Monday, February 6, 2017

Positive Pet Training Tools for Reactive Dogs

Last month, I was asked to be one of the new co-hosts for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop. For those of you who are new to the blog, training is what got this blog started! My dog Barley is reactive and I realized we needed help early on in our relationship. We found our first trainer about 5 months into our relationship and have been on an incredible journey ever since--most recently with adding another dog, my puppy Rye, to the family.

Barley loves her baby sister now, but it took a lot of work to get here.

I'm so excited to be part of hosting the hop with Tenacious Little Terrier and Wag n' Woof Pets. Each month, the hop will begin the first Monday of the month and continue all week; we'll have a different theme each month, but we welcome any positive training posts!

This month our theme is training tools, so without further ado, here are our four essential training tools for reactive dogs.

A Variety of High Quality, Easily Breakable Treats
Barley is highly food motivated. When she encounters one of her triggers (barking dogs, loose dogs, birds, kites, bikes, joggers), she has no interest in toys. To help her deal with those triggers, I need something that makes me more important than those distractions. 

The smellier the treats, the better because in high-stress situations a lot of times the only way I can get her attention is by sticking the treat right in front of her nose and using it to turn her back towards me. We use a lot of salmon jerky--but for special occasions (like introducing Barley to her sister), we break out the big guns: hot dogs and cheese.

We also need treats that can be broken into smaller pieces easily because no matter how full my treat pouch is when we set off for a walk, it's never quite enough, so having treats that can easily multiply into more treats is essential. 

I try to keep a variety of different treats in my pouch because variety is the spice of life (or so they say). If Barley constantly got the same treat, they'd lose their value because they aren't new and different anymore and she'd start slowing down on her response to commands. If she never knows what she's going to get, there's always a chance there's something really good coming, so she pays more attention to me. Usually, I have one bag of treats (most recently some duck jerky sticks) that I only break out for agility class so that Barley keeps her focus on me because there's something different coming out of my pocket.

A Mat
Our mat is one of our most important possessions. It's our place where the dogs know they can relax. It's a safe place. It's a place where I can send them when I need to not worry about them. We've spent a lot of time working on going to the mat (I wrote about that ages ago when my sister was my only reader) over the years. After working on getting the dogs to the mat, then we work on relaxing on the mat. Barley knows that when I send her to her mat, she's supposed to just lay down and relax. We've used it in classes before and it's helped Barley stay calm around other dogs. We also use it when I do dishes or cook dinner.

We have a mat that stays in front of the fridge, one that stays in the car, and one that moves around the house.

Rye was introduced to mat work a few days after coming home. She caught on quickly and it's been a great tool for her! Rye's a bit of a chicken when her big sister isn't with her. On her first day of obedience (which is a story I still need to tell), she was shaking and panicked as we walked into the building. As soon as I put down her mat, she ran to it and laid down. Having that safe space gave her the confidence she needed to focus for class. 

Mats help contain the crazy that's bubbling right below the surface.

We also have a couple intangible tools that are essential to any training, but especially for training a reactive dog.

A Plan
One thing our agility trainer always stresses is that people get into trouble when they don't have a plan for what to do when things don't go as expected: what will you do if your dog doesn't get their contact on the dogwalk? how do you respond if your dog goes around a jump instead of over it? You can't just keep going because then your dog will start to think that they don't have to do whatever it is they didn't do. Having a plan in place helps you help your dog master the skills you're working on. It also helps reduce frustration for everyone because you've already accepted that things might not go the way you expected, but that's ok because you know what to do next.

With a reactive dog, having a plan is a non-negotiable. When we go for walks, we have a plan A, B, and C. Before I leave the house, I have to decide what we're going to do if we see another dog--and which plan we go with depends on a lot of factors, including time, weather, Barley's mood, my mood, location, and the other dog.

Usually, with Barley, if we see another dog, we go with Plan A: cross the street and get distance, but keep walking--she's been training long enough that as long as she has some space, she can keep walking with no issues as long as the other dog can't get to her.

Barley only lets her sister pounce her.

Sometimes, though, it's Plan B: turn around and walk in a new direction--Barley doesn't do well with off-leash dogs approaching her, so if we see one, we immediately go in another direction; if we cross the street to get space from an on-leash dog and that person crosses the street, too, we'll just turn around; if it's icy out and I'm not feeling brave, we'll turn around.

Then there's Plan C: have Barley sit a little off the path/sidewalk and turn my back towards the other person and dog while giving Barley lots of treats. This happens a lot when we're on trails--some of them don't have good side trails to take in a new direction and turning all the way around just means that we're going in the wrong direction or we'll have this other dog following us all the way back to the end of the trail. We do this when Rye's with us and turning around isn't an option (although we usually combine with plan A) because Rye wants to meet every dog we see, so if I can get them both calm and focused on me, there are fewer issues.

This helps reduce stress on walks. I don't have anxiety when we see other dogs because I know what we're going to do about it. When I don't have anxiety, Barley reacts less drastically to the other dogs.

Patience
This is the hardest part for me, but without patience, you won't get very far in your training. Dogs know when you're frustrated. Rye and I have struggled many times on walks. I'm so used to Barley sitting, staying, and posing for pictures on our adventures. It comes naturally to her and I didn't have to do any work to get Barley to model on our walks. With Rye, she'll sit and stay very nicely--but as soon as I pull out the camera, she's having none of it. I've found myself getting frustrated with her and the more frustrated I get, the less likely she is to stay still. Then when we start our walk again, she'll be done listening to me, no matter what kind of snacks I have, so any loose leash practice I wanted to do goes out the window. I finally had to accept that Rye needs more practice with sitting and staying in different locations, especially outside when her hound nose is working overtime, and maybe she will never be comfortable sitting in front of the camera. I don't bother pulling out the camera when Rye and I are out walking together anymore--or if Barley's with us, I just let Barley pose and Rye does her own thing for a second.

Sometimes that means cropping a Rye butt out of a picture.

Patience is essential with reactive dogs. Reactive dogs have things that are upsetting to them--whether that's other dogs or other people or certain noises--and it takes time to help them learn those things aren't bad. It was exactly one full month from the day our trainer first came to help with introducing Barley and Rye and the first time they were ever loose in the house together. There were so many days when I wanted to just open the gate or the crate and see what would happen, but I knew we needed to go at Barley's pace. She had to be the one to decide when she was ready to be around her sister. Even then, it was another two weeks before I even let them into the backyard together.


Dogs will have the most success with training when you go at their pace. That doesn't mean that you can't challenge them a little bit, but if your dog is telling you they aren't ready for something, be patient and listen to them.

When you combine great treats, a mat, a plan, and patience, your dogs can achieve things you never thought were possible.



Barley, Rye, our co-hosts and I are all excited to read about the different positive training tools you're using! Be sure to check out the other blogs participating in this month's Positive Pet Training Blog Hop. You can also join our Positive Pet Training Blog Hop group on Facebook and follow our new Travels with Barley page to stay connected with us.

18 comments:

  1. ohhh, a plan, good point!

    Mat work was really important with Isis, because I was so scared what she might do when people came to the door. I never trained Leo to go to a mat, which is a shame, because he's bigger than Isis was, and likes to jump on people when they walk in the door. Just once, but with a 98-pound German shepherd, that's one more time than is appropriate. (We don't have visitors often).

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    1. We've never tried the mat when people come over (we don't have visitors often, either!). Barley isn't much of a jumper, but she does demand love as soon as someone walks in, so it might make it easier for company to get past the front door before being smothered by Barley :)

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  2. You are doing a great job with those two! Patience is really the biggest key to any training!

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    1. Thank you! Patience is the hardest part for me, but it's definitely been worth the struggle to see my girlies playing together!

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  3. What is it about hot dogs & cheese? Seriously, I'm pretty sure my dog would choose either of those over anything else. I guess in some cases simple is better.

    Thank you for mentioning mat work, that's something I've been wanting to do for awhile, and this is the reminder I needed.

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    1. I'm a huge fan of cheese, too, so I can understand that one--but I hate working with hot dogs! Even when I've dried them out really well, I still feel like I smell like a hot dog the rest of the day--but for whatever reason, the dogs love them, so I guess it's a sacrifice worth making :)

      Good luck with the mat work! It's saved my sanity on more than one occasion!

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  4. Oh patience!! Plan B: turn around and walk in a new direction and then Plan C: is where I was this morning with Sherm. Typically I try and walk him when other dogs aren't out and about but I failed at this plan earlier today. We u-turn a lot and that works but today I u-turned and another dog was literally coming towards us so I went up a long drive way and we fed lots of treats but I hate doing that -- so worried the homeowner will be like, what? :)

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    1. I know that feeling well! Thankfully most of our neighborhood knows Barley (she's so much more popular than I am!) and they wouldn't mind us hanging out in their driveway, but it does always feel a little awkward.

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  5. How well Barley and Rye are getting along now is such a testament to how patience (and hard work) pays off.
    A plan is also an important tool that I never even thought of, and I like how you emphasized that more than one plan is also essential!
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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    1. Our trainers have done a great job of training me to think of plans! Before our trainer left our house the first day with Barley and Rye, she even made me tell her what I would do if we were training at the gate and one dog started snarling at the other so that I wouldn't freak out and forget what to do when it happened!

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  6. Such helpful advice! Memphis is, I think, becoming more willful (and reactive) as he gets older, and we really need to work on these basics again. But he never really got into the mat; he would go there if we told him, but it didn't really do anything for him and eventually he just started treating it as another toy :-)

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    1. Rye uses hers as a toy when she gets really wound up, too! She'll run around the house with it and try to get Barley to tug with her and Barley just looks at her like that's not what this is for! Give sweet Memphis snuggles for me!

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  7. Which brands do you like for jerky? Do you make it yourself? I've been working with Mr. N on mat work using the relaxation protocol. How did you train it?

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    1. We alternate brands based on whatever Chewy has on sale! For salmon, we usually get Merrick because it's pretty reasonably priced even if it's not on sale. The girls loved the Honest Kitchen Joyful Jerky, though! I do have a dehydrator, but I hate the way it makes the whole house smell like meat all day, so I don't use it very often. We've done several different things for mat work, so I'll put together a post on it in the near future :)

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  8. Those are some great tips. We use small treats too because we do not want the dogs to chock on them since they tend to gulp..lol.

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    1. Even with small treats, sometimes Barley chokes on them! Then she spits them out and eats them again ;)

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