I remember my absolute horror as the women and her border collie exited the training facility. Her eyes grew large and she gasped. I don’t remember her exact words, but I suddenly felt like I had a monster on the other end of my leash. Dumbfounded, I stammered and fumbled with Jedi’s new behavior, adding to his hyper-response with confusion, creating chaos. This is the moment we both spun out of control.
It is imperative you check your emotions at the door when you are working with a reactive dog. I cannot emphasize this enough. Trainers aren’t magic, they just have no previous relationship for a dog to gauge their responses to AND the trainer is in the right state of mind. You must find this calm space for yourself in order for your dog to begin to let go of their emotional state.
I needed to figure out where the holes were in my leadership and how to get us BOTH in the right state of mind. This is our answer, we finally found SUCCESS. 🎉 Skip ahead here to see how we did it => Every Step We Take and When Fear Keeps You Too Safe
Could I have helped the future us, if I had known what Jedi needed at that moment? Maybe, quietly blocking his view, having him sit him right in front of me. If I had him look into my eyes, asking him to trust me and calmly rewarded him with handfuls of treats. Or created some space, while playing his favorite heeling game while giving him handfuls of treats. Perhaps, if I could have shown him that I knew he was not a monster. I realize you are scared, but there is no need. All while I presented a confident, quiet, calmness?
Even without the knowledge that he was attacked at daycare, maybe I could have met his needs just then. He practiced and perfected his routine that week; I practiced my lame inadequate leadership skills along side of him. Heightening his own frantic emotional state with my own, both becoming emotion wrecks.
By the time he was attacked for second time and I was finally notified that he was attacked at all, he was dialing it in. Though trial and error, he worked out his barking and lunging routine to perfection. He knew what he was going to do to keep all of the scary dogs away and I fell for it. I had no idea what I was going to do. I became a nervous Nellie, floundering, worrying about how I was going to change this new behavior, clueless.
Our group class for agility, rally and obedience, had taken a new unanticipated direction. Before we could progress with these silly little dog sports, I needed to learn much, much more about doggie behavior. I also had to face my own anxiety of handling such a boisterous dude. Not only did we try to pass go, but we also tried to collect our $200. Off to reactivity jail we go.
Guess what, I cannot dwell on the past what if’s. It took a while, but I am looking forward, leaving all of that in the dust. I have spent the last year seeking knowledge, from a certified veterinary behaviorist, countless good and bad reactive dog trainers, his breeder, recommended books, credible online sources and an excellent Facebook support group. Be aware this Facebook page uses Force Free methods only, it is truly a place where they understand the emotional part of having a reactive dog. If you get stuck, the first place you should check, is your emotional state as you approach another dog.
On this journey, I am blessed to have countless dog trainer friends. Being a dog trainer, I already have good timing and observation skills. I finally believe in myself enough to trust my best. It doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks he is a little monster. I now have what we need to LEAD MY TEAM. So, where are we now? Well, right where we are supposed to be.
I started this blog post about two weeks ago. At that time, I was about to start Jedi’s reconditioning. I planned on re-stepping Jedi through what HE perceived was the monster at the end of the leash, all other dogs. As we started our new adventure, I want to share something I found shortly after Jedi became reactive. It has been extremely helpful to me.
The website is http://www.darwindogs.org. I love the walking technique noted below. I use body pressure to slow things down for us. It is an easy way to provide information that my dog understands. One thing I add, is to push my dog backwards, until he looks to me, wondering what he should do next. Once I get that behavior, we proceed.
Always remember, things don’t just change overnight. New routines might take some time, before a dog understands the new rules. That doesn’t mean it isn’t working, hold tight and keep trying. When you are teaching a dog new things, start at home and always stay under threshold until they really understand what you are asking.
Don’t forget to praise them calmly, when they get it right. It worked wonderfully for us, for his strong herding drive towards vehicles and other moving objects. Body pressure alone didn’t work for us on the dog reactivity after he was attacked. Pushing him backwards escalates his behavior if I am late on the draw and because I named him “Unstoppable Force”. 😜 Now, I have to figure out another way to remind him that I am the kill switch to the FORCE!
- Leash-walking Part 1
- Leash Walking Part 2
- Leash Walking Part 3
Piloting your dog. I had no idea Jedi had been asking me all of these questions. I see it now quite often, with the mildly reactive dogs in my classes. I always mention to the handlers, be aware of just how many times their dog looks at them with their asking eyes. If your dog is in a learning mindset, you can give your answers and they can respond. Answer all of their questions. Once they begin to get answers and they trust your decisions, they will look to you before they react.
You can condition good responses, by using food or Classical Counter Conditioning. That is the goal of the CARE program. Once you are in a good spot, use this method to change your dogs emotional response to whatever it is they are reactive to. No matter what else you try, counter condition your dog to the scary thing! DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!
Jedi has been asking me questions ALL OF THE TIME! I can’t believe I didn’t see it at first, I didn’t know a dog had so many questions and needed so many answers! My other dogs have been very balanced in temperament, very confident and easy going, they didn’t have so many questions. Now I know, some dogs just need a tremendous amount of direction.
Well then, why didn’t this fix all of our issues when I started to realize what was happening?
Jedi has always been a 0 to 60 kind of a dog. His breeder even told me her dogs tend to get over stimulated very easy. Working lines need to be explosive in their actions. This means I need to catch him within the first few seconds. I needed to be an expert at reading his body language. If I miss it, he is no longer in a learning mindset. NO BLINKING!
The final nail in the coffin, I started out by correcting him too harshly after he was over threshold. We spent too much time stuck in that spot, before I could get my emotions under control. A common mistake for handlers with dogs like Jedi, is continuing to let your dog practice this behavior by testing it over and over.
Dog training works to well because dogs operate in patterns. Which one would you rather practice and ingrain, the one where your dog sees a trigger and reacts out of control. Or the one where your dog sees a trigger, then can listen to you and do what you trained them to do next. Stay under threshold, until you have solid success with small triggers. Proceed with optimistic caution, after you start seeing success.
I also, didn’t realize, I had a soft, fearful dog on my hands. I didn’t recognize it at first, because he moves toward the things he fears and appears decisive, the vet behaviorist validated this for me. I now understand, if he starts to react we are too close to the fearful object. What he needs instead is for me to provide leadership, remain calm and direct him. NEVER pressure your dog beyond their mental or emotional capabilities. Work at your dogs pace, it doesn’t hurts to take your time. You are your dogs best advocate!
In Jedi’s personal case, I have to provide information beyond the interrupter. We have tried a flat buckle, no-pull harness, martingale, gentle-leader and a slip lead. I like the harness because he cannot slip it very easy. No, it isn’t going to matter what collar I use, I just have to make sure I can keep him safely in it. I need to change our pattern and I cannot rely on the leash to do anything more, then letting him know that consequences follow.
I need something that that interrupts before his primal brain to takes over. I have to keep him at or under threshold if I want him to hear me right now. That combine with the medication it is allowing him to react to my guidance.
We will work on the outskirts of the world, where the pressure of moving things and all other triggers are reduced. There is no wing and a prayer in dog training. Until I can get us back to working with that backwards momentum again, his focus then turned back on to me, a good successful routine and clear expectations all re-ingrained. Once he knows what he needs to do, to escape the pressure, we will move towards the triggers once again at Jedi’s pace.
Force free training is a good place to start. This science based training is what has been recommended by my vet behaviorist. All dogs are different and you need to train the dog in front of you. It is truly an awesome method if it is right for your dog. It is not right for my dog.
The thing I do love about “Force Free Training” is you focus on the positive things. To be optimistic and creative, while thinking about what it is you want to happen. This way you are teaching your dog what you want them to do and how to be successful at it. It assures you are not creating a constant heavy pressure, waiting for them to fail. Change your mindset and create what you want to happen!
A common error people make is being reactive and putting to much focus on waiting for your dog to do something wrong. If you create the right relationship with your dog, they will begin to look to you for guidance. Don’t focus on looking for the moments your dog is wrong, just help them out when they are. Be consistent, so you don’t confuse them.
I advocate for the most positive method first. I fall on the side of a balanced trainer. Body pressure is the tool I use most to communicate with dogs. I have done this with my dogs since they were puppies and they understand it means I am slamming the door. It is my version of “no”.
This is also the tool I most often teach the students in my group classes to use if they have training moments that need a consequence. The dogs in my classes have been screened for serious behavior issues. So, I use it as a consequence for things like jumping on the trainer. That needs an answer and that answer is “no”!
At this point my dogs thoroughly understand the meaning of body or voice pressure. One of the biggest reasons I love getting a puppy, is because I like to set a lot of rules at the very beginning when they are just learning how to navigate the world. By taking all of the best parts of what we learned work for us, we have strengthened that relationship and my dogs look to me for guidance. What we have is a partnership and it = AWESOME!
I still have to be quick on the draw when it comes to Jedi, because he escalates so fast. If he goes above threshold for too long, he is no longer in charge of making his own decisions. I can only remove him from the trigger.
What is going on when he slips out of his learning brain?
He has switched over to his sympathetic nervous system. Basic freeze, fight or flight systems have taken over and are now influencing his decisions. Since he is on a leash, I have taken away the flight response. If you notice your dog freeze, don’t go any closer, unless you know your dog can emotionally handle it. Otherwise, all he has left is fight.
I am having success with the CARE program; making good associations with the things he fears so much. I have not been able to close the gap. Jedi’s anxieties were impeding our progress. The vet behaviorist agreed he is a good candidate for medication. I have seen it already, in just the last few weeks, he can take direction on medication. He can hear me through his emotional state now. This wasn’t possible before medication.
Now we are closing in on week 8 of medication. I have continued to keep him quiet, while his body adjusts. The vet behaviorist and my dog training friends, agreed this is a good plan. The medication can take up to 8 weeks to take full affect.
Another reason to work with a vet behaviorist is they have training and experience with how the medications affect dogs. Mine switch us from fluouxine to sertraline at the end of week 5. Jedi was having adverse side affects to fluouxine, some vomiting and gagging. He was losing weight and struggling to eat. Two days after the switch, he is back to eating like a champion. Running to his food dish to gobble down his food. YAY!
After the medication switch, he became a little more hyper. She said that can happen with some dogs on sertraline. He can still hear me much better though. The missing ingredient was Jedi being able to respond to me. Of course, being hyper is not as productive, but as long as he can hear me, we will give it a shot. I am clam and confident now. I will keep us in a composed state of mind and create space, if we start slipping out of it.
I am just starting to form thoughts about where I will take him for his first reconditioning session. Our last distance was about ½ a football field…or maybe even a little more. Many times when I take him places in the car, he wouldn’t get out. Another important thing I learned is less is more. While I am reconditioning him, we will leave while we are still successful and don’t wait until you have pushed your dog to far. Why would he want to get out of the car, we were never having any fun, successful experiences. We have a lot of work to do, but I want to do it right for Jedi.
This time what will be different?
- I will do nothing that puts Jedi or any other living creature in danger.
- Everything that you read above about remaining under threshold, HOLDS TRUE FOR THE HUMAN. I guess my whole point about me being ready is I will keep myself under threshold. I will not exceed my skills, because that is where we will lose our confidence. I will use what I have gathered so far, that I learned works for us. If I am over my threshold, I am not ready, I am too close. This is where I have been struggling the entire time. I have learned to breath deep for I must remain calm, no matter what. Slow it down for myself. Anything else, validates Jedi’s fear OF MY LOSS OF CONTROL.
- I will not push us beyond our emotional capacity. Keep emotions like frustration, anger and anxiety out of dog training. If I am overly anxious about anything we are attempting, to the point I cannot lead, I am not ready. I am just simply testing in hopes it will work this time, but not leading. This allows Jedi to practice the bad behavior and create patterns we don’t really want. I will slow things down, until I have the skills to get it right. I hope he lives a good long time 💖 and we have as long as he needs to close the gap. Our sessions will be short and sweet; until he shows me he can handle more.
- Confidence!!!!!!!!!!!! Please see point 2 ⬆️. We have done so much trial and error. Did I say, I don’t care what you think of us, my strong uncertain emotions are gone. I believe Jedi will recognize that, calm is all that will pass down the leash.
- I will answer all of his questions, leaving nothing to fear.
- I will remember the best-laid plans do not always turn out as expected. I will do my best to roll with it and not feel defeated if things don’t exactly go our way. I won’t leave the training session feeling bad or that we failed. If you feel bad about your training session, your dog will feel it. Don’t put that on your dog or they won’t want to go any where with you. It isn’t easy to convince him we are going somewhere to have fun now!!
- I will carry citronella spray and remain perfectly calm if I have to use it. I am hopeful that no one will create a situation where I spray a doggie in the face, because their owners let them run up to us. Sorry doggie, I need to take care of my boy.
There is such a learning curve for new reactive dog handlers. Keep searching, the method that works best for you and your dog is out there. The best thing you can do is keep Fido and yourself as stress free as possible, until you find the right one! Be pliable, keep what works from anything you learn, roll with the punches. Be kind, because you never know when the tables will turn on you!
The last thing I leave you with are some words my Vet Behaviorist put in Jedi’s summary:
“Embrace a mindset of ‘treating’ (doing therapy) and not ‘testing’ to see what he can handle.”