Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 2

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).

Alma's Reactivity Matrix

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.

Alma

Alma

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.

Alma working on a sit-stay

Alma working on a sit-stay

Changing Pace

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.

Moses' take on exercise

Moses’ take on exercise

Hide-n-Seek

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….

Moses

Moses

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.

Schmidt demonstrates this technique

Schmidt demonstrates this technique

Complete Avoidance

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.

We all have those days from time to time

We all have those days from time to time

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?

This post is part of the Thursday Barks & Bytes Blog Hop, hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog. Go pay a visit to the hosts and check out other hop participants.

Barks&Bytes

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Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 1

I’ve mentioned before that Alma has some on-leash reactivity when we see other on-leash dogs, but I haven’t gone into any great detail about it. Well, now is as good a time as any.

(Soggy) Alma

(Soggy) Alma

But first things first; if my philosophy degree taught me anything, it’s this: define your terms!

Reactivity as I use it here is an umbrella term for any behaviour that results from stimuli, whether the reaction is a result of anxiety, aggression, fear, exuberance, stress, excitement… you name it. If your dog’s behaviour routinely suddenly changes in a manner that you need to/should address, they’re reactive.

Important: reactivity ≠ aggressive! Reactivity is a popular dog training buzzword these days, thanks in part to our favourite TV dog trainers, lending itself to be misused and misunderstood. Aggression is just one form of reactivity.

Alma’s reactivity is more of the stressed/exuberant form. She sees another dog on-leash and she’s excited to go greet and frustrated that she can’t, with both dogs being confined to leashes. The lack of control of the situation and her inability to do what she wants generates a reaction.

She can get excited to see off-leash dogs, too, but if she’s off-leash, there’s no problem. If she’s on-leash and the other dog is off-leash, still less of a reaction. Leashes – a necessity and important safety tool, certainly, but also a complicating factor in dog behaviour.

Alma’s reactivity is limited to dogs. We’re lucky that way. Cars, bikes, skateboards, birds, squirrels, hares, people, she’s all cool with or ignores.

There are four stages (I’ve decided) in which Alma’s reactivity manifests:

1. Mild Notice: Alma sees the other dog and watches them; her ears will perk up (as much as they do) and she’ll close her mouth, but she’ll continue to check in with you, too. Her body language is still loose and relaxed.

2. Intense Focus: She’s no longer regularly checking in with you; she’s focused on the other dog intently and starts anticipating what might be next; her body language is stiff and she’s panting heavily; she might start creeping out of the standard heel position we walk in.

3. Bouncing: Alma can no longer contain her excitement/anxiety; she’s still panting heavily and starts bouncing up and down beside you, which, when walking a 100lb Newfoundland is both odd and ridiculous. Strangely, she usually still maintains a loose leash and heel position.

Alma, Stage 3

Alma, Stage 3

4. The Hail Mary: Alma decides enough is enough and she’s going to try to take the situation into her own hands; she lunges in the direction of the target dog. You’ve pushed your luck with boundaries and thresholds if you let it get this far.

In addition to Alma’s reaction scale is a proximity scale. The proximity of the other on-leash dog to Alma impacts the intensity of her reaction.

My assessment of proximity comes from experience and working on this with Alma – the scale is very specific to her and can shift depending on the environment. It’s also shifted as we’ve worked on reducing her reactivity. But this is where I’m at today on my walks with her.

Too Close: The same sidewalk, a single-lane hiking trail, or basically within 5 metres/16 feet of the other dog (the length of two standard 6 foot leashes and their dogs, basically; greeting territory). The point on working with Alma on her reactivity is to diminish what is ‘too close’ so that it’s barely negligible. We’ve shrunk it, for sure, but we’ve still got work to do.

Close: Directly across the street (streets are about 40 feet/12 metres wide on average) or an equivalent distance in a green space or park.

Not Close: The dog is visible, but still off in the distance a bit. I’d say about a block/50m/165 feet away. Anything further away than this really isn’t an issue at all.

My last scale is the level of the distraction. This is based on what the other dog is doing, because in conjunction with proximity, the intensity of Alma’s reactivity is also heavily dependent upon what the other dog is doing.

Low: If the other dog is relaxed and mostly ignoring Alma, her reaction is substantially diminished. This means the other dog has loose body language, a loose leash, and isn’t giving her a lot of eye contact. There aren’t many of these dogs in our neighbourhood. Dogs walking away from us also lowers their level of distraction.

Medium: The dog is staring at Alma/giving a lot of eye contact, has stiff/erect body posture, and is moving in her direction. Consistent eye contact/staring from another dog is a key factor in whether or not Alma will react. Basically, the other dog is giving Alma intense focus, as I’ve described on her scale above.

High: The other dog is reacting: barking, pulling at the end of the leash, for example. Another dog overreacting to stimuli definitely encourages a reciprocal response from Alma. Dogs headed straight for us in close proximity are definitely a high distraction level.

Now, working in the corporate world, I do like my charts and graphs. Because who doesn’t love a good matrix, amiright?

So I’ve decided to take all of the rankings I just did when thinking about Alma’s reactivity and put them into a visual.

Behold! Alma’s Reactivity Matrix:

Alma's Reactivity Matrix

There you have it. Pretty rad, right?

Sure, this isn’t useful to anyone but me (I think even the Husband’s Alma Matrix would look a bit different), but I actually found working through this very interesting when characterizing Alma’s reactivity, her triggers, and prompting objective consideration about the whole thing. It really puts on paper where we’re at and where we want to be, and forces some specific reflection.

If you’re an analytical thinker with a reactive dog, I recommend giving this exercise a try.

I was going to continue on to discuss my responses to Alma’s reactivity and what I do to mitigate situations, but I think I’ve gone on long enough for today.

Stay tuned for Part 2!