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Training Intervention for Reactive Dogs

My family had Cocker Spaniels when I was growing up.  Most of the time, they are relaxed and docile dogs.  We had one, named Mack, who occasionally acted outside of the norm.  He was a playful and carefree pup on an average day.  Strangers did not bother him.  One day, we had a male family friend come over.  Mack began to bark and act afraid.  We did what we could to calm him down.  Different guests would come by, both male and female, and Mack was his usual jovial self, wagging his tail like crazy.  Then after some time, Mack acted out of fear with someone else.  Finally, it dawned on us.  Mack was reactive to men wearing hats.  He was fine, as long as men took off their hats.  Reactive dogs can lead calm and happy lives with the right help from their humans.  So, what can we do?

Grab Their Attention 

Distraction is a useful tool.  When I had to get a shot as a kid, my mom would tell me to look at her and think of Christmas.  The same method is effective with dogs.  This command is called “Watch Me”.  We need to remain calm as our dogs will reflect our energy.  As with any training, treats yield success.  First, assign a hand gesture to the command.  It can be something like touching your face.  Tell your dog “Watch Me”, make the hand gesture, and reward them with the treat when they do.  Repeat this process several times.  Eventually, make the hand gesture and give the command without the treat.  The goal of the “Watch Me” command is to calm your pup by redirecting their attention.

Avoid the Trigger

Sometimes it is best to just avoid trouble.  You may feel compelled to try and teach your dog to be brave.  It is understandable that you love them and do not want them to be afraid.  Regularly exposing your dog to their trigger, however, only serves to exacerbate their fear.  With Mack, all we had to do was ask men to remove their hats before coming in.  If it is that easy to remove the trigger, avoidance is the best route.

Change Their Opinion

Sometimes it is impossible to avoid a trigger.  In these instances, It might be possible to change your dog’s “opinion” about their trigger.  What’s the secret?  That’s right, you guessed it.  Treats!  With Mack, we assumed that he experienced some trauma from a man wearing a hat before we adopted him.  If I had known more at the time, I would have tried “changing his opinion” about hats.  For this to work, choose a high-value reward.  Any time your dog is exposed to their trigger, whether it is other dogs; loud noises; or strangers wearing hats, give them the good stuff.  As with any training, it is vital to immediately back off when your dog seems overwhelmed.  Limit the time they are exposed to the trigger in the beginning.  Then slowly build as you make progress.  The goal is that treats, plus time, will eliminate the terror.

Break Training into Parts

It is never helpful to overwhelm your pup.  For this reason, it is important to break your training into parts.  Let’s say your dog is reactive to other dogs.  It probably would not turn out well to bring him or her right up to another dog.  Instead, try bringing your dog to the perimeter of a park, just close enough to see other dogs.  Watch their behavior.  Once they start to seem okay with the situation, slowly decrease the distance to the other dogs.  Small amounts of progress each time will eventually yield great success.

Having a reactive dog is stressful.  As pet parents, we want them to be happy.  With the right training and a lot of patience, reactive dogs can make great strides.  Remember, you are never in this alone.  Please give 2 Paws Up Inc. a call for your training and pet sitting needs.  Don’t forget to follow our blog for more great pet tips. Follow us on our Blog page and YouTube channel. 

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