How to desensitise a reactive dog
In dog obedience training, there are often many different approaches to the same problem. At Jordan Dog Training we recommend the following approach for working with reactive dogs as it does no harm (emotionally or physically) to the dog and it uses a science-based understanding of canine stress and dog behavioural learning.
What do we mean by “reactive dogs”? This refers to more than just a nuisance habit such as jumping up on people in excitement. It’s a label that we give to dogs who perceive certain situations as a threat and react instinctively to try and protect themselves. To people, it often looks like an overreaction, but to the dog it is very real.
1. Identify the trigger
Reactive dogs are not all the same. What sets your dog off? He’s not lunging and snarling all the time, so when does it happen? What happens directly beforehand?
- Hearing the doorbell?
- Bicycles or motorbikes – moving or stationary?
- White fluffy dogs? (we hear this a lot)
- Any unfamiliar dog?
2. Controlled exposure below threshold
Reactive dogs are responding to an emotional stimulus. You need to be smarter than your dog and predict when the trigger might occur so that you can ensure your dog is safely on lead and kept at a distance away from the “scary thing” so that they can see it or hear it but not at such an intensity that they start to react. For example, you might take your dog to a park where there are dogs, but stay several metres away so that your dog is interested but remains composed.
You should allow your dog to see or hear the trigger and then gain their attention, calling their name with a happy tone and rewarding them when they look at you/disengage from the trigger. When training your dog, use a reward that is highly reinforcing, such as a small piece of cheese or hot dog, a game or a throw of the ball (where safe to release your dog). If they are unable to be called away, you may need to work at a greater distance.
You should be constantly evaluating whether your dog is working comfortably (take a step forward) or visibly stressed (ease back a bit). Aim to have him working at a level where he is alert but not alarmed. Learn to watch his body language for signs of stress. Keep the reward rate high in the early stages of training and transition to sporadic rewards over time.
3. Repetition and generalisation
Repeat this positive exposure exercise often. Short sessions of 5 to 10 minutes a day will yield the best dog obedience results. With repeated exposure under your dog’s stress threshold followed by generous rewards, he will begin to think that the “scary thing” is not so scary after all, but rather a predictor of yummy treats and play time with their favourite human! Dogs do not generalise concepts well, so be sure to train them in many and varied locations (unless the trigger only occurs in one location).
Try to minimise uncontrolled exposure to the trigger during the desensitisation process. That may mean you temporarily stay off bicycle routes, only venture out on lead, or put up a “do not knock” sign.
For dog-reactive dogs, we recommend your local dog obedience training class, where you can attend regularly for low cost. If you are in Brisbane, you could enquire with Metropolitan Dog Obedience Club or Teamwork Dog Obedience.
The goal is to regularly expose your dog to other dogs during training, in a safe and controlled environment at a distance that your dog is comfortable and for him to associate that exposure with positive emotions instead of fear or aggression. This process may take some time, but it is important to work at your dog’s pace.
A final note
“Bad behaviour” displayed by reactive dogs (barking, growling, lunging or pulling on leash) usually arises out of fear. It often arises when dogs are on leash because they are unable to run away from the “scary thing” and so they put on a big show of aggression to try and make the scary thing go away. The process outlined above is a form of counter-conditioning – rewiring your dog’s brain to think of the scary thing as a predictor of wonderful things.
Yanking on your dog’s leash or using an electric training collar may stop your dog from displaying the bad behaviour in the short term, but it does not change the emotional processes going on in your dog’s head and may lead to problems down the track such as a bite that “came out of nowhere”. For more information about counter-conditioning and desensitisation in dog training, see https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/counter-conditioning-and-desensitization.
No two dogs are the same and what works for one may not work for another. Always consider safety first – your safety, that of your dog and those around you. Consult with your veterinarian for advice and recommendations.