Where the Wild Things Were

On a chilly morning around 6:30 a.m. I walked my gorgeous new greyhounds down the street to a neighborhood park about a half mile away.  “They sure look spectacular,” I thought to myself, “what a couple of beauties!”  I hadn’t had time to learn much about them since I had just got them from the rescue the day before and the two of them were strangers to one another.  I adopted these two before Homestretch was in existence.  “So far so good, sniff, sniff, pee, pee, it’s gonna be a nice day!”  Then, out of nowhere a guy innocently doing the very same thing with his dogs, appeared on the other side of the street.  Before he could get out his neighborly, “Good morning!” greeting to us, all greyhound hell broke loose!  My two new hounds reacted to the other dogs with power!  Teeth bared, lunging, fur up, noise!  WHAT?!  Was that barking and growling I heard?  Ack!  My bubble had burst!  I thought, “Let me get this straight.  I’ve just adopted not one but two Cujo wannabes?!”  What are the odds!  Of course one was much worse (Corsa) and one was the willing understudy (Manx), and as we know, all diligent understudies can headline with enough rehearsal!  Not Good!  So went day one of our tour with Corsa and Manx.  They were so outraged by the sight of the other dogs, that they did what we trainers call, “redirect” on one another.  Nice!  (not really).  Redirected aggression occurs when dogs spike so high in their state of arousal that the pent up energy must get out of their bodies, so they turn on the nearest creature around.  In this case Corsa and Manx were engaged in an impressive display of war, much to my surprise, on each other.  It looked and sounded much worse than it really was and thankfully didn’t last long.  Of course at that point MY negative energy was spiking!  My neighbor had a look of sheer horror on his face and I was unable to eek out the return, “Good morning.”  Not quite the ambassadors for the breed I’d romantically envisioned.  I knew that if I didn’t get this ugly behavior under control and fast, it would probably get worse over time.

If this story sounds familiar to you, please take comfort in the fact that you can prevail!  Imagine a perfect world where we could teach Fido that the sheer presence of other dogs makes it rain delicious treats!  Picture your dog getting happy when another dog approaches, instead of getting upset.  It’s possible!  I’ve had great success using a combination of positive-based approaches to find and tame the “wild things,” both for my dogs and my clients’ dogs alike.

Lets begin by taking a look at the graph which depicts what is going on with your dog prior to and when they get “wild” or “reactive” toward another creature — be it dog, cat, rabbit, etc.  For the purposes of this article let’s focus on reactivity to other dogs and let’s assume that the dog we are talking about is a male.  On the left side of the bell curve, he is calm and can respond to known cues.  When he becomes “reactive” (translation:  freaks out at another dog) he escalates up the curve based on what is going on when he sees the other dog.  Proximity, movement, speed and activity are all factors that impact whether or not he summits to the peak of the “wild thing” reactivity curve.  If he does, he physically cannot respond to you.  There are several chemicals/hormones being released into his blood (adrenaline, cortisol, etc…) at that moment, that he is physiologically incapable of hearing you let alone “minding.”  Where do you think most people notice and attempt to address the situation?  Where it is über-obvious, at the top of the curve!  As humans, we need to become proficient at seeing what our dogs are doing and identifying stress indicators such as increased breathing rate, dilated eyes, hackles up and so forth BEFORE they peak at the top of their reactivity threshold.  Easier said than done and technically that’s called “defining the threshold.”  Exactly how near or far to the other dog can your dog get before he “launches?”  Once we define that, we can work just on the safe side of that “boundary” and reward calm behavior.  What does calm behavior look like?  You need to know what you are looking for before you start!  Calm behavior 101 is when a dog perceives another dog and can remain quiet, maintain a normal breathing pattern, and can keep all paws on the ground.  The next level beyond that is a dog that can also momentarily look away from the other dog and at you.  The next level beyond that is a dog that can respond to a known cue within sight of a strange dog.  The key is to begin rewarding calm behavior before your dog escalates up the curve.  We need to be extra careful not to reward reactive behavior (at the top of the curve) or we will be reinforcing the reactivity itself, which is the last thing we want to do!

My trusted guides in this process are three of my favorite books written by two of my favorite experts in the field.  Patricia McConnell’s Cautious Canine and Feisty Fido plus Emma Parson’s Click to Calm are excellent references.   You can find all three of these books at www.dogwise.com .

Points to Ponder:
Safety First!  Are you confident you can hold on to your dog to prevent injury or death to other animals?  Is your equipment in good condition and properly fit?

What triggers your dog to become reactive?  You’ll need to know so make a list.  For my hounds it was other dogs, cats and wild rabbits, which are common in our neighborhood.

What does your dog like?  Tasty treats, a favorite toy?  Withhold these items from your dog’s normal daily life.  (Meanie!)  Bring these items out only when you are working on creating calm manners around other dogs.

How close can you get to the other dog and have your dog maintain calm behavior?  This is known as defining the threshold.  Once you have defined the “calm zone” in proximity to other dogs, you can begin working on rewarding calm behavior within it.  This is really important to determine, because you will not be successful at this if you try to do it when the dog is at its peak of reactivity.  There, your dog cannot process any messages from you.

The plan is to pair treats with the presence of a strange dog at a distance and then gradually build on your success by getting closer and closer to strange dogs over time, rewarding calm behavior all the while.

The Process Explained:
The area to the left of the left vertical line on the graph is what we call, “sub threshold”– this is where your dog is calm, where he can hear you and can respond to known cues.  What we do in the beginning is pair what your dog likes (tasty treats) with low intensity exposure to what your dog does not like (the other dog) sub threshold.  The idea is that you can’t be angry and happy at the same time.  So, if every single time your dog sees another dog and receives something he loves (a special treat) over time he will become happy to see other dogs because something GOOD always happens then.  We begin to teach your hound that other dogs make it rain amazing treats!  Yippeeee!!  In the beginning we do this in the calm zone where your dog is not reactive but definitely perceives the other dog, that’s the low intensity exposure part.  If you work on this diligently and consistently, over time you will be able to reward calm behavior closer and closer to the other dog(s).  The bell curve will begin to flatten out, and there will no longer be a peak.    Once you begin building a reinforcement history with your dog at a safe distance, your dog understands that the world didn’t come to an end when another dog approached and indeed good things began to happen.  Learning by association and consequences, dogs eventually understand that other dogs make good things happen when this positive technique is employed.  It turns a dreadful chore-filled walk, where your dog’s “wild thing” gets more exercise than you do, into a fun training session in which your relationship is enhanced and both of you learn new useful things.

OK, now you know all of this theory stuff so you are ready to get training!  You put on your dog’s perfectly fitted collar and leash.  You strap on your treat pouch filled with favorite treats.  Your fully charged cell phone is safely tucked inside your front pocket.  Let’s say for your particular dog you know from past experience that you can get within approximately 4 house lengths of a strange dog and your dog will remain calm.  You know that a three-house distance usually means trouble!

When you see another dog a safe distance away, watch your dog to see when he perceives it.  Take a tasty treat like duck or salmon strips and put it in front of your dog’s nose, then lure him with the treat up to your chest.  When your dog looks at you, feed!  If he eats the treat you are on your way!  If he won’t take the treat you may need to increase your distance from the strange dog or try a higher value treat.  It works best to go for your walk when you know your dog is hungry!  Ideally, this works best if your dog gives you attention on his own, without any cues from you.  Free shaping this behavior with a clicker-savvy dog is ideal.  You need to avoid making noise and calling your dog’s name, etc… when working on this behavior.  Your dog looking at you on his own is the key.  You can lure for it as described above in the beginning, and then get the lure out of the equation quickly.  Continue “chumming” your dog with treats as the other dog nears.  It may also be best to be on opposite sides of the street, depending on your dog’s threshold.

What to do if you get surprised:
It’ll happen!  If you come around a corner and suddenly meet a strange dog and your dog becomes reactive, do not give him a treat– perform a U-Turn maneuver and a “watch” if possible as outlined in Feisty Fido.  Increasing distance between you and the strange dog will lower the intensity of the situation and get you back to a calm distance.  It really helps to give your dog a specific task to do, like sit and watch you until the strange dog passes.  Then you can reward that behavior accordingly.

Clicker Training Works Wonders
I trained my dogs using operant conditioning (clicker training) and clicked the instant my dog looked away from the strange dog and up at me freely of her own volition.  This was very efficient and made the training much faster.  Corsa is very “operant” and she keeps checking in with me to see what “pays” now that she knows the game.  What will make my mommy give me salmon?  Hmm….. So far she knows she gets paid for calm behavior near strange dogs, cats, rabbits and big loud trash trucks.  She tries to get paid for calm behavior in the presence of walkers, joggers and bicyclists by looking at them and immediately looking up at me, sometimes she just sits thinking that will work.  I have to admit that I pay for these occasionally just because she’s so cute about it, but my hounds have never been reactive to those things so it’s never been a problem.  If you are not familiar with clicker training and you would like to be, check out www.clickertraining.com for more information.

Corsa and Manx both responded well to the combination of classic counter conditioning (changing their attitudes about other dogs) plus standard reactive dog training techniques (U Turn, watch.)  A great thing to do is find a group training class where you can practice rewarding calm behavior in the presence of other dogs in a controlled environment.

Why punishment makes reactivity worse:
Your dog is in an emotionally charged state of mind when he becomes reactive.  So what we don’t want to do is make it worse or more aversive, as punishment-based methods would prescribe.  Example:  Your dog is in an emotionally charged state of mind when he sees another dog.  If something aversive happens at that moment, such as choking, shocking, etc., the underlying negative feeling about other dogs is magnified exponentially.  While shocking your dog when he peaks and barks might stop the behavior in the short term, long-term serious damage is done to the dog’s psyche, your relationship and the training process.

Look at it from your dog’s POV:

There’s a strange dog over there! + Bark, Lunge, Growl! + OUCH!!! I’m getting choked and shocked now!  = I REALLY hate other dogs, bad things happen when they are around.
Problem (underlying attitude about strange dogs) not solved, symptom (barking, reactivity) temporarily stifled.  This is very destructive.

It’s much better to address the underlying emotional cause to stop the reactivity at its root, than it is to just treat the symptom that you see (lunging/barking, etc….).

Compare that scenario with this one from your dog’s POV:
There’s a strange dog over there!  + trainer adjusts distance to calm zone + remain calm+ get a tasty teat = other dogs make good things happen!  See a strange dog, wag your tail!  Over time you can get closer to other dogs, the problem itself is being worked on, the symptom (barking) is avoided and does not get reinforced, and the underlying cause/feeling about other dogs begins to change for the better.

I frequently bore my husband to tears with triumphant “daily walk” stories when the two hounds spy a dog or cat, or a rabbit bounds past us fairly close and on their own they sit and look at me for a treat!  That’s AMAZING!  And possible!  Over time that bell curve will flatten out and you will have a dog who is calm around other dogs and whose “wild thing” has left the building.

Genie Tuttle, BA, CPDT-KA has been training dogs of all breeds for over 25 years.  She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) which is the first independently issued credential in the dog training industry.  She is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT)  Genie has been a greyhound owner for over 15 years and is currently owned by greyhounds Manx and Corsa.  She can be reached at:   genie@doggenie.com or www.doggenie.com

“Published in the Fall 2008 edition of the Greyt Times newsletter, the official publication of the Homestretch Greyhound Rescue and Adoption.”

What to do:

Adjust your distance from the other dog (sub threshold) so you can reward calm behavior
Keep your leash loose, but hang on tightly
Wear a treat pouch
Always bring tasty treats!
Bring your cell phone in case of emergency
Enroll in a training class where you can practice controlled proximity to other dogs
Have patience

What NOT to do:

Talk incessantly
Choke up on your dog’s collar
Rush the process
Reward reactive behavior

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