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What To Do When Your Dog Reacts!

This is the most common question among my reactive dog clients. "...But, Kelsie, what do I do WHEN they have a reaction?"

My answer honestly is nothing much. You see when a dog is in the midst of reacting to a trigger they are drowning in stress. The thing with stress in large doses is that it inhibits the brain from learning. So at the time of a reaction there is nothing you are going to do that will be productive in teaching your dog to react less.

Okay, I would be lying if I said there was nothing you could do to make them react less. You could potentially use punishment but it would have to be punishment that was strong enough to force them into shut down and cause them to stop all reactions and behaviors. It would require a heavy hand and in the end would not improve their underlying reason for the reactions in the first place. In fact the use of punishment to stop big reactions almost always backfires because dogs under stress are more likely to start generalizing their fear if you try to use fear to stop fear. In the end this puts you in a situation worse than you started! So let's not use punishment or annoyances like shouting "no" or jerking on the leash which typically are not strong enough to act as punishers in the first place.

Here is what you can do:

  1. The golden rule with reactive dogs: Avoid triggers all together. Try to walk in locations or times of the day when the trigger is not present. Consider minimizing or stopping walks all together. Stressing the dog out more and forcing them to "get over" or "work through" stress inducing situations is the last thing we want to do. This is because by putting them repeatedly in known stressful situations will likely compound the problem and sensitize them to fear.

  2. Create distance if you spot triggers coming or you know there is the possibility to come across triggers set yourself up to be able to retreat and create distance from the trigger. By retreating to a safe distance you can then keep your dog under threshold and if they are not drowning in stress they will be capable of learning. Ding, Ding, Ding! This is a great teaching opportunity if executed effectively.

  3. Get busy or better yet get active. By moving your feet and your dogs feet you can prevent your dog from fixating or locking on to a trigger that might be a little too close for comfort and training. I sometimes lunge the dog in circles. Making the circle longer in the direction away from the trigger. This creates distance when you have a dog that isn't willingly moving away because they are already beginning to escalate their reaction. This technique can be messy but a good rule of thumb is don't let the dog lock up on the trigger and don't get stuck behind the dog pulling backwards against them. You want to stay 90 or 45 degrees to the side of them to best utilize your leash pressure and keep them from digging in.

  4. When in a pinch start body blocking. Put yourself between your dog and the trigger. I only recommend this with dogs we know for sure do not have redirected aggression! This means that in moments of intense stress the dog will redirect their reaction (aggression/frustration) onto something other than the trigger like the person handling the lead or getting in their way. This very aggressive technique should only be used when all other options are not available. I use it if I have a dog in an indoor space with no room to move. Find a wall or corner and sometimes forcibly hold your position between your dog and the trigger. If you can feed them treats great. Be ready to defend your dog against their trigger at all costs, tell people (if people are the trigger) to keep walking. If the trigger is other dogs be ready with citronella spray, a hand full of treats, or an umbrella to fend off any oncoming dog.

    1. On the topic of umbrellas if you find your self in situations with no escape often, because you live in the city, than carrying an umbrella might be a great option so you can literally pop up a shield to protect your dog. Note that you do need to spend time desensitizing your dog to the umbrella before this will be a worthy technique.

  5. Body/Head lock. Now I only recommend such physical force and this technique should be used in emergency situations only! If you have a dog that could potentially really bite someone or something and you know they will not redirect on to you than this move is worth knowing. Again this is for emergency situations and is intended to immobilize your dog to prevent a dangerous situation. For instance a child running into your dog's space. At the end of the day I would rather my dog bite me instead of a child. Biting the child is surely a death sentence for any dog. I also want to mention that if your dog is a bite risk then you should be utilizing a muzzle when walking or training them in unpredictable areas.

    1. To immobilize a dog quickly I take hold of their collar, pinching it so that it tightens high around their neck and they will not be able to back out. Then I take my other hand/arm and hug their abdomen against my hip/body. In an athletic stance with one foot slightly forward and one back I push my knee or shin into the dogs ribcage right behind their shoulder pulling their head into one and their hips into the other hip. You are essentially bending them around your leg. Meanwhile I would begin shouting at the incomer to get away because I don't have hands to or the ability to defend my dog in their now vulnerable state.

    2. You can also do something similar against a wall. This can sometimes free up a hand because you can use your leg to hold their back end against the wall and one hand on their collar to hold their head.

    3. Practice this technique with your dog a few times so you can feel comfortable with where to hold and how to get a good grip. Make sure you pay heavily with tasty treats during practice. This will also help your dog be more comfortable if you do need to use this technique.

I know that number 5 is likely to get some hate from some positive only trainers but the reality is that life happens and I want you to be prepared and know what to do if a situation arises. It should be known that only #2 involves training/learning. All other techniques are just to try and get out of the situation quickly and will not help your dog learn to respond better the next time they see a trigger.

Notice I didn't mention distracting the dog with food. I don't recommend this because by distracting the dog we are potentially raising the risk of the dog becoming startled if/when they do finally notice the trigger. I always encourage the dog to notice the trigger and then I follow looking at the trigger with a treat. I never treat BEFORE the trigger has been spotted! If you hide behind a car or visual barrier where you can see the trigger but the dog can't then this would be a good time to distract while the trigger passes hopefully unnoticed by the dog.

Once more I want to drive home that by the time the dog is reacting it is too late to teach them to behave better. Get out of the situation quickly, take note of what happened, and consider how you can avoid (#1 suggestion) something like that from happening in the future. Then call a behavior professional to help you teach your dog a different response.

So what do you do when your dog reacts? What is your biggest take away or what are you going to implement?

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