Living with a reactive dog can sometimes be tough work. They require special consideration, and it may seem overwhelming to do even the simplest activities with them like taking them for a stroll around the block, or opening the windows for some sunshine on a pretty afternoon. Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel through working with a certified professional to find the best behavior modification plan for your dog. Working through reactivity requires thoughtful training, but active training is only a portion of the process. Alongside working to change your dog’s behavior, we must also be sure to use management in their daily routine to ensure they aren’t getting opportunities outside of training to “practice” behavior we don’t want. Managing your dog’s emotions and giving them alternative behaviors to keep them under threshold will be key to making as much progress as possible in their behavior modification program. Here are a few tips and techniques to help you manage your reactive dog in your day-to-day routine:
Tip #1: Train an “Emergency U-Turn” or “Let’s Go” Cue
An emergency U-turn is a great way to get your dog to move away from an oncoming sticky situation out on walks. When you aren’t able to train in a structured manner, keep enough of a distance to keep your dog under their threshold, or aren’t prepared to have a training setup with your dog when seeing an oncoming trigger, an emergency U-turn is a great alternative to ask your dog to move away with you without a struggle at the end of the leash. This can also be used to manage the situation in training if your dog does cross over their threshold and start reacting. If training gets too difficult and you lose your dog’s attention, you can give the emergency U-turn cue and move away with them to help them be able to disengage from the trigger they’re reacting to.
To train an emergency U-turn, start indoors with your dog (on or off leash) with no distractions to make sure the environment is easy enough for your dog to learn. Ask your dog to walk with you in a straight line, then lure your dog to move with you as you change directions. When they move with you, click (or mark with “yes”) and give the treat.
Repeat in the other direction again multiple times. After a few repetitions, try fading the food from your lure and just using your empty hand to guide your dog around the U-turn for a few more repetitions. You can even toss the treat for your dog to chase down to add enthusiasm to participate.
From there, fade your hand lure and put your behavior on a verbal “let’s go” cue. If your dog is not able to change directions with you, this is information to you that you have progressed too quickly and need to go back a step in your training.
If they do move with you just on the verbal cue reliably, you can start practicing this behavior in different contexts. Firstly without any triggers around, then progressively working up to using this behavior in “real life” contexts when approaching oncoming triggers.
Tip #2: Use a Magnet Hand
A magnet hand is a wonderful distraction technique to prevent a reaction from your dog when you aren’t able to create enough space from a trigger to keep your dog under threshold. Using a magnet hand can be helpful in situations like allowing another person/dog/bike/etc to pass by you and your dog on a walking path, to get your dog’s focus and help them move away from a trigger calmly, or to keep your dog occupied for short periods while something that usually triggers them is going on nearby.
When you see an oncoming trigger (ideally before your dog can react), go ahead and get a small handful of treats out and cue your dog’s attention.
Place your thumb over the treats in your hand and offer your half-closed fist right in front of your dog’s nose to lure them so that they are facing away from the trigger.
Start dispensing treats slowly by allowing one at a time to pass through your hand into your dog’s mouth, so your dog continues to work at your hand and lick/nibble for treats instead of turning to react to the passing trigger.
You can also start moving away from the trigger while dispensing treats to encourage your dog to create more space while working at getting the treats from your hand.
Tip #3: Using a Treat Scatter
Treat scatters can be very useful to help your dog “come down” emotionally if a reaction occurs or if your dog is starting to approach their reaction threshold. If you see your dog’s stress increasing and need a means to help them calm down, try moving away to a quiet spot nearby and doing a treat scatter to help your dog redirect their attention and regulate their emotions.
If your dog has a reaction or is becoming stressed, firstly move away from the trigger as much as possible to give your dog the relief of space from their stressor. Find a nearby patch of grass, pinestraw, etc and pull out a small handful of treats.
When your dog moves with you to the grassy spot, click (or use a verbal marker “yes”), tell your dog “find it!” and scatter the treats in the grass for your dog to sniff out and eat. This creates an impromptu snuffle mat, which both rewards your dog for redirecting their attention and is also a relaxing activity as sniffing is proven to lower a dog’s heart rate.
Once they have sniffed out all of the treats in the grass and the trigger has passed, you can cue their attention, move along with your walk, and reward your dog for moving along with you.
Tip #4: Use Visual and Auditory Barriers Around the Home
Your home is your dog’s safe space, and it’s difficult for your dog to be able to fully decompress and relax around the house if they constantly have access to triggers outside the house. Using visual and auditory barriers around the house can be very helpful to not only give your dog some relief to trigger exposure, but also will help reduce the amount of practice your dog gets with reacting to things happening outside. Your neighbors, your furniture, and your dog’s emotional wellbeing will thank you!
Window film can be a great way to restrict how much of the outdoors your dog can see from inside the house. There are different varieties of film for purchase, and it’s very easy to install and take down. Films vary from full blackout, to opaque film that still lets light through the window, and even with stained glass patterns to add to your home decor! Installing window film in windows that your dog frequents to look at and react to triggers outside will greatly reduce their reactivity inside the house, even when you can’t actively supervise them.
Playing auditory sounds and music around the house can also help with muffling outdoor sounds that your dog may react to. Dogs have sensitive hearing, and can often even hear small sounds outside the house that we don’t pick up on. That’s why sometimes it seems like our dogs bark at “nothing,” they can just hear things that we can’t! There are lots of relaxing music channels online that are catered specifically for dogs. You can find them on Youtube, Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and more! Play these music channels while around the house to help promote relaxation, rest, and help muffle outdoor sounds so your dog can get some relief from constantly hearing unexpected sounds.
Tip #5: Use “I Need Space” Equipment on Outings
With reactive dogs, sometimes half the battle of keeping your dog under their threshold is managing everyone else around you! Many people trying to interact with your dog are typically well-intentioned, but don’t realize that their encroaching on your dog’s space is actually harming your training process and not helping it. Other dog owners may also assume that because their dog is friendly, it must be fine to allow their dog to come up to yours for a direct greeting even if your dog does not welcome that kind of interaction.
Using “I need space” gear for reactive dogs out on walks can be helpful to get the message across to other people that they need to keep their distance. There are tons of variations, from bandanas, to leash covers, to vests, to shirts and hoodies that YOU can wear! Phrases vary from “in training,” “no dogs,” “I need space,” “shy dog,” and more. Some small businesses and online shops even sell customizable gear so that you can have a message made specifically for your dog’s needs. This way, people can see that they need to stay clear from a distance and you will experience less unwanted interactions when out with your reactive dog.
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