Friday, April 20, 2012

Technical Difficulties and Brody the Havanese

The good news is that the dog training is going well.  The bad news is that the video I'm trying to take of said dog training is not cooperating.  You'd think with multiple digital cameras (all with video recording capability and one with HD video), a phone (also with HD video, of course) and an actual video camera, something in my house would be able to capture the wondrous moments of my little board & train, Brody, learning to target.  But the problem, I'm finding, is that these video-recording devices want to be smarter than me.  Maybe they are.  At any rate, I am now waiting for my son's camera battery to charge (no, I don't want to hear about how I am using my five-year-old's camera to make a professional training video for my company).  Once that has completed I should be good to go and can resume working on Brody's target training.

You haven't met Brody yet.  He is a very sweet 5 1/2 year old Havanese who has an unfortunate habit of reacting (boldly and loudly) to other dogs when he is on a leash.  He's a good example of how one or two incidents can dramatically impact a dog - Brody has been attacked by another dog and has now taken on the attitude of "I'm gonna get you before you can get me!" 

On leash reactivity is a frustrating problem for many owners.  Their dog, who might be fine when meeting other dogs in a different situation, will turn into a little furry lunatic when faced with the scary prospect of seeing something that might hurt them (strange dog) when they are trapped, unable to escape (leash). 

Scared is an important part of the equation to remember.  To some owners it can be very difficult to imagine that their dog is acting out of fear.  The other dog may be posing no real threat, but reality is in the eye of the beholder.  When your dog initiates the altercation, barking and carrying on in a "Come on, you want a piece of me?!!? Bark! Bark! Growl.  I'll kick your butt!!! Bark! Bark!" fashion, how could he be afraid?  The answer, we think, is that the dog is acting in a manner that he believes will scare off the other dog, thus avoiding an actual fight. 

In many cases, without realising it, we are allowing this flawed presumption to be reinforced.  Any time the other dog leaves when your dog is reacting (even if they were just heading in the other direction any way), your dog gets to think, "Hey, all that carrying on worked!  I didn't get attacked and the other dog is leaving.  I guess I'll try that next time too."

So what do you do to prevent this very embarrassing and highly stressful situation from reoccurring every time you cross paths with another dog?  I do suggest getting professional help, as this can be a potentially dangerous situation, and your dog is showing pretty clearly that all is not right with their world.  But here are a few things you can do to keep things under control until a trainer gets you working on a specific behavior modification plan.

  1. Don't add more negative to an already scary situation.  It's likely that your dog is truly afraid and isn't displaying this unruly behavior just to irk you (dogs may poop on your rug or chew up your new shoes, but they are not capable of being vindictive - that charming trait is reserved for homo sapiens).  Correcting or punishing your dog only makes things worse, even if it appears to have a positive effect in the beginning.  Leash popping, poking, "psst'ing" or "alpha rolling" are unacceptable responses and are more likely to get you bit than they are to solve the problem.  Just because it's on TV doesn't make it true.
  2. Don't reinforce the behavior either.  Rewarding your dog, either intentionally or unintentionally gives your dog positive feedback for a reaction we don't want to continue.  Stroking him and "reassuring" him with "it's okay puppy, you're alright, you're my good boy" acts as reinforcement.  In addition, the more you fuss over the situation the more likely you are to send the message to your dog that something really is wrong - look how worked up Mom is getting!
  3. Stay below your dog's threshold whenever possible.  Threshold is a complex thing, but it's more or less the point at which your dog feels the need to react.  Going above your dog's threshold means he'll probably start barking, growling, lunging or exhibiting other "bad" behavior.  Threshold is not a static thing - it can be influenced by distance, intensity, size, gender, direction and many other factors.  Keeping your dog below threshold may simply be a matter of crossing the street when you see another dog approaching or walking your dog at a time of day that isn't as busy.
  4. Turn and walk the other way.  Remember the part about your dog thinking that his behavior chased the other dog away?  While it probably won't solve your dog's issues alone, it doesn't hurt to try to have your dog "leave" rather than letting him feel that all the barking and ugly behavior caused the other dog to go away.  If your dog does go over threshold and reacts to a dog he sees, do your best to get him turned around so you are the one that walks away.
Addressing a behavior problem like on-leash reactivity is usually a matter of combining management and behavior modification.  The right mixture will keep your dog (and those he encounters) safe during the training process, and allows the behavior modification to be as effective as possible.  There are good techniques available to counter reactivity, and Brody is getting the full experience.  Hopefully he'll continue to learn quickly, soaking up everything he needs to have him feel more comfortable around other dogs when he goes out for a walk.  His owners enjoy traveling in their RV with him, so it's important for everyone.

Are there things that your dog reacts to, either on leash or off?  Other dogs, new people or children?  The evil dog-hunting vacuum cleaner?

Ethan and Brody


  1. I was worried that he would get stressed out and refuse to take treats, that he would start to ignore the sound of the click, or that I wouldn't be able to keep him under threshold. Those are all common road blocks when working with a leash-reactive dog, so I had reason to be concerned. But all our prep work (and my thoughtful planning of bringing several different kinds of treats) paid off. great dogs site