Finding Peace with a Reactive Pup

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Let’s be HONEST here, it’s NOT easy living with a reactive dog, especially when you are first starting out. Now that Oreo and I have been on this journey around 4 years recognizing her reactivity, training, and managing it, we find peace more often than years ago. Although this picture might not look PEACEFUL, it in fact is one of sheer joy for Oreo. Today it snowed more than 10 inches on top of 15 already, creating a winter wonderful for furry fidos. While some dogs don’t like the snow, Oreo LOVES it! What makes this time even better is she & I have no worries-NO DOGS OUT, STRANGERS, SQUIRRELS, OR ANYTHING FOR HER TO REACT TO!

Finding peace can be difficult if you are just starting out or in the midst of training. Peace won’t come to you, YOU HAVE TO FIND IT.  Sometimes, you even need to CREATE IT.

Here are some ways that I found peace in the past or present with a reactive dog, I hope these may help you:

Walking-if you love it, find somewhere your dog will not come in contact with many triggers. I’m not saying avoid triggers forever because as you know in training your dog may need to see a trigger (example : another dog) from a distance and accept treats. However, your dog also needs peace and definitely needs days to calm down after a stressful event.

Where can I go walking, I live in a busy neighborhood/apartment/condo/city?

  • Find an empty parking lot. I’ve walked Oreo around school yards on off seasons, company parking lots, and even parking lots of grocery stores that are out of business.
  • Find a large, open space park. Some of my favorite parks were located near my condo where we used to live. After Oreo got attacked I couldn’t/wouldn’t walk her through our neighborhood. She froze up out of fear and quite frankly so did I walking around our neighborhood unaware when the next loose dog would attack. We found 2 favorite parks. Both parks weren’t super busy, and if one was busy, we went to the other. Both had lots of open fields, sports fields, and many exits. They both had various walking paths but also grassy areas we could cut through to avoid dogs or other triggers.
  • Tennis courts. I’m not saying go into a tennis court that has a sign NO DOGS, but I am saying if you are lucky enough to have a neighborhood tennis court like we did, they are a great place to have your dog off leash if no one is around. Oreo loved her time running free, chasing tennis balls. We also practiced recall, my husband and I on separate sides of the court, calling her and rewarding her.

Inside Your House-Depending on your dog’s reactivity, you may be able to find peace in the home.

  • Close the shades, put up window film, whatever works. If your dog is reactive when looking outside, don’t let them. If you aren’t working on training-don’t let your pup learn to bark at triggers (they will think they made the mailman/squirrel/dog go away).
  • Turn on the tv, radio, a white noise machine or fan. We always leave a fan running at night because our neighbor’s dog that barks. If the fan is off, Oreo will bark. If the fan is on, we sleep through the night.
  • Make a safe place for your dog, especially if you have kids. It could be a crate, a dog bed, or a gated area or room where your dog can go to feel safe and relax. This is also a good place for you to find peace if someone arrives or you feel your dog can’t handle a stressful situation, have them go to the peaceful place.

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My personal favorite time to find peace with my pup is walking in the neighborhood while snow is falling with no one is around. This is a time Oreo and I can do something we loved without fear of dog attacks, while everyone else is bundled up inside we are being adventurous in the snow 🙂

No matter how much stress you or your pup is in, it’s always important to cool down and FIND PEACE or MAKE IT. Reactive dog parents go through a lot of stress, take some time for you and your pup to relax!

GO TO YOUR BED!

Remember when you were a kid, got in trouble and your parents told you to “GO TO YOUR BED (or room)!” Well, instead of a negative thing, sending your dog to their bed is a very positive trick, giving your dog confidence, routine, and a calm corner to relax.

I am revisiting an old trick I haven’t practiced in a while-sending my dog to her “bed”. This can be very important for all dogs, especially fearful dogs. There are many dogs who need a “cool down” or “calm” area, away from kids, stress and distractions. There are many dogs that can be possessive of space-they don’t like when you are too close walking by or need a space where no one can bother them when they are tired. Perhaps they need a space to go when the door bell is suddenly rang by someone delivering a package. Dog beds can be used as a safe space, a place to rest, to eat bones, and to practice routine.

Oreo, my reactive dog does not enjoy guests unless they are close family she is very familiar with such as my parents or sister. If someone like a delivery man approaches the door the usual reaction is barking and pacing. My goal is to give her something to do-SOMETHING ELSE besides reacting in an undesirable way. This can be very helpful if you have the bed behind a dog gate, once your dog goes in there to their bed, you simply treat, close the gate and answer the door.

Does your dog jump up, beg, or stare you down while you are eating? Mine doesn’t always, but after some trips to her grandparents house where they fed her some food from the table, she developed some habits which are fine, but can be solved with a dog bed. Instead of staring at us, she will learn to go lay down on her bed and relax, that will keep her calm and she will be rewarded with a treat there, but not from the table.

Do you have kids or even a spouse or friend who makes you nervous around your dog? Well, if you are nervous that your dog will react the wrong way-think of how your dog feels! A simple way to solve this problem is to teach anyone who comes into your house that the dog bed area is off limits-a dog gate would even be better so they CAN’T get to them. If you are nervous or you see your fearful dog is nervous-send them to their bed. They will feel more confident for completing the trick.

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Okay, enough with the many reasons, let’s learn how to send them to their bed. There are two different ways.

Way 1: 

1. Decide on what you would like to call your trick-“Go to bed,” “Go to mat,” “Go to cushion” and so on. We always taught her bed is when she travels into our room at night, and my husband’s name is Matt-so that won’t work. We picked “Go to cushion.” Go near the dog bed and say “Go to bed,” and place a treat there or lure your pup with a treat.  Use a clicker or a word maker like “Yes!” when your pup is on the bed (release the treat if you are holding it for your pup to eat).

2. Encourage your dog to lay on the bed by saying “down” or whatever word you use for that trick. When they lay down click or say yes and treat. It’s best to teach them to lay on the bed, this way they can relax and you may want to continue to teach them more to the trick-like staying on the bed for periods of time.

3. Continue practicing having your pup on the bed by saying, “Go to bed” before they actually are on the bed. Use a treat to lure them and they will associate the bed with the signal “Go to bed.”

4. When they seem to get this, start asking them to “Go to bed” without the lure sometimes. Eventually, with practice you can fade the use of luring, and treat after they do the trick. They will no longer need to even know you have a treat. You can practice this from short distances and work your way up to more challenging tasks like having your dog “Go to bed” when you are in any area of your house. Eventually you can have them “Go to bed” with many different distractions happening at once.

Way 2:

1. If you like shaping or “catching your dog in the act,” this is the way for you. When you see your dog do anything near the dog bed (look at it, step on it, sit on it, stand on it, get near it) you click and treat.

2. You continue this “game” until your dog starts to realize good things are happening near the dog bed. Eventually your pup will realize being on the bed is when brings treats. You can continue shaping to add a sit or lay down.

Whatever way you chose, the trick not only helps your dog stay calm, but can help keep your dog safe. I will continue working with my pup on this and let you know how it goes! If you have taught your dog this trick, how did it work out?

Counter Conditioning-Cool!!

The ASPCA defines counter conditioning as “re-teaching the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked.” Counter conditioning is VERY valuable in training, especially with fearful dogs. Here’s how it works:

1. Identify what your dog is fearful of (men in hats, skateboards, large brown dogs, and so on)

2. Get yummy treats (cheese, chicken, steak, something special).

3. Expose your dog to their fear in a controlled environment (ask a friend to help or do training at class). If not, then go somewhere your dog can see/experience the fearful event at a very safe and far distance.

4. Make sure you expose them at a far distance. If you were fearful of snakes would you want a snake thrown on you? NO! You would start seeing it at a distance first. You need to figure out what your dog’s threshold is. Do they get scared of a dog 50 feet away? 20 feet? 10 feet? When does your dog go from being confident to being worried to completely losing it (barking, snarling, hiding)? You want to find the point when your dog is a little worried, but not losing it.

5. When you have your distance, give your pup those yummy treats when she/he sees that scary thing. Don’t give it to them when the scary thing is gone, only when it’s there. You want your pup to associate the GOOD TREAT with something scary-this way your dog will come to have a neutral or positive reaction towards it. Example: You work on looking at dogs at a distance. Your dog gets nervous 30 feet away. You bring your dog to a park and see a dog 30 feet away. Your dog looks at the dog, you click (use a clicker or a word to signal food), then deliver the treat. You work on this for days, weeks, or even months depending on how well your dog does. Eventually your dog sees a dog and looks up at you-YAY! Your dog EXPECTS GOOD THINGS when they see other dogs!

6. Once your dog is okay at a certain distance, get closer. So now we move to 25ft away instead of 30. We work on this the same way with treats until the dog expects treats at this level and doesn’t show signs of being overly nervous.

7. Continue until you get closer. Not all dogs are meant to get super close to other dogs or what they fear. Don’t push the dog TOO MUCH. Take baby steps & think of what your dog needs. Does your dog NEED to be close to other dogs all the time? Does your dog need to greet dogs? I know my dog was attacked by another dog and isn’t comfortable playing or greeting other dogs. Has she greeted them since the attack and through training? Yes she has, however, I don’t feel the need to push her anymore-She’s okay with them being 10ft + away, and that works for both of us.

Counter conditioning allows your dog to associate something scary with something good. This turns something horrifying into something yummy and fun. When Oreo finds something scary she knows where to look-at me for yummy treats and we keep moving on our walks.

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Where to go?

I remember when I first started my journey with my reactive dog. We are still living in the same place, but she is much more confident now. If you haven’t read before-we live in high density condos. It’s VERY hard to avoid people and dogs on walks. In fact, it’s EXTREMELY difficult to avoid people and dogs just going out the front or back door!

All reactive dogs need at least 2 weeks of calm. This should be a time before training starts, ensuring the dog’s levels of stress have deflated. Getting your dog’s stress down can be challenging. When we were trying to maintain an environment of calm we did many things.

  • If your dog barks at people or other dogs outside-close the shades and doors. I have even seen people put special window peels so it make it more difficult for the dog to see outside.
  • Put on a radio or tv so your dog does not hear people or dogs outside. This will also help to drown out the noise of doors slamming.
  • Take your dog to other places. I avoided walking my dog around the neighborhood. Not only because she was attacked there, but because of all the people and dogs. Take your dog to the park, one that is VERY open and not crowded. If a park is not available find an empty parking lot after hours. You could also walk your dog early in the morning or late at night. Find school parking lots or playgrounds that are empty (after school is out). Walk your dog on unused soccer fields. Always take treats with you just in case you run into any trouble.
  • If your dog is reactive while in the car keep him or her in a crate. Otherwise make it so they can’t see out.
  • Play games and have fun with your dog.
  • Do not invite people over that your dog is not comfortable with. Basically, don’t put your dog in situations where they will be stressed.
  • Avoid bringing your dog to parties or crowded areas.

If you don’t give your dog days, or at least 2 weeks to calm down, it will be difficult for your dog’s stress level to return to normal. Therefore, it will be difficult to train them. It seems like a lot of work, and it is, but it is definitely worth it. You WILL see a positive difference if you are using positive training!