Working with a Reactive Dog: Life Lessons in Patience, Persistence & Rewards
Jackie Maffucci, PhD
Lead Trainer, CPDT-KA

A month ago, I welcomed a foster dog, Miss Rou, into my home. Miss Rou is a French Bulldog, about 1 ½ years old, and has been in foster care since October 2013 through French Bulldog Village. She was rescued from a puppy mill. Finding a permanent home for her has been a challenge. Although extremely sweet and loving, as a result of her early experiences she also has some confidence issues and is reactive towards other dogs. This means she needs a home without pets and a family who is willing to work with her to show her that the world isn’t as scary as she seems to think. For a rescue dog, and particularly a puppy mill dog, this is not all that unusual.

A month prior to taking Rou in, I lost my dog Dinah to lymphoma. Honestly, I wasn’t ready to welcome another dog into my life, but Rou’s story was too compelling not to give her a chance. Rou came to me much like Dinah did, a misunderstood pup with so much love to give who was just waiting for the right person to see through her challenges and embrace all of her potential. My mission is to work with Rou on building her confidence level and decreasing reactivity to other dogs while finding her a forever home that is committed to continuing that work.

My initial assessment of Rou was that she was a young dog who hadn’t outgrown her puppy tendencies. She needed structure and a calm household, as she was very quick to excite. She was smart and energetic, so needed a program that would include mental and physical activities to help use the energy in a positive way. Most importantly, I very quickly recognized a dog that was lacking confidence and uncertain about the world around her, which likely is the root of her excitability and reactivity.

The first time I saw her react to another dog, it really showed me the extent of her fear. Within an instant of seeing a dog across the street, she was barking, lunging, and it was clear her emotions had taken over in full force. The treats that I had with me were doing nothing to pull her attention away. She was, in short, an emotional mess.

But for the majority of the time, Rou is a very sweet girl, with tons of personality, who wants nothing more than to hang out with her people. She loves fetch, she’s a pro at crating, and she’s quick to learn. In just a month I’ve seen her turn into a different dog, one who is in much more control of her arousal and can now see a dog on the street and look to me for a treat rather than react. To see such improvement in such a short time bodes very well for Rou. The secret to our success has been three-fold:

(1) Physical and mental activity

Challenge: Rou is very much a puppy at heart. She has a lot of energy and if she’s not given a constructive outlet for that energy, she finds other ways to get it out.

Solution 1: Puzzle Toys
One of the most important lessons I ever learned is the value of puzzle toys. Rou’s daily meals are delivered through puzzle toys, kongs, and training treats.

Puzzle toys that move around, like the IQ ball and Bob-A-Lot, are great because they not only require problem solving to get the food, but they also encourage her to work through her fears as the toys go into areas that she’s not so comfortable exploring. She’s essentially self-rewarding for overcoming slightly scary situations.

I also always have some frozen kongs in the freezer. These are great for the crate or the backyard (to give Rou something to focus on while there are people, dogs and other neighborhood sights and sounds that she might react to). To make them, I soak her kibble in water until the kibble is mushy, and then mix with some canned food, pack the kongs loosely and freeze. They’re a big hit!

Solution 2: Obedience Training
I try to integrate at least 2-3 short training sessions with Rou each day to work on basic behaviors. The sessions are usually 5-10 minutes, and I generally pick about 2-3 behaviors to work on during that time. Initially we started in the house, where distractions tend to be more limited. I’ve been pushing her more to now do these in the backyard and at a local park during off-peak hours. Not only is this good for her manners, but also helps give her some “brain drain.”

(2) Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Challenge: Rou is dog reactive and is also reactive to objects that she’s not familiar with. In large part, this is a reaction based in fear.

Solution: Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Desensitization is used to reduce an exaggerated reaction to something. A structured plan of desensitization will gradually expose the animal to the fear-eliciting object or event in a controlled way so that the object or event doesn’t trigger a reaction. Counterconditioning is the process of re-teaching the animal to have a different (and ideally more positive) reaction to the object or event.

For Rou, I’m using these ideas to help change how she views other dogs and other scary objects. The trick to desensitization is making sure that I’m keeping a far enough distance from the fear-inducing object so that Rou can look but not feel compelled to react. At the same time, I’m pairing every look with a high value treat, so she begins to associate the scary item or event with something really great (counter-conditioning).

For dogs, this means from a distance, she looks at a dog and gets a treat. In just a month, and with the power of hot dogs and boiled chicken (the right motivation, i.e. treat, is key), I can now take her on a walk around the neighborhood without her reacting to dogs across the street. The key to recognizing success is recognizing the small wins and not a dramatic change overnight. Also to make sure to manage the dog when you are not training so you do not “practice” the bad behavior on a daily basis. Don’t walk the dog when everyone else is out with their dog, walk your dog in places where you have more space to move out of the way if you have to, etc.

(3) Accept Her for Who She Is and Enjoy It

In my opinion, the most important piece of working with a reactive dog is to enjoy them for who they are and not put them in situations they are not ready for. For Rou, she is a goofy, adorable and cuddly girl who just so happens to have some fear-based issues, including fear of other dogs. Sure, when she reacts it can be stressful for me, the handler, but I’ve learned to take a deep breath and refocus my attention on getting her attention back on me. If I can be calm and confident in these situations, it will help her be that way too. All she needs is time and encouragement.

I have worked with a number of reactive and fearful dogs in the last ten years, including my own dog. What they have taught me is the importance of patience and persistence that lead to the ultimate reward. Rou is a great girl with a whole lot of potential. Each day I see her rising to meet that potential and that’s what keeps me focused on helping her to overcome her fears.

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