‘Reactivity’ is the most commonly utilized word to describe a very wide range of behaviors displayed by our pet dogs when encountering a “trigger.” Some of the most common behaviors observed are barking, whining, growling, lunging, pulling on leash, jumping, spinning, mouthing the handler, or the inability to remain “calm” in the presence of a trigger.
Triggers vary between dogs but commonly include the presence of other dogs, strangers, and objects with wheels such as cars, bicycles, and skateboards. This list is not exhaustive and may include anything your dog has not encountered before or has encountered but in a way that was not positive as viewed by your dog. Encounters “on leash” often exacerbate these issues.
The aforementioned behaviors may be influenced by a variety of emotions including, fear, frustration, avoidance, and excitement (impulse control). Again, this list is not all-inclusive and we will rarely be able to say with confidence which emotion is responsible for the specific reaction we are observing at a particular moment. Luckily, we do need to know with certainty in order to help our dogs change how they feel and act in similar situations down the line.
Once we have a grasp of what “triggers” our dogs’ reactivity, it’s important to determine the THRESHOLDbetween what I’ll refer to as the states of “Thinking Brain” & “Reacting Brain”. When a dog is in the state of “Thinking Brain”, she can still respond to cues and perform behaviors even though her concern regarding a trigger may be increasing at the same time. This is where we can work with our dogs to reduce or eliminate over-reactive responses. Once the THRESHOLD is crossed, our dogs move into a state of “Reacting Brain”which I’ll compare to being in a more involuntary state or “auto-pilot”. Once they’re in auto-pilot, its best to set aside attempts to train and simply move away from the trigger until you have reached a distance where your dog is able to think again.
How do you determine your dog’s THRESHOLD? You probably already have a general idea if you recall the last time your dog over-reacted to another dog on leash. Maybe you noticed that your dog’s body language stiffened just a bit as she spotted a dog one block away but as you got to within a half a block, she began to bark and lunge in the dog’s direction. In this example, her threshold is somewhere between just over a block away (prior to the first sign of concern) and a half a block away. Keeping with this example, I’d suggest starting training 2 blocks away and decrease distance from there.
Now that you’ve determined a threshold to begin training, what does the actual behavior modification plan look like? There are many different techniques for working with reactive dogs. Most involve some degree of Counterconditioning (changing how your dog feels about a trigger). Many include reinforcing desired behaviors (alternatives to over-reacting) and some seek to set our dogs up to make better decisions on their own which in turn gives them some control over their own training.