Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 2
May 15, 2014 30 Comments
In case you missed it, check out Part 1 here.
So, I’ve been discussing Alma’s on-leash reactivity when seeing other on-leash dogs.
In an effort to fully assess everything, I developed what I’m now calling Alma’s Reactivity Matrix (details in part 1).
The point of this is to help assess where we’re at, and where we need to go for all of those boxes to turn green. Or at least yellow – I’d be happy with yellow. And I think green is noble, but probably unrealistic for almost any dog, considering that top right box. But hey, if you’re truly there: kudos. I call Moses our ‘perfect’ dog, but if I did this for him, even his matrix wouldn’t be 100% green.
So, Alma’s reactive. What am I doing about it?
Well, where the situation falls in the matrix really determines my response.
Getting a ‘Hail Mary’ lunging reaction from her is never the goal. If she does that, it’s a clear sign that the situation is too much for her (not to mention it’s not fun to deal with and can often been stressful and embarrassing for me, too).
And the green boxes – while totally awesome – aren’t learning opportunities (for this issue, anyway).
So that leaves me in yellow and orange – preferably yellow, but depending on the environment, it can be a very fine line between the two.
Yellow is the perfect learning opportunity – she’s aware of the other dog, but hasn’t lost her mind. She’s still paying attention to me and what I’m doing. I can experiment with proximity and gauge her reaction. If she stays calm, I can reduce distance (which is really what she wants in these situations – she wants to get closer and greet the other dog) and reward calmness.
If she starts to get more excited, we can pause, distract, or create more distance – this both relieves any anxiety or stress she may have about the situation and communicates that her exuberance doesn’t get her what she wants (which is to greet).
And we’ve seen some success. When we first learned Alma was reactive after adopting her, our definitions of proximity were much different – ‘too close’ was way farther away. But, as with all training, over time and as you have success you need to constantly redefine your goals – or redesign your matrix, as it were.
So here are a few of the strategies I’ve employed with Alma.
Note: our standard walking position is always at heel with a loose leash – Alma always walks in stride beside me on a regular 2 metre/6 foot leash. None of this pulling/flexi-leash business. We’ve walked like this since we adopted her, and it’s routine now. She pulls when she’s attached to the cart – that’s it. So the underlying context of these strategies is that she’s close and always starting in a loose leash/heel position.
The Sit & Wait
Only useful when we’re in the yellow and Alma’s “intensely focused”. Obviously asking her to sit if she’s bouncing or lunging and completely overwhelmed isn’t a good option. It just won’t work; she won’t even hear the word. But when she’s still in tune with me, asking her to sit can be a great distraction.
But this is only if the proximity will never get too close. But if the dog is across the street, we’re usually fine.
Often, if the dog is approaching, I’ll have her sit with her back towards the dog and facing me. Then I’m still able to keep an eye on the other dog and owner, and Alma has to strain a bit to watch them – it’s harder for her to really focus on them looking over her shoulder. Once they pass, we continue on our way.
Also useful in the yellow sections. This mostly means speeding up to jog past the distracting dog. If we’re moving quickly, Alma has to pay attention to me and where I’m going. Sure, she gets a little excited with the faster movement, but it’s excitement about me and what I’m doing, it’s not reactivity based on the other dog’s presence.
Unfortunately, if Moses is there too this doesn’t work as well. It’s like jogging with a piano tied to your ass. He’s got one walk speed – lumbering – and he likes it that way.
If we’ve gotten to the orange section – or I think we might get there – I’m not above waiting behind a parked car for the distraction to pass. I’ve also definitely used this to gain some reprieve after Alma goes for a ‘Hail Mary’ too. Sure, the other owner might think I’m nuts, but that’s their problem, not mine.
Changes of Direction
I’ll use this in both the yellow and orange boxes – if I notice Alma’s escalated to orange (bouncing), my first step is always to change direction, create distance and get some focus back on me.
Back and forth direction changes while another dog is gaining proximity is a great way, I’ve found, to keep Alma in the yellow while distance is closing in. She’ll still keep an eye on them, but we’re able to create a situation where she knows they’re there and getting closer, but is still paying attention to me and staying relatively calm.
Even a quick left or right is helpful to maintain focus and calm, while creating some distance between us and the other dog.
Dr. Sophia Yin has this really great resource on changing direction (and speed), which I would highly recommend checking out by visiting this link.
Caution: if you’re walking two dogs, pay attention to where your other dog – and their leash – is, before you just suddenly change direction and potentially walk into them. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything….
Get the Hell Outta There
In the orange – and definitely in the red – my strategy is simple: leave.
Alma weighs about 100lbs. If she’s lunging for another dog, my best option is just to head the other way and create as much distance between her and the dog as necessary to get her to let go of her focus on the dog and pay attention to me again.
Especially because, in my experience, the other dog’s owner isn’t going to be much help. Upon seeing Alma get excited and bounce (orange), people have stopped and watched, or decided it’s a good time to try to talk to us. To that I say: WTF! Keep it moving, nothing to see here.
Say we’re in the green, or not even in a situation covered in the matrix. I see another dog way on the horizon way before Alma’s even aware of them, and instead of continuing on in that direction, I’ll just head the other way.
Do we learn anything here? Nope. Reactions are prevented, sure, but this does nothing to help Alma work through it.
But you know what? Sometimes that’s okay.
Sometimes. It’s not a beneficial tactic to take all the time – or often – because you won’t improve, but everyone has days where they’re just not up for it. You’re tired, or sick, or just not of the capacity to deal with a reactive dog. That’s fine.
It’s hard work! It can be stressful and frustrating and embarrassing, and I admit there are nights when I’m just not interested. Rather than put myself – and Alma – in a situation that might not go well if I’m not up for it, I just won’t.
Granted, it’s mostly unavoidable; we live in the ‘burbs and see other on-leash dogs on almost all of our walks, so it’s always better to be prepared and optimistic than resigned (a certain amount of dog training, like anything, is a self-fulfilling prophecy).
But it’s still okay to take the odd night off. (Not from walking! Just from reactivity.)
And that’s about it.
There are lots of ways to work with a reactive dog; these are the ones I’ve found to work for Alma.
But, like I said, this is Alma-specific. This could be the completely wrong or unhelpful approach for a different dog. All reactive dogs – their triggers, their reactions, their owners, and their environments – are different.
So this isn’t advice. Or data. It’s an anecdote. Take from it what you will.
In the meantime, Alma and I will continue working to change the colours of those red and orange boxes.
What about you? Are you dealing with a reactive dog? What strategies do you find helpful?