Gaining Focus: Building Attention with a Reactive Dog

Despite the many things that may be going on inside your dog’s mind, we can get their focus back on us.

One of the greatest challenges you will have with any dog, but especially if you are living with a fearful and/or reactive dog, will be gaining their focus back to you. The outdoor world is a distracting environment for all dogs, let alone our modern urban environment! There are people, other dogs, wildlife, vehicles, bicycles, loud noises and so much more. We must also consider that a lot of these items may seem scary to our dogs. We bring dogs into our crazy human world and expect them to understand it all.

One of the my best analogies for this is describing my Aunt. She had lived her entire life in a rural small town setting. After retirement, she decided to move to Calgary to be with her daughter and new family. She purchased a condo by her daughter and somewhere that she could easily navigate with minimal driving. The busy city life frightens her. She had to do mulitple trips before she would travel on her own to my cousin’s house. And this is a person; someone who understands what vehicles, and bicycles, and those noises are. It put it into great perspective on how confusing our world must be for our dogs. And if you combine this with a dog that is easily aroused or fearful, this creates a challenging pairing.

If you have not already, please read through our post on The dogma of Distraction Training and Auto Watch. It is critical that we gain a proper perspective on how distracting the outside world is for our dogs as this can often lead to a constant source of frustration. We must understand our dogs are stressed, not intentionally ignoring us. Their focus is away from us as they are more interested in something else whether it be a dog, person, or plastic bag blowing in the wind. I will discuss some key points to assist in gaining focus from our fearful/reactive dogs.

Set Them Up for Success

I say this over and over again because as dog owners we continually put our reactive and/or fearful dogs in situations that are too much for them. We must create a better environment for them. We understand that the outside world is distracting in itself, especially if you live in the city. So, your responsibility is to take your dog into a situation that is not too overwhelming and where they are able to slow down and think. If you are take your dog out and they continually snub you and/or the food, struggle to remain still, demonstrate any vocalness such as whining or move away from your touch, they are not intentionally doing this to frustrate you, but instead are communicating that this environment is far too stimulating for them. So add it to your list of distractions, perhaps in your Difficult category and set it as a goal. Think of how proud you will be when you get there and have success! But you will struggle to get there if you continue to try to fight through your dog’s arousal levels, versus setting them up for success and stepping back to an environment that allows them to better focus.

The other side of this is to ensure you are still challenging you both. At this point, your dog should have a solid foundation with the auto watch, so get to places where you can effectively practice it. Along with situations that are too distracting, you want to ensure you are not continually taking them to environments where they never see their triggers. These quiet places are great to have when you just need a break, but you must realize that if they are never working through their triggers, or we are not progressing the intensity and decreasing proximity to them, we will struggle to work them through them. This is the same for dogs living outside of the city. You must take them to situations where they can experience and work in the urban setting.

Let Them Watch

Yes, that’s right! Sometimes just let your dog watch. As long as they are not reacting, why would we not just let them observe? One of the most common mistakes I see is how we constantly interrupt our dog every time they look at a trigger and how it frustrates and irritates our dogs. We also begin to anticipate a reaction so we want to interrupt our dog before they react, which in turn, causes them to react! Just try it: if you are out and your dog focuses (can be alert but not reacting or trying to flee) on another dog, person or rabbit, just stop moving, stay calm and let them watch. Once they do look back to you, say ‘yes’ and reward! And if they begin to become too aroused, simply provide a bit more distance and work on auto watch. But wait it out. Let them take the world in. This is an excellent tool to keep the situation calm and create cognitive focus.

Don’t Be Cheap!

With a reactive dog, when you are taking them out you must always have treats, and they must be treats that your dog loves. At this stage in the training you must reward EVERY time your dog looks at you. There is tremendous power in the simple skill of offered attention. And not only should we reward offered attention, but we should be rewarding every thing we want to see more of. Often, our dog may walk by a trigger, not react, and we are thrilled, but we do not acknowledge the dog. When this happens we should be calmly providing the dog big rewards to let them know that was the right choice! Reward and do not be cheap when your dog is offering ideal behaviour. And do this in all environments, not just when the trigger is present.

Hands Off!

This is another item that we have already discussed, but it is another that we need a constant reminder of. The key to training a reliable response is to actually allow the dog to figure out how to make the food reward appear. And ideally, we want a fearful/reactive dog to determine that the presence of the trigger is the cue to look back to you instead of reacting.

For example, you are set up in a large green space, stepping down on the leash with your dog that reacts to other dogs. You see a dog approaching, so ask your dog to look at you. Or perhaps you try to stand in front of them or push on their bum. None of this works and in the process we escalate our dog and create a reaction. Even if they do look to you when they hear their name, they are looking to you because they heard the cue, not because of the other dog. In our Reactive urbanK9 program, we teach your dogs that the presence of another dog means they can look at the other dog, but that they turn back to you. This is truly changing the association of the triggers versus just gaining reliability with the name attention cue.

Minimize Arousal Levels

This does not just mean that we keep them below threshold with other dogs so they are not reacting, as there are many other small cues that indicate your dog is becoming too aroused. Some of them may have an inability to sit still, taking the treats hard, breathing rapidly, small vocalizations such as whining, or even offering a variety of skills in rapid succession. We must become keen observers and perceive our dog’s body language as indications of their emotional state.

If your dog struggles with sitting still, simply cue them to sit, or use your food lure to put them into position. If they cannot, you are too close. If your dog begins to take treats hard, breathes rapidly or whines, but they are still able to focus on you and the trigger is not getting closer, then continue to work them. Stay calm and deliver the food slowly and watch for these to minimize and settleyour dog. This is working them through their stress. Do not remove them. It is a common practice to remove stressed dogs from these situations, but your dog now has a solid foundation. By still taking treats and demonstrating they can focus, they are capable of focus and learning and the true power is working them through this. You live with a reactive dog and will still see many moments of reactivity, so let’s teach them to work through that stress to truly build confidence and focus versus removing them from it.

If your dog starts to yo-yo back and forth between you and the trigger in rapid succession, use your food to interrupt this. If it is a person they are focusing on by yo-yoing back and forth quickly (they come take the food quickly and immediatey look back out), we need to bring their focus back without us reacting to this. When they do come back, offer treats calmly and one after another, and at a pace that does not allow the dog to focus back on the trigger. Once they settle and focus back on you, continue to work on auto watch. Think of it as a focus reset!

Our Focus

Remember how greatly our behaviour influences our dogs. This also applies to focus. If you want them to focus on you, you must focus on them. If you do not want them reacting to the trigger, we must not react either! Much easier said than done, but together we will get the confidence of both of you, and in each other, built back up!