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Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

Everyone tells me my dog needs more socialization,
but she just keeps getting worse!
Sound familiar? One of the most
common reasons for calls to a trainer and one of
the two most likely to go unresolved, along with
separation anxiety, is what trainers and behaviorist
call reactive behavior. Dogs who intensely bark
and carry on at other dogs, people, passing cars
or bikes, the vacuum…..almost anything can be a
focus of this kind of seriously difficult and, often,
embarrassing and sometimes dangerous behavior.
Reactive behavior can start in very young
puppies or later in life, but very commonly in the
first year of life. Reactivity is a hugely common
reason for dogs to be given up by a family. It is
not only common by normal for this behavior to
exist in dogs who are not only friendly in many
circumstances but may be intensely loving and fun
with the family and other dogs in the household,
they may go to doggie daycare and may even be
the most engaged and playful dog there. They may
love the family cat which seeming to be on a mission
from God to kill every other furry little thing
on the planet.
Once given up these dogs are sometimes rather
quiet dogs in shelters, not necessarily showing their
problem behavior. If they end up in rescue it is
common for rescues to either not see the problem
behavior or undersell it or even completely not
mention it in their promotion of the dog. In general,
rescued dogs are often rather quiet in the first
few weeks they are in a new home and don’t show
signs of their worst behaviors. All of this often leads
to the family having just enough time to truly fall
in love with their new friend before the behavior
that likely put the dog into the rescue/shelter sys-
tem to begin with starts to rear its ugly head.
For puppy owners they are often stuck between
advice from trainers all over the web telling them
they must be sure to socialize the puppy as much
as possible and expose the dog to everything possible
vs veterinarians and breeders, especially in urban
areas, strongly recommending that the puppy
not get out in public spaces until all of its shots are
done and have a few weeks to take effect.
However the dog gets to the point of clearly
having a significant problem with reactivity the
owners get to enjoy being blamed by almost
everyone for not having raised the dog right and
then as they start to seek help, online or in person,
they get the joy of getting caught up in the civil, or
often uncivil, war in the dog training community
over how to deal with dogs with problem behaviors.
One group is telling them they must punish
everything, the other group telling them they must
punish nothing and so it goes. Both groups of
trainers tend to end up largely focusing on how to
control the dog one way or another without really
knowing how to change the dog.
The really good news is that these dogs are
often not as beyond help as many believe or as the
experience of many owners would demonstrate.
And even better, they can be helped in ways that
don’t require intense obedience training and which
bring out the best in the dog, not suppress it.
Methods which emphasize good safety
protocols to keep the dog from getting in more
trouble, teach the dog how to earn rewards for
simple, natural behaviors, teach the dog how to
become calm and find comfort in calmness (much
like human yoga and meditation practices) and
help the dog, through calmness, to see the focus of
its reactivity as something normal, safe and even
good, can really change the dog’s world…and open
up the world to the dog.
A couple of very important things can really
help the reactive dog and its family. First, get over
the idea that the dog needs more “socialization”.
All “socialization” means in most cases is repeatedly
exposing the dog with problems to what it
is already afraid of, aggressive toward or reactive
toward…..in best cases with rewards being offered
that the dog typically is too wound up to be able to
take. Stop, right now, putting the dog in situations
that drive it to exactly the behavior you are
trying to change! Second, recognize that you and
your dog need to learn how to communicate and
change behavior in the easiest situations possible,
not the most difficult. That generally means that
you’ll need to start learning how to teach the dog
new behavior that doesn’t seem to have anything
to do with the problem that is driving you to seek
help to begin with. YOU need to learn how to
teach behavior while the dog is learning from you.
While almost every owner would be more
than happy to never need to learn how to train
their dog, it turns out that doing so can actually be
really fascinating, often fun and lead to an amazing
relationship with your dog AND, in many ways,
take far less effort than you might think. Teaching
the dog simple ideas like: all kinds of things that
happen in the world around it lead to you noticing
what she notices and that can lead to rewards, how
to relax at times that it would normally be excited,
and that being calm can feel good and lead to rewards…..
are you getting a hint, rewards can be REALLY
helpful in changing this type of behavior……
but you also have to learn to set limits for the dog.
Simple things like teaching the dog it can’t just run
out the door or drag you around on the leash can
be real cornerstones of self-control that can turn
moments of explosive and uncontrolled behavior
into opportunities to help the dog learn to be calm
and happy at these times.
If you are calm and consistent and keep the level
of challenge low enough success will be easy for
you and the dog. Often a simple way to do some of
this work is with an internet connected TV in your
living room. Go to YouTube or other sites that have
video of whatever gets your dog excited. If possible,
start with things that get the dog excited but are not
the most exciting things to them (video of calm cats
perhaps rather than starting with video of crazy
squirrels for a dog that likes to chase small animals).
The great thing about using an internet connected
TV with good speakers (although you may be able
to do good work with just a tablet and a cheap
Bluetooth speaker) is that for the first time YOU
will be in control of what the dog will be exposed
to. YOU can start and stop the video. YOU can
control or mute the sound. YOU can make just a
very brief exposure that is proceeded by teaching
calmness and rewards and the low level exposure
quickly leads to calmness and rewards!
There are a lot of great ideas and tools that a
good trainer can share with you and how to use
them to help your furry friend. Don’t give up on
these dogs and don’t allow your pet and your
family to have your lives be one of restriction
and imprisonment. Reach out and get some high
quality help and very soon your life and your
pet’s can s tart to be the joy you hoped it would
be when you decided to bring her into your
home and life!
VCA Alexandria Animal Hospital
2660 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
www.vcaalexandria.com
Main Line 703-751-2022
Emergency Line 703-823-3601
Now seeing Sunday appointments!
By Mark McCabe



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