Working with Leash Reactive and Aggressive Dogs...
Does the above picture look familiar? Is taking your dog out on leash more like running a gauntlet of distractions than an enjoyable walk? There are A LOT of reactive and aggressive dogs out there. Behavior modification, and in this case, leash reactivity and aggression specifically, is something I work with on a regular basis and while every dog is different and every situation is unique, I can tell you several things with certainty:
1. Leash reactivity and aggression is not only frustrating and embarrassing for the owner, but it is a huge sign of anxiety, stress, and fear in the dog. Dogs like this need help.
2. More times then not, flat buckle collars and harnesses will make the anxiety, reactivity and aggression WORSE because they create a constant state of physical pressure on the dog, which will only amp up the energy and intensity of the dog.
3. Regardless of the cause of reactivity and/or aggression (genetic make-up, learned behavior, handler induced, change in environment, etc), you CAN minimize your dog's reactivity, if not completely eradicate it with good training.
4. Simply not exercising/walking a reactive dog is not a fair solution to the dog and will never fix the problem. Your dog will not just "grow out of it." If anything, it becomes worse over time because the reactivity becomes an learned behavior. The dog learns: this is what life on a leash is like: I see something and I react.
5. If your dog has moderate to severe leash reactivity, then "100% Positive Reinforcement" Training will FAIL you and your dog in real world environments. It requires BALANCED training: both rewarding the dog and holding the dog accountable for decisions: teaching the dog that reactivity is no longer a viable option.
6. Every dog is different and every reactive/aggression case is unique, but generally speaking, the rehabilitation process includes:
#1: Understanding the dog's "threshold:" at what distance or what scenario a dog can be somewhat comfortable passing another dog. Overtime we can improve the dog's threshold.
#2: The dog must learn to heel perfectly well in low distraction environments. This usually takes 3-4 lessons with advanced E Collar pressure training. See my video on the videos page titled, "Teaching Ginny a Perfect Heel with Collar Pressure" for a better understanding. Once a dog heels perfectly well, we have accomplished two things: 1. We have taken away constant pressure on the dog's body (which most harnesses and flat collars actually create- making things worse) and therefore, the dog will be more relaxed and less likely to get amped up and 2. We have given the dogs structure and expectations, which all dogs thrive with. Dogs do better when they know what is expected of them.
#3: The dog must learn name call/ short recall with E Collar pressure so we have a way to communicate with our dog and call them off a distraction BEFORE they get distracted and/or react.
#4: We begin passing dogs at a distance that respects the dog's threshold. We interrupt distraction/reactivity BEFORE it happens. We help the dog out by: creating distance or a "buffer zone" (threshold), changing directions, verbal cues of "Leave It," food lures, give a name call/recall with verbal and/or E Collar touch, etc. The second the dog focuses on us we reward.
#5: We reward heavily (praise, treats, a toy, faster pace, touch, etc) for any time the dog does not react and therefore we start to counter-condition the dog: the once used to be trigger (say dogs) appears not so bad anymore. Over time we build up a huge positive bank account of good experiences.
#6: If necessary, we absolutely use the E Collar for a consequence if the dog reacts and this is usually accomplished with a higher stimulation level. We teach the dog that reacting to other stimuli in an aggressive manner is no longer an option. They are absolutely not allowed to react in an aggressive manner.
Note: if the reactive/aggressive dog does not respond to an E Collar touch by refocusing on the handler, then most likely one or more of the following things was done wrong:
1.) E Collar training was not done correctly- dog doesn't understand what to do when "touched" with E Collar
2.) Handler didn't respect the dog's threshold/space,
3.) E Collar touch was given too late and the dog was already too amped up
4.) E Collar wasn't used enough (some dogs require 2 or 3 "touches" to keep the focused while passing the distraction
5.) E Collar stimulation level was too low for that particular moment/distraction
6.) Poor handling/positioning: dog is not in a proper heel, leash is not loose, handler is anxious, etc
Note: Dogs MUST be in a state of mind to LEARN in order for any tool of communication (E Collar, treats, body cues, verbal cues, clickers, etc) to be effective. If your dog reaches what I call a "Level 10" or basically your dog is acting like "Cujo" then do NOT use the E Collar- it will be ineffective or make things worse. Same with treats, touch, lures, etc- they will be ineffective if your dog is at a "Level 10.". Your dog is already past a state of mind in which it can learn learn and/or make a good choice. Simply remove your dog as quickly as possible from the situation.
#7: Over time, we expect to help the dog less and less. We expect the dog to make its OWN GOOD choice not to react without us having to change directions, say "leave it," etc. Once we get here...we no longer have a reactive dog. We have a THINKING dog! :)
If you have a reactive dog, please get professional help immediately. If you are in the Charlotte, NC area then give me a call and we can set up an evaluation and then work out a plan to start to rehabilitate your dog.