Often when people contact me because their dog is reactive, they believe the solution is to ‘socialise’ them in a training class.
So here is an explanation as to why many professional and educated trainers don’t do this.
If a dog is reactive which means it lunges, barks, growls, vocalises and generally behaves inappropriately when it sees another dog, then to address this properly we need to firstly find out the cause .
It could be fear, frustration or over excitement.
You need to find the cause to find the solution
Reactively is a symptom of an emotional state that is triggered by the sight of another dog.
If the dog reacts to the trigger of one dog in the street , what do you think is going to happen when you times the trigger by 7 or if you turn up to one of those classes with 20 dogs?. Yes you will intensify the trigger and therefore the emotion and reaction will intensify too.
To be able to learn effectively and change behaviour, you need to start in an environment that supports learning for both the dog and handler. This enables new skills and behaviours to be learnt and practiced. This wont happen in a class. The trainer will not have the time to give you the support you need.
Imagine something that frightens you
Say I put you in a room with 7 Pennywise’s and asked you to be calm and behave yourself while learning some new skills.
- What will you learn?
- What will learning in this environment feel like?
- Will you want to go back next week?
Fear in a dog can be irrational like it can in us, but it doesn’t mean it’s not real to the animal experiencing the fear. The whole body prepared for action, staying in a fear state for a long time is exhausting physically and mentally. If you are in danger you don’t hang out there for an hour, you take action.
So are you going to begin to relax and feel more comfortable with all these Satanic Clowns milling around? Will you eventually want to ‘play’ with them?
Probably not, but I bet your clown phobia will get worse? This is called flooding, it’s very traumatic and can make the problem worse.
If the reactivity is frustration driven by a desire it interact with the other dog but the lead stops the dog. If you intensify the excitable trigger (dogs) by 7 or 20 the frustration will also escalate.
As an emotion what does frustration lead to?
Anger, yes anger which is aggression, so the once very friendly excitable dog with no self control is now angry. Angry dogs bite!
Are you getting the picture?
So let also look at the other dogs in the class now , the ones with no behaviour problems , there there just to learn to behave and be obedient. These people have paid the trainer money to help them train their dog. They are not there to be guinea pigs and help resolve aggression in someone else dog. Most good trainers have highly trained stooge dogs for this task .
So if you have a quiet sensitive collie in the class learning to behave and suddenly one evening some aggressive nutcase walks in and spends all night kicking off with everyone. That collie is going to be scared and traumatised, just like if you asked me to spend the night in a pub where your feet stick to the floor and everyone is leathered and then a fight breaks out.
When a dog lunges and barks it’s no different that someone threatening you, it will be scary.
So if you went into a social setting like this and you were threatened what would you do?
We would all be different right, depending on experience and genetics?
I don’t like conflict so I would leave. A scared Collie on a lead does not have this option, unless their owner is smart sees they are scared and takes them out.
The alternative is to crumble in the corner shaking or fight back, defend yourself, this is what the other dogs in the room might do.
So they turned up to class to learn some obedience and now they have gone home with a scared reactive dog. Not really what people expect to pay for is it?
Sadly many people turn up to these types of classes week in week out and the dogs just get worse, however the owners feel they are doing something so keep going. Everyone’s dogs are kicking of so people begin to think it’s normal. Well it’s not. If you want to learn about good and bad classes go and watch different ones and ask yourself which environment would you like to learn in?
So if a class isn’t the solution what is?
One to one behaviour training.
Now another problem is the industry isn’t unregulated which means there are ‘Behaviourists’ out there with Bachelors and Masters Degrees, Some with years of hands on experience. Some who have been assessed for their competence in the field and some who haven’t. Then there are some who did an unregulated course online, answered 10 questions and got a certificate, or maybe they just watched a couple of seasons of the Dog Whisperer or It’s Me or the Dog and tried it with their own dog and bam! They are now a self declared ‘Behaviourist’.
Now I watch 24 Hours in A&E but I’m no emergency ward doctor.
It is a buyer beware market. If you are wanting help with a behaviour problem it’s really important you get it right first time and choose the right trainer.
To be able to work with reactively successfully the dog needs skills and the handler needs skills, sessions needs to be set up and practiced. This requires one on one tuition from someone who knows what they are talking about and knows what they are doing.
You need dogs that are trained and can cope around reactive dog, these are called stooge dogs, because subjecting an animal to threats that cannot cope is just cruel and unethical.
The reactive dog need to learn to manage its emotions around the triggers so you can then build on the intensity of them and eventually your dog will be at a stage where it can cope in a class, and you as the handler will have the skills to handle the dog as well as the dog having the skills to handle itself. This is when you get great results because you are a team working together.
Do your research and get a good trainer
Jane Ardern BSc (Hons) Dip. Cabt
Member of the APDT UK
Registered Animal Trainer with the ABTC
Kennel CLub Dog Trainer of the Year 2015