by Christie Lagally
As I sat in a specialized dog training class a few years ago, I was relieved that my dog Toby and I were not alone. We were there because Toby, my mix-breed pup, has a lot of trouble adapting to nearly every situation, and his stress turns from quiet distress to lunging and barking in an instant. Toby is considered a highly reactive dog, as were the other purebred and mix-breed dogs of all sizes at our “Reactive Rover” training class.
Since Toby’s reactive behavior started, I’ve learned that there are a variety of good techniques to help a reactive dog adjust and to help owners manage life with their reactive dog. Like my husband and me, many people are overwhelmed owning a dog who barks at passing cars, lunges at joggers and starts whining, yelping or snarling at the sight of another dog, a cat or a crow on a walk. These issues seemed like insurmountable challenges, but there is help to mitigate these symptoms.
Several dog-training companies in Seattle offer classes to help reactive dogs. I attended Reactive Rover with Companion Animals Solutions. Great Dog, a dog daycare and training company in the Northgate neighborhood, has a Reactive to Reliable class. I highly recommend attending such classes if you have a reactive dog, since the skills are best learned from a professional using dog-friendly, humane training techniques.
Missy Hughes is a canine educator at Great Dog. Hughes explains that its Reactive to Reliable class is an opportunity for dog parents and their dogs to learn skills in a safe environment. The class provides a separate space for each participant in a cubicle so the dogs can keep calm and only see other dogs when they are ready.
Hughes explains that the goal of reactive dog training is to help dogs learn to focus on their owners or other positive stimuli. Owners learn to read the body language of their dogs and to appropriately intervene before the dog runs over his or her anxiety threshold, which leads to reactivity. In the six-week course, owners and dogs learn desensitization techniques and counter-conditioning methods to teach dogs that situations that were once anxiety-provoking are now paired with positive things like treats or a favorite toy.
“We work to not get to the point of reactivity,” Hughes said.
Creating positive experiences
One of the most inherently stressful situations for most dogs — reactive or not — is going to see a veterinarian. Toby’s good health has limited his exposure to the veterinary office to just two visits in more than six years. Hence, this December, when it was time for a vaccine, I decided to get some help from my friend and local dog trainer, Colleen Wells, a fellow canine educator at Great Dog. In addition to joining Toby and me during our vet visit, Wells suggested several techniques for a successful vet appointment.
“This will be the time to have the best and tastiest high-value treats and plenty of them,” Wells explained. “Skip his dinner, or give him only part of it to make up for the extra treats he’ll get at the vet. He may not take them at first, since stressed-out dogs will often not take a treat, but when/if he does, we’ll know his stress level has reduced some. It’s a great barometer.”
Wells emphasized that giving high-value treats helps create a positive association with the veterinary office.
Ahead of time, I also informed my veterinarian, Dr. Julia McNeal at Maple Leaf Pet Corner, that Toby could do everything from snarling and lunging at her to giving kisses depending on his anxiety level. Thankfully, Dr. McNeal had worked with many difficult canine patients in the past, and our visit with Toby went well.
Too close for comfort
Walks can be particularly challenging for dogs like Toby because you never know what is around each corner. In the past, people have seen Toby with his cute, mismatched ears and oversized, puppy-like head and marched over to pet him. The unsuspecting human is shocked to get a barking dog in his or her face. This situation cannot be tolerated, so Toby now wears a red warning vest that reads, “Do not approach. In training,” in bright-yellow letters. This keeps most passersby away from him.
I also insist that people give Toby all the time he needs to warm up to them and not expect him to be a “friendly” dog. If people can follow these rules, they eventually find that they can make a lifelong friend in Toby.
Wells explained, “No one knows your dog better than you do, and if at any time you think the dog is being pushed too far beyond his limits, it’s your place to advocate for him and say something, even if it’s simply, ‘I think we need to take a break for a moment.’ This keeps everyone involved safe.”
CHRISTIE LAGALLY is a writer and the editor of Living Humane, a news site providing articles, op-eds and podcasts on humane-conscious lifestyles at livinghumane.com. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.