We have discussed how to make our dogs calmly accept handling and to enjoy it, but what about how we handle them? Let’s face it: we can be jerks when we have our dogs on leash through yanking or keeping constant tension on the leash, and we can be very reactive as well! We often begin to anticipate that our dogs will react in certain situations, so we begin to react. This may be through pulling up on the leash, we may raise our shoulders with tension, we may begin breathing fast (or stop breathing!) or any type of response from being anxious. This all travels down the leash to our dogs and indicates something bad is about to happen. We easily influence our dog’s behaviour and with fearful or reactive dogs, it’s more often than not, for the worse.
However we want our dog’s to behave, we must behave that way. This means, if we don’t want tension on the leash, we don’t put tension on the leash! If we want them to be calm, we must be calm! If we want them to be confident, we must be confident! We understand that this is much easier said than done, so the below information outlines some key tips to help you better behave for your dog.
Step Down on that Leash
During the Foundations level of the Reactive urbanK9 program, your dog will need to be stationary to enable better success at them focusing. To do this, we are going to step down on their leash and lure them into a sit. If they respond to the sit cue, that’s perfect! But remember, their focus will be the other dog, so they may not respond well to cues.
We have you step down on the leash for a couple of reasons. The first one, is to take you off the other end of the leash. It is challenging and emotional to have a reactive dog, so we understand how stressful and frustrating this can be. As you work through the program, and your dog progresses, so will your confidence and this will help you to relax. For right now, step down on the leash and minimize the influence your behaviour as on your dog. The other reason is to prevent a game of tug of war on the leash! It is hard not to pull back on the leash when our dog is lunging or trying to pull towards the other dog. So, to prevent escalating the situation, stepping down the leash stops this from happening.
Remember to not have tension on the leash when you are stepping down. If the leash is tense, loosen it up slightly. Always, always, always hold on to the other end of the leash! If your leash is not long enough, you need to get another one that you can hold onto the other end while stepping down. And stay still. We can go into a fool around mode as well, and this includes us moving around and waving our hands. Stay standing and use your treat to lure your dog into position. When you move around you excite your dog and they will lose their focus, so stay still and keep your hand movements slow!
This is used for when you are walking and see something that will be too hard for your dog up ahead and that you cannot avoid if you continue moving forward. You know that you cannot create more space and practice the auto watch, so just need to avoid the situation. Remember that you are protecting the training and managing the environment to limit the reactive responses from your dog, so you just need to turn around and avoid what’s ahead. This is an important one to remember and we will introduce it to our dogs so they happily change direction now.
Up to this point, you have probably cued this already by saying something like, ‘uh oh’ or your favourite four letter word! And what this has likely become is just a cue to your dog that something scary is ahead! They hear it and hit the end of the leash in alert mode ready to react! To start, think of a cue that your dog does not already associate with this. It can be something simple as ‘this way’ or ‘u-turn’. We have even had people say funny things like ‘whoopie!’ or ‘yee haw’ to prevent the panic and have fun with this cue. It is up to you, but ensure you give it a name and cue it before you turn around to avoid any scary situation up ahead!
Start by introducing the cue when nothing is going on. Say your cue such as ‘this way’, bend your knees as you turn with a lure for your dog and encourage them to turn with you. Stay upbeat and have fun, and give your dog big rewards when they follow you! Turn this into a fun game and your dog will happily turn to follow you vs anticipating something scary up ahead and turning their focus to the dog or whatever it may be they will react to ahead.
Be aware of your touch and how it influences your dog. We often act out of frustration and try to physically move our dogs; even if it is as simple as pushing on their bum to get them to sit. Or we yank on their leash to move them into position. Or, we may even yank on their collar in an attempt to get them to stop reacting. All of this escalates the situation and you are worsening the reaction. And what’s even worse, you are damaging the relationship with your dog and will create challenges with their focus on you.
The most important step for this training to be successful: keep your hands off! Use the food to lure your dog into position, step down on the leash or create more space. We understand it is frustrating to deal with reactivity, but now you know how to handle the situation and how to set them up for success. Keeping our hands off our dogs, not physically manipulating them, rewarding offered behaviour and allowing them to problem solve creates reliable and long lasting behaviour. And not only that, you and your dog will enjoy the training and be happy to do it! You will even begin seeking out the same situations that you were once trying to avoid!
Use your touch in a positive way. Slowly stroke your dog and gently rub his chest. Take down time on your walks, and try this after stressful events. Watch how powerful this is at calming both of you. This is such a wonderful way to have a quiet bonding experience. Get out of the habit of using your hands when you are frustrated. Use your touch to settle your dog and experience the joy of the calming effect it can have.
Make an active effort to stay calm and breathe on your walks. Take deep breaths and be aware of tension. Maintain a slower pace and just enjoy your time with your dog. Ensure you take your dog out to environments where you can easily see what’s around you and you have enough space to move away, if needed. Give your dog time to sniff and just be a dog. Take breaks and let them just watch the world. We get so caught up in the busy lifestyle, our walks tend to be fast and go, go, go! Try to take time to enjoy your time together, and if a dog does come into sight, know you have enough distance to successfully practice your dog’s focus.
If you have had a stressful day and are already tired, go somewhere with lots of space and where you are unlikely to run into any dogs or people! Just enjoy a nice walk and know that you do not need to do training walks every day. It is important that your dog is working and seeing other dogs, but there are times when we are better to have a stress-free walk or no walk at all versus one full of reactivity. When we are frustrated or stressed, we forget what we have learned and create a stressful situation for our dog which often results in increased reactivity from them. Take your time and be patient with both of you, and just breathe.