Dog-to-Dog Reactivity

Four simple steps to curb your dog’s reactive behaviour toward other dogs.

Brownie, a shy shepherd cross with the kindest eyes, was one of those foster dogs that you just don’t ever forget. She was so perfect in nearly every way, except I dreaded taking her out for walks. As soon as another dog came into view, she switched on the drama. That is to say, Brownie’s response to the innocent passersby included vicious snarling, relentless lunging, and aggressive barking.

Sometimes I think that dog training would be so much easier if we weren’t caught up in worrying about what other people think. But our dogs do have a way of making us feel varying degrees of embarrassment, don’t they? Therefore, I succumbed to feelings of mortification, and I wondered what my neighbours thought about me and my ‘bad’ dog. I wanted to chastise Brownie so they would at least see me doing something about her undesirable behaviour. After all, the typical and expected response is to follow with a verbal barrage of ‘no!’ and ‘bad dog!’. However, I did the exact opposite. There I was, rapid-firing treats into her mouth and singing her praises while receiving more than a few strange looks from my neighbours.

Why was I rewarding ‘bad’ behaviour? Counterintuitive as it may seem, I was by no means reinforcing her barking and growling response to other dogs. So, let me explain my bizarre response to Brownie’s barking using a step-by-step guide for you to follow.

FOUR STEPS TO CHANGING YOUR ‘BARKING-BROWNIE’S’ REACTION TO OTHER DOGS.

  1. Set-up practice scenarios with friends and family who already have a social and friendly dog.
  2. Keep your Barking-Brownie under-threshold.
  3. Use behaviour modification activities like ‘Look at That’ to create an appropriate response toward other dogs.
  4. Keep training sessions positive regardless of your dog’s behaviour.

step 1: Set up practice scenarios with friends and family who already have a social and friendly dog.

Set up scenarios with someone who already has a well socialized dog – this is your ‘helper dog’. No dogs in your social circle? There are usually lots of local online communities for dog owners that you can post on to see if anyone is willing to give you a hand.

step 2: Keep your barking-brownie under threshold.

Keep a comfortable distance between Barking-Brownie and other dogs while you work on modifying her reactivity. This is called keeping your dog ‘under threshold’, and here are some tips to help you identify when she is under threshold:

  • She has loose and relaxed body language.
  • You are able to call her attention back easily.
  • She is still taking treats from you.

She is over threshold when she is in full reactive mode. Here are some tips to help you identify when he is over threshold:

  • Her body language is stiff.
  • Her mouth is closed and tight.
  • She is staring at the other dog.
  • She may already be lunging, barking, and growling.
  • It is challenging or impossible to get her attention back.
  • She is no longer taking treats from you, or she is taking treats with a hard mouth (this is a good indicator that your dog is stressed).

It is nearly impossible to modify behaviour when your canine is already over threshold. So if you know Barking-Brownie starts barking when she sees another dog from one block away, always do your best to stay one block {and three steps} away from other dogs when possible. Especially important when you’re conducting training sessions.

step 3: Use behavior modification activities like ‘Look at That’ to create an appropriate response toward other dogs.

Time to put an exercise called ‘Look at that’ into play.  When Dog A looks at Dog B, mark this behaviour with a ‘yes’ and then quickly follow up with a high-value treat. When I say high value, think pea-sized pieces of steak, chicken, hot dogs, cheese, etc.

If you say ‘yes’ and your dog does not immediately return her gaze back to you, you can place the treat in front of her nose and use it to lure her eye contact back to you.

After 10-15 sequences, give your dog the opportunity to look back at you without immediately prompting her with a ‘yes’. If she looks back at you, great! Mark the behaviour with a ‘yes!’ and treat. If she doesn’t look back at you within 3 seconds, prompt her as you did previously.

Is she is reliably offering ‘automatic eye contact’ after looking at Dog B yet? Good! Try taking 1-2 steps forward. The goal is to very gradually close the gap between Dog A & Dog B, but this could take multiple sessions. Don’t rush it. The end result is worth it.

step 4: Keep training sessions positive regardless of your dog’s behaviour.

Okay, admit it – you’re probably thinking that my advice is all well and good until you suddenly find yourself faced with your neighbour and her perfectly well-behaved Great Dane. Boom! Barking-Brownie is suddenly snarling and lunging towards the unsuspecting pair, and all you want to do is hide behind the nearest tree in shame. I get it.

Do your best to stay calm, and move Barking-Brownie in the opposite direction. Distract your dog as much as possible during your exit – using praise and treats as you briskly walk or jog away.

Above all else, we want our canine companion to see that other dogs predict good things. Regardless of the behaviour you’re seeing from your dog, do your best to reflect the behaviour that you would like to see from her.

I made this video to demonstrate exactly what I mean!

Also read: Facilitating Safe & Successful dog-to-dog intros.

Thanks for stopping by!

Love, Sammy & Bear
xx

Integrating a new dog into your multi-dog household

The secret to having a peaceful and happy pack is all in how you manage your environment and expectations.

Bear & Honey went together like… well, Bears & Honey, but it wasn’t always that way.

Dogs are pack animals, right? So then, isn’t it fair to expect a harmonious pack right off the bat? I mean, initial introductions went considerably well, not to mention your dog is always so gleeful to meet other dogs at the park or on walks. You picture that same glee on Molly’s face when you bring Titan home for good, anticipating hours of chase, wrestling, and group naps. Except – despite the evidence and logic that supports otherwise, our expectations need a serious wake-up call.

“Did you really think this is what I wanted, mom?!!” – Bear


So, let us get on with it, and wake-up then. What are some realistic expectations, and how do we promote good PR (Puppy Relations)? You’ve already facilitated safe and slow introductions, as detailed here. What’s next?

Use barriers, crates, or baby gates to keep the pack separate from the new kid for the first few days.

When a dog is moved to a new home, they are introduced to a new routine, family, rules, and environment that they are unfamiliar with, and this can be very stressful as they try to navigate their new life. For these reasons, it’s not uncommon for your new companion to experience something referred to as a ‘stress event,’ which triggers a release of various stress hormones including cortisol. Your dog can remain in this state for up to 3 days, and any further stressful events could escalate reactive behaviour. Think about the implications of having a dog chalked full of adrenaline and cortisol figuring out his place in the pack. It’s not a happy picture.

That’s not to say there aren’t some activities you can’t do to set the stage for a peaceful and trusting pack while invoking the 3-day rule of separation.

Group hand feeding:helps create a strong positive association between the pack, and also helps teach them patience and focus. Take turns giving each pup a piece of kibble, using barriers and/or leashes to keep everyone safe and respectful.

Group walks: allows the pack to acclimate to one another without the pressure and confrontation of direct greetings. The newbie should have his own walker.

Remove prized possessions from common areas.

When you are ready to grant your new furry family member access to the rest of the pack and house, it’s important to remove toys, beds, food, and anything else your dogs may covet, from shared areas. Feed your new dog in his own separate space, and enforce the same rule of separation when they are given chews or toys. This will help prevent spats over possessions and territory. After a few weeks, you can gradually re-introduce toys while you are actively supervising your pack.

The new dog should still be kept separate from the rest of the pack when they are not being supervised.

Keep the dogs confined in separate areas of your home any time you are away or can’t watch them. It can take weeks, if not months before your pack finds their groove. It’s good practice to separate the new guy even when you are home from every now and again, to give everyone some quiet time, especially if it seems one dog is not matching the other dog’s energy level. Breaks are a proactive way to prevent disputes and stress. You should still expect tiffs over jealousy, territory, and status. It’s all normal behaviour and part of the integration process. Think about the people that you have cohabitated with over the years. Did you always get along with them? No amount of baby gates or group walks will save my husband when he has taken the last bit of ice cream, and we have shared the same roof for years now!

In Summary:

1. Facilitate safe and managed introductions, as detailed here.
2. Invoke the 3-day of separation rule, and promote good PR (group hand feeding and group walks).
3. Remove prized possessions from common areas.
4. Invoke the rule of separation when you are not there to supervise the pack.

Thanks for stopping by!

Love, Sammy & Bear
xx