Finding the best way to manage your dogs reactivity can be difficult, and believe me I get it! Before becoming a dog trainer I struggled to find a way to manage my dog in those situation, I was frustrated, nervous, confused and embarrassed.
Reactive dogs become over-aroused when in the presence of a certain stimuli. Your dog may lunge, bark or growl, when reacting they become so engrossed with the trigger that they can be difficult to manage or move away. However reactivity does not mean that your dog is aggressive, it is a fear response. Reactivity is not uncommon and affects about 1 out of every 3 dogs, thats a lot!!
Management is the key to all behavior modification, every time your dog reacts to a trigger and the stimuli moves away that reactive behavior is reinforced. When a behavior is reinforcing it is more likely to happen again the next time a trigger is present. Even though the trigger was moving away anyways your dog does not know this, they think their behavior caused it. This makes reacting a successful strategy to get things that make them uncomfortable move away. Management means preventing your dog from reacting by keeping them below threshold. Your goal when training your reactive dog is to keep them below threshold, this means you have to find out how close your dog can be to a trigger without reacting. This also means that you need to know all of your dogs trigger whether that be men, women, children, other animals etc.
There are several ways to modify your dogs reactive behavior, the exercise that I have been most successful with is called "look at that". The key to "look at that" is keeping your dog under threshold while teaching them to look at a scary things, then repeatedly rewarding them just for looking at it. In doing so you are pairing the scary trigger with something your dog loves, high value food! When practiced consistency you can change your dogs emotional response to seeing that specific stimuli from a scary to a predictor of their favorite food. This creates a positive association with that trigger, meaning your dog won't find it as scary over time.
Lat "Look at that" is a training tool for reactive dogs, however it can also be used to prevent reactive behavior in dogs and puppies.
Before you begin:
For this training game, make sure that you are using a very high value reward, such as hot dogs, cheese, beef, chicken, bacon, pork chops, baby food, or whatever your dog likes best and does not get often. These can be cut into very small pieces for training – about the size of a pea.
Make sure that you are in an area and at a time of day where YOU can determine how close or how far you get to the trigger. Choose an area and time where triggers are not likely to “sneak up” on you. You may want to start at your front door or drive to a quiet area for a training session. Being able to manage distance effectively is a very important part of this game: training with a reactive dog and/or socializing a puppy or dog should not begin in a busy area or time of day.
Steps for LAT "Look at that" :
Keep your dog under threshold: Make sure you are far enough away from the thing that triggers your dog’s reactive behavior (dogs, people, men in hats, buses, etc.) so that they can notice or look at it without going over threshold. Indicators of going over threshold include behaviors such as barking, lunging, growling, whining, pulling towards the trigger, tense/upright posture, fixating without being able to regain attention, taking treats very hard, or not taking treats at all. Sometimes, in order to keep a dog under threshold, this means you will have to start this game at a very large distance from the trigger! If your dog is too close to threshold with the trigger at any distance, start practicing with a neutral target at home (any object that they do not react to).
Click/Treat the second they look: To play LAT, the second they look at the trigger (dog, tall person, person in hat, etc.), click a clicker or say the word “Yes!” to mark that behavior, then deliver a delicious treat. This is why it is so important to identify and remain at a distance at which your dog is not over threshold. Once they are over threshold, their nervous system has gone into “fight or flight”, and they are not in a space to learn a new skill.
Add the verbal cue: When your dog is already offering a quick glance toward the trigger, add a cue such as “Look!” Your dog will quickly start to look at his scary triggers when you give the “Look!” cue and turn back to you for a reward. Keep rewarding their bravery!
Keep sessions short and positive: Practice with a handful of 5-10 treats, then give them a break by ducking behind a car, increasing distance from the trigger, or going home. Practice this exercise until your dog is calmly looking for triggers in anticipation of the click. If your dog does not turn back to you quickly, they’re probably too close to the trigger for their comfort, or your reward isn’t high value enough. Increase the distance between you and the trigger and try again. Gradually decrease distance as
I know it may seem like you are reinforcing the reactive behavior, but it is quite the opposite. You are making the "looking" behavior into an operant task that when performed ends in a reward. This is the best way to manage your dogs behavior while creating positive associations and calmer behavior around the scary trigger.