Part II of our “Reactive Dog Series”
So you adopted a dog and he (or she) is GREAT at home. He settled in immediately and loves you and the tight little circle of people that he sees every day. He lives in perfect harmony with your other dogs and doesn’t seem to have a mean bone is his body… until you leave the house. Meeting new dogs and/or people is scary for your dog and stressful for both of you. When he gets scared, he either tries to run away or he gets defensive. Maybe he barks or snarls or growls at other dogs, or at strange people that he doesn’t know and trust. Maybe he shakes and pants and tucks his tail. When he’s pushed past his threshold, you’re not quite sure what may happen and you’re scared to find out. You have what people refer to as a “reactive dog.”
You’re embarrassed, you’re overwhelmed, so you find yourself going out less and less often and spending most of your time in your dog’s “safe space.” If only you knew how to break that boring routine and help your dog safely and confidently expand their little world.
I was that person and my rescued Heeler mix Ringo was that dog. In fact, he can still be that dog occasionally, but with training and love and PATIENCE he has become a much more confident, easy-going version of himself. He has slowly learned to show the world the sweet, kind, amazing dog that I know and love. Having a reactive dog doesn’t have to be a sentence to a life of isolation, for either of you.
12 Tips for Walking your Reactive Dog:
If you know me and my dog Ringo, you know that I am not a dog trainer, or some dog whisperer. I am just a caring dog owner who has been through the trenches in my own journey with my own reactive dog and picked up some tips and tricks along the way. When I first started working with Ringo and his fear-based issues, I wish I had someone to talk to, so I thought I’d share what’s worked for us. I strongly encourage you to seek out a trainer in your area to work one on one with you and your dog through this process, but here are some simple first steps that can really help. Or at least they did for us.
1. Lay the groundwork
Basic obedience training and a strong bond between you and your dog are really important, especially when tackling new or challenging obstacles. If your dog listens to you well and knows and regularly practices basic commands at home like sit and stay, you will have a good foundation to build on out in the world. If you’re lazy in your training and your dog only sits half the time at home, he probably will NOT do it when you want/need him to in a stressful situation.
Similarly, the stronger your bond with your dog, the more they trust you. The more they trust you, the more they will learn they can rely on you for direction and guidance when they are overwhelmed themselves.
2. Set your dog up for success
If you know your dog gets nervous out in public, you obviously don’t want to pick a town fair or a really crowded hiking trail to start working through his issues. Pick places that are less highly trafficked and go at times when there are bound to be less triggers for your dog. Less people, less other dogs, less noise and commotion.
For example, we started with walks around my neighborhood. We lived on a pretty quiet street, which was a perfect place to start. BUT I didn’t do his walks at 7-8 in the morning when kids were waiting for the bus or other people were walking their dogs before they went to work. Same thing applied when kids came home from school and right after 5pm when everyone was coming home. For us, that meant walks after 9 in the morning or evening walks after about 7 or 8pm when the streets were quieter.
The same goes for hiking trails. Don’t bring your fear reactive dog to the most popular state park in the area on Saturday at noon. Use common sense and give your dog the best chance you can to have a positive experience. If you don’t, you could be setting you and your dog up for a disastrous experience that only makes things worse, and in turn makes you not want to keep trying.
Have trouble finding less populated places to walk/hike with your dog in your area? Check out our recent post How to find places to hike with your dog (anywhere).
3. Anticipate triggers
You know your dog and you know what pushes their buttons, what makes them uncomfortable. Be aware when you’re out with your dog and anticipate possible triggers before they happen. Is there a big, loud dog coming down the sidewalk? See him before your dog does, or at least when your dog does, and give both of you the time to be ready when the trigger gets closer.
4. Replace, don’t reprimand
If your dog ends up in a situation that makes him uncomfortable, say a stranger tries to pet him without asking or another dog owner lets their dog get all up in his face… he’s already scared and uncomfortable. Don’t get frustrated by his fear response and reprimand him. That will just make a bad situation even worse for your dog. Instead, help him replace this unwanted behavior by giving him a new set of instructions.
For this, I taught Ringo the “look at me” command. Whenever he sees something scary, I tell him “look at me” and he shifts his gaze and his attention to my face. This does a few different things. 1. It stops the undesirable behavior. 2. It allows me to reward rather than reprimand. Now that he did what I told him to do, I get to give him treats and celebrate a positive behavior. 3. It teaches your dog a new way to react to a stressful situation. They learn that when they’re scared, they should look to you for direction and reassurance.
5. Develop a system
Dogs do best when they know what is expected of them, when they have core behaviors to fall back on when they’re stressed or overstimulated. This is where that basic obedience training comes in really handy. For example:
When we’re walking on the trail and see a hyper, out of control dog coming towards us, or a large group of people, we always do one of two things. If the trail is wide enough, we give them a wide berth and keep right on walking (while doing the “look at me” command” we just discussed). If it’s a tight spot that’s bound to make Ringo a bit more nervous, I step off the trail and Ringo sits at my feet, on the opposite side of me from the trigger. This gives Ringo some extra space from the thing that he’s scared of and also gives him something specific to do instead. Because he knows what to expect, I don’t have to call Ringo or coax him into coming with me, sitting, etc. He just does it, basically out of habit.
6. Set realistic expectations
This kind of goes hand in hand with #2, Set your dog up for success. Don’t think that the first time you decide to go out and walk your dog with a plan of helping him conquer his fears that he’s going to be perfect. It’s going to take time and patience. Remembering this will keep you both from lots of unnecessary frustration.
7. Reward desirable behaviors
Did you pass a dog/person that would normally cause a reaction and your dog just looked, but didn’t react in any other way? TREATS! and LOVE! and lots of “GOOD BOYS!” Do this EVERY SINGLE TIME, especially in the beginning. Doing this is shifting your attention from focusing on the things your dog does “wrong” to the things that he does right. You’re teaching your dog THIS TIME they did better and to keep doing whatever it is they just did.
8. Celebrate the little victories
Each and every baby step, every little sign of improvement, is a cause for celebration. If you walked around the neighborhood and your dog only reacted once, when yesterday they reacted twice, that’s PROGRESS! Don’t be upset that he didn’t do perfect, be happy that he did better. This is a marathon, not a sprint!
9. Advocate for your dog
You know what your dog needs, but not every other person you will meet will understand or respect those needs. If a person tries to reach over your dog and pet them without asking and you know that makes your dog nervous, STOP THEM. Do not be afraid to tell them no.
If a person is letting their dog run up to you off leash, yelling “my dog is friendly!” and your dog doesn’t react well in that situation…. tell them yours is not. Even if that’s not really true, it will give your dog the space they need, and frankly, deserve. Plus, it’s a lot easier to yell “MINE ISN’T!” than it is to yell “WELL MINE IS, BUT HE NEEDS PROPER INTRODUCTIONS AND DOESN’T LIKE BEING BUM RUSHED BY CRAZY DOGS HE DOESN’T KNOW WITH INCONSIDERATE OWNERS!” …which is what I would normally prefer to say, but you rarely have that amount of time. A bit of embarrassment is a small price to pay for your dog’s safety and well-being.
10. Stay Calm
Dogs are great because they “get you.” They know when you’re sad and need extra snuggles. They know when you’re not messing around and they really SHOULD drop that nasty ball before bringing it in the house. If you’re trying to help your dog overcome their fears and you’re afraid yourself, they pick up on that. Clear your mind, keep a positive outlook, have faith in your pup. If you tense up when you see your dog’s trigger approaching, so will they.
11. Make it fun!
Make sure that these outings aren’t all work and no play. It needs to be a positive experience for you and your dog and if you want them to willingly enter into the scary unknown with you again. If your dog likes the water, walk him by the lake and let him get his feet wet. Bring him to a new place with lots of smells to sniff. Bring his favorite rope toy and take a break mid-walk to play tug. Keep it light and fun!
12. End on a positive note
Go out, get some fresh air, do some training, but don’t overdo it. Don’t ask too much of your dog or yourself. If you’ve done a few blocks around the neighborhood and your dog is doing better than when you started, head home and leave it at that.
Out training somewhere and there are WAY more triggers than you thought? Go somewhere quieter and try again before throwing in the towel. Walking a busy trail and your dog is over threshold? Find a bench or a clearing a bit out of the way where you can both relax. Then, work on your “look at me” commands from a more tolerable distance.
Those are our 12 tips. I hope you find them helpful on your journey with your own pup.
If you don’t have a fearful or reactive dog of your own, I hope this helps provide a bit of insight on the struggle that many other dog owners face and helps you help them have a better experience out and about. Remember to give dogs you don’t know their space and respect their owners wishes and warnings.
For a bit more insight, please head over to Part I of our Reactive Dog Series “Off-Leash People” and Reactive Dogs to learn about my experiences on the trail with Ringo and some of the issues we are presented with daily.
Do you have a reactive dog or know someone who does? Do you have other tips that have helped you along the way? Or maybe you have a topic suggestion for our next post in this Reactive Dog Series. We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!
Debbie & Ringo