Snoqualmie Pets 101: Rex, Portrait of a Leash Reactive Dog Part II

In her newest column, pet trainer for Le Chic Pet, Melissa Grant, follows up on Rex’s progress dealing with the issues of “Leash Reactiveness” – and let’s her canine friend help explain how he got better.

So when we last left Rex two weeks ago, he explained to us how it feels to be a leash reactive dog; how uncomfortable greeting other dogs when leashed can be – and we learned how lucky he is to have found adoptive pet parents willing to do the hard work to help him feel better.

Hey now! Hold on a minute! Remember how handsome I am? They are lucky to have found me too!

Well, of course they are Rex, but you know when you got back home you had no leash skills whatsoever.

Well yes but I’m handsome!

Yes, of course you are, but let me finish this part. You can talk in a minute.

Ok….woof! 

So having trained a dog in the past, Jeanne called her previous trainer who helped get her in touch with someone to help. Since Rex had (really)no basic skills whatsoever, they spent a good amount of time learning the basics like sit and down. The more words your dog has in his vocabulary the better off you are in terms of control.

Once they had mastered a few crucial skills they moved on to “avoidance and management” in a Reactive Rover Class.  These two things won’t solve a leash reactivity issue, but will help pet parent and pooch to feel safer and more in control in the presence of other dogs.

They mastered things like “watch me” to focus attention on the parent and off the other dog in order to pass safely and quietly. “Find it” to give the reactive dogs brain somewhere else to focus while the other dog passes. As well as other management tools such as “U-turns and Jackpots,” all designed to make it easier for dog and parent to exist in a world full of other dogs.

Tell them about the chicken!!

I was just getting to that Rex.

The above tools were used in conjunction with a food reward to help focus Rex’s attention off the other dog and on his dog-mother. In the management phase of the training, the food was used as a distraction/ reward for looking away from the dog.  Again, this part is not a solution to his reactivity, but a tool to help his mother manage his reactions and move away safely.

Rex and Jeanne got very good at these skills and managed to take walks in low activity areas with few problems. But still, when taken by surprise by another dog, Rex would still blow up and be quite noisy and scary to those who didn’t know him to be the nice fellow he is.

I was really trying!

I know you were Rex. You just needed to move on to the next step.

That’s Counter-conditioning and desensitization, right?

Yes Rex. What a good smart boy you are!  *wiggle, waggle, grovel, woof*  

These two techniques are used to change unwanted behavior in dogs.

Counter conditioning means training a dog to display behavior that is mutually exclusive of the unacceptable behavior. For example, Rex leaps around barking and flailing at other dogs because he sees them as a negative. We want to train him to happily accept the presence of other dogs. He can’t do both of those things at the same time so we seek to make the happy reaction the dominant one.

Desensitization is to gradually expose Rex to a scary situation, without provoking the unwanted behavior. Rex was highly motivated to display his unwanted behavior, so this is where desensitization comes into play.

We exposed Rex to other dogs at a distance he could handle, gradually bringing him closer as he got used to the dogs at that distance. Food was again used as a reward for acceptable calm behavior. Imagine you had a fear of spiders, but every time you saw one a diamond would miraculously drop from the sky into your hand. After time, wouldn’t that change the way you felt about spiders? Wouldn’t you eventually start to seek out spiders because you knew the sight of one would cause all sorts of happy positive (diamond) things to happen?

Rewards are used to change the way Rex felt about seeing other dogs.

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When these techniques are used together we can gradually teach animals to display desirable behavior in the face of something that would have in the past caused problem behaviors.

That’s what we’ve been working on with you!

Yes, Rex. We made a chart of all the dogs we needed to get you used to – at all the distances, in different sizes, in different places, different colors and it started working.

And now I’m ok with small dogs! Ok…well most of them. That one little one we tried was so noisy!

I know Rex. She was and, really, she didn’t want to meet you either.  But you managed to keep it together and not cause a fuss. That’s good!

Yay me! Now we’re working with that cute medium-sized girl named Sparrow. I really want to say hello…someday.

And someday you will.

This has been a two and a half-year journey for Rex and Jeanne. Rex was already 2 ½ when he was adopted and some of his behavior was pretty hard-wired.

It’s important to remember that the quicker a problem is recognized, the faster the possible fix. Young dogs are like blank slates and you get to fill them up with what you want. An older dog isn’t so blank and you need to erase the unwanted things and then fill them up again. The cure isn’t quite so quick. However, it’s important to accept the dog you have and not wish for a dog you do not have right now.

Just remember, this is a very common problem and you aren’t alone. Don’t ignore it when you recognize it because with work and perseverance you can help your dog be a happier and calmer leash walker.

With chicken!!!

Yes, Rex with chicken. Woof!

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