not.

This is what most people do with their dogs. They try to coerce their dog to going near people or other dogs instead of listening to their dog. Your dog will tell you their fears and then you can take effective action.

Triggers for dog reactivity

  • Lack of socialization: A lot of dogs just don’t know how to act because they haven’t been properly socialized. (No I’m not talking about take your dog to the dog park and let them run around)

  • How your dog sees the world: This is similar to the first one except for maybe your dog has socialized. The problem is the learned bad socialization and not the correct way to behave. They learned to either bite, lunge, growl, or flee when they are uncomfortable.

  • Genetics: This is self explanatory. Some dog just are genetically wired a certain way. Training can not fix everything

  • Hormones ( This is rarely the case)

Notice how I didn’t say that your dog is reactive because it was abused. Many people think this. This is applying human psychology to dog psychology. They are not the same. If we want to truly understand dogs then we have to stop humanizing them.

Understand Canine Behavior

It is important that you understand the signs that your dog is giving off. For example, growling is a warning sign to get back. When a person or dog doesn’t listen to this request then your dog feels they have no choice but to lunge to make them get back. You can look up calming signals as a starter to reading dog behavior.

Behavior adjustment therapy

Now I’m not big on using a lot of methods, but this one seems to work pretty good. When your dog is uncomfortable around another dog or person they might not want to take a treat. They usually want space. Giving your dog the space they need is comforting and releases some of the social pressure they are feeling.

I will use the term “below threshold”. This just means below the level or moment when the dog explodes and lunges for a person or dog.

How to do this: This is done in a straight line of vision. It can be done in a park. On the street or any other location.

  1. Take your dog and stand with your dog on a leash. Do not move.

  2. Have another handler walk their dog on the leash up to the point where your dog notices their dog

  3. Your dog will either stare intensely, growl, or forcibly trying to ignore the other dog.

  4. If your dog lunged at the other dog or started barking then the dog is too close to your dog. Move the other dog back further until your dog is not reacting intensely. Notice the signs of stress ( yawning, lip licking, sniffing the ground out of context, forcibly ignoring the other dog, and others)

  5. Wait for your dog to look away or to the side. Then mark that behavior with a YES!!!

  6. Remove the stressor ( the other dog) from the situation and give your dog space.

    The point of this is to reward your dog (give space), for doing the correct behavior( ignoring the trigger and not aggressing forward).

  7. Repeat the process

Do you move the helper dog back or do you move your own dog back?

It depends. If your dog is fearful and trying to flee then I move the helper dog back. If your dog is aggressive moving forward then I would move your dog away when they show signs that they look away or deliberately disengage from the other dog.

This is the same way it can be done with a human reactive dog. Just replace the helper dog with a human.

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