Training Tip: Keeping your dog under threshold around wildlife

When your dog is highly aroused by a trigger (e.g. a rabbit), your first approach will be to assess if your dog needs more distance from the rabbit in order to be able to watch it. Watching a wildlife (or any other trigger your dog has a positive emotional reaction to) is very reinforcing, so you want to try to set up situations where your dog is able to watch the wildlife without pulling on the leash (reinforcing the loose leash, with the reinforcement being dog gets to continue to watch the wildlife). And in advanced cases, you can even let the dog move towards the location where the wildlife is or was as the reinforcement for looking back at you (attention) and maintaining a loose leash (impulse control).
However — a big however — sometimes the longer the dog watches the more aroused the dog becomes (or the closer the dog gets, the more aroused the dog becomes). This is where you can do a few things to help keep your dog under threshold.
You can monitor your dog’s arousal and stick some food in front of your dog’s nose while he’s watching the wildlife. If your dog eats the food, then that is a good sign that he/she is under threshold. If your dog doesn’t eat the food, or takes it but doesn’t swallow it, or takes it with a rough mouth, then that is a sign that your dog needs distance from the trigger. In this case, you would prompt your dog away about 10 strides (or more, depending on your dog and the situation) and then see if you can set your dog up in a situation where he/she can look at the wildlife and be well-below threshold.
You can keep your dog moving but circle the trigger in a wide arc — in this way you aren’t getting closer to the trigger but your dog is releasing some pent up energy by keeping in motion. You can reinforce any attention the dog gives to you (treat or toy or praise) and let the dog look back at the trigger (if the dog is still under threshold). If you notice the dog is getting a little tension in the leash, then you can guide your dog a few feet away from the trigger (making the arc larger) and then when he/she calms, you can let the dog approach closer a bit. If an arc isn’t possible, you can zig zag towards the trigger (as long as the dog is well-under threshold).
Taking little mini breaks. Give your dog some time to watch, then prompt the dog to get distance or focus attention on something else for a minute, then let the dog return to looking at the wildlife. Small doses to the nervous system allows the dog to build tolerance.
FRUSTRATION: this can be a real problem the longer a dog watches wildlife (or other highly desirable positive trigger). This is where food and/or toys can help. Perhaps you can carry GOLD LEVEL food bit for such occasions. This could be a type of food that your dog ABSOLUTELY LOVES and doesn’t get any other time. Cooked muscle meat or organ meat is usually a good choice. But perhaps your dog absolutely loves bits of banana, or licks of peanut butter (bring a hollow rubber toy with it inside so you can let your dog have licks). For some dogs a great choice is bringing out a tennis ball or tug toy (or grabbing a stick from the ground, or in the case of a lovely dog I know, a Tim Horton’s coffee cup).
NOTE ON TOYS: The use of the toy on walks is not to stimulate your dog further, but rather to provide  reinforcement and an opportunity to release some pent up tension/excitement. This means you let the dog carry the ball or you toss it 3 feet in front of you and let the dog pounce on it. Or you pull out the tug and let the dog grab it but you don’t hang on, or hang on very lightly. Think of the toy as a way to release the pent up energy just like you would gradually loosen the cap of a bottle of fizzy drink. You want to let the pressure out but not too quickly.
For one dog that I used to walk (she’s passed away now, sadly) she LOVED people and wildlife. She learned quite quickly that if she didn’t pull, I would let her get closer to the squirrel in the tree and the rabbit in the field. In this case, I used “moving closer to the squirrel” as the reinforcement for looking at me. Then, later, I increased the criteria: she had to not pull. If she pulled, I stopped. If she still pulled I backed up. If she still pulled after backing up significantly, we walked away from the squirrel tree and tried again another time. Food was also a good option to help her, but it wasn’t always effective with wildlife. The absolutely BEST thing that I could ALWAYS count on to divert her attention away was a ball. Preferably a tennis ball. And I carried two, in case she already had the one when I needed to distract her again. The only thing better than the tennis ball in her mouth was the other tennis ball in my hand.

Over-reactive Dog Behaviours

The information provided here only touches the surface of the subject.  If your dog has severe reactivity problems, please consult the services of a professional who uses positive-reinforcement methods rather than compulsion training (verbal “psst’s” or physical corrections and/or aversive equipment such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, slip collars).  Compulsion-based methods attempt to suppress the emotions that drive the over-reactive behaviours, and they often result in an escalation of unwanted behaviours and new unwanted behaviours.

What is over-reactivity?

Over-reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top emotional response to common stimuli in the dog’s environment at a normal intensity (“normal” referring to the distance, exposure time, and behaviour of the stimuli).   These stimuli are commonly referred to as “triggers” because they trigger a response in the dog.  Some dogs are over-reactive to a small number of triggers (other dogs, kids on skateboards, the mail carrier) but some dogs seem to overreact to nearly everything (sounds, movement, new objects, things that are out of place).  In most cases the behaviours are due to frustration or fear, even if the dog is lunging and barking aggressively.  In the case of fear-based over-reactivity, these aggressive displays are often used as a way for the dog to provoke a response in the “new thing” to determine if it’s a threat or not or to make the “scary thing” go away.

What can cause over-reactivity?

Genetics play a significant role in determining a dog’s temperament, and it’s important to note that a dog can only progress as far as his inherited “nature” will allow.  What happens to a dog after he’s born will also have a huge influence on his temperament, especially socialization, training, and diet.  (Illness can also be a factor, so be sure to consult your vet if you suspect this may be the case.)

Poor socialization (deficits and “bad” experiences) during the first few months of a puppy’s life can lead to over-reactivity.  Puppyhood is when the dog learns what to expect in his environment, and if a puppy isn’t exposed in a positive way to the sights, sounds, and smells he is expected to encounter in his daily life, chances are he will have problems with over-reactivity.  The puppy then enters adolescence, a stage of development where his instinct is to be very cautious about new things. (During this time it’s common for dogs to experience “fear periods” where they seem particularly sensitive, often showing increased sensitivity to sounds and movement.) Extremely negative experiences, especially if they happen during a fear period, can also create a fear of something that lasts the dog’s lifetime. Even if a dog is well socialized during puppyhood, there is the risk of de-socialization if the dog is no longer exposed to new things, becoming overreactive to the environment outside of their yards.

One factor often overlooked is diet.  Low quality or highly processed ingredients, heavy starch-based diets (i.e. kibble), additives, and gaps in nutrients can lead to behavioural problems in some dogs.  A healthy nervous system needs proper nutrition, and a weakened digestive system cannot properly digest food to get the nutrients the dog needs.  A damaged digestive system leads to food sensitivities, allergies, hormonal imbalances, etc., which can stress the entire body including the nervous system. As well, there is some evidence suggesting that the gut biome influences behaviour, and onea gut biome that is out of balance can adversely affect the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Current science is showing clear links between the nervous system and the digestive system (“the second brain” as some scientists are putting it).

Things you can do:

Reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and appropriate exercise and play, increase sleep and quiet time, improve diet, and work with a positive reinforcement trainer to help improve your dog’s ability to cope with things in the environment.  Do what you can to avoid isolating your dog because this can lead to an increase in reactivity.  But this doesn’t mean forcing your dog into situations he’s not ready for because this can reinforce and increase reactive behaviours.  Work slowly and systematically.

When discussing the behaviour modification for over-reactive dogs, it’s important to understand how essential it is to keep a dog under his threshold.  When a dog is over his threshold, it’s extremely difficult for him to learn new behaviours because his brain is in “reactive mode” rather than “thinking mode”, and each time he over-reacts to a trigger that behaviour is reinforced. To ensure you are able to keep your dog below his threshold, you need to be able to read his subtle signs of stress so you can intervene before he goes over his threshold. By the time he’s straining at the leash or vocalizing, it’s too late; he’s over his threshold.

It’s best to consult a professional trainer experienced in working with over-reactivity, especially severe cases, as this can be an involved and complex process.  Avoid any trainers who suggest forcing a dog to remain over his threshold to “let him work it out on his own”; these flooding techniques can overwhelm a dog – especially one with a sensitive nervous system already — and cause undesirable side effects.  Sometimes a dog will quiet down after a forced exposure and the humans think the dog is cured of his reactivity. This is not necessarily the case.  The dog may have exhausted his nervous system and temporarily “shut down”; he has not changed his mind about the trigger, but he may have changed his mind about you and how much he can trust you.  This dog may be more likely to bite without warning in the future, and this approach is likely to result in a more extreme reaction to the trigger in the future and/or a new, undesirable behaviour (i.e. regression in housetraining, aggression around food or toys, etc.).

Activities/Classes for over-reactive dogs:

Any class for over-reactive dogs should provide safe, controlled opportunities for reactive dogs to choose appropriate behaviours in the presence of the trigger.  It’s essential that the space be large enough for the dogs to have the distance they need to avoid sensitizing the dog further.  Some dogs need to be 100 feet away from another dog. If you are beginning to learn to read your dog and are working on giving your dog enough distance from “the trigger”, here is a good rule to follow: When you think your dog has enough distance — double it. There is a lot going inside your dog well before most humans ever notice the subtle signs of stress. By the time most humans see them (even trainers, and especially the trainers that are misinterpreting the signals), the dog is already anxious.

Dogs with over-reactive behaviours should be gently and systematically desensitized to their triggers while they remain below threshold, and if counter conditioning is a component of the training, the dog trainer needs an accurate understanding and skill level to implement it properly and train dog owners to do it, as well. And they need to understand when counter conditioning attempts may be interfering with the dog’s progress.

Anyone interested in taking a class for over-reactive dogs can contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA

 Testimonials

When Frasier and I moved off of our farm, his world got smaller. Gone were the days of running free through the cranberry bogs for our morning walks. In the city, he was confined to leash walks and he became increasingly frustrated and reactive to other dogs. If he saw a squirrel, he pulled so hard that I could barely stay on my feet. Walking him became a chore instead of the best part of my day. Then, we found Jennifer Berg. The training that she introduced us to has worked wonders. I can honestly say I enjoy walking my dog again!

~ Frasier’s “mom”

I’m thrilled with how quickly Lucy’s reactivity to other dogs has diminished!  And I remain impressed with Jennifer’s quick eye to point out the tiniest of stress reactions from Lucy. Many thanks for helping me become a more sensitive dog owner!

~ Nadine Baker

Your Dog’s Emotions Drive Behaviours

In any dog training situation — whether in a formal dog class or on a walk in your neighbourhood — it is essential to assess your dog’s emotional state. Is your dog finding the experience pleasant, and is your dog under threshold? If not, your dog will begin to show more “unwanted behaviours” and your dog will find it difficult to learn.

Many (I would argue most) unwanted behaviours are a product of stress —distress and/or eustress (e.g. happy excitement). If your responses to your dog’s behaviours add to his/her stress, it’s unlikely that your dog’s behaviours will improve and they are likely to become worse.

Emotions drive behaviours. If you suppress the behaviours, the emotions still need to go somewhere (often resulting in worsening of behaviours or new unwanted behaviours). Avoid using training methods that are designed to suppress behaviours; instead address the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviours (e.g. distress or extreme eustress).

This often involves controlling your dog’s access to the environment, rather than trying to control your dog. Don’t force your dog to “get over his/her fears” but instead use gentle exposures; don’t let your dog move into a new area or closer to the “object of interest” unless your dog’s arousal levels are below threshold.

To effectively read your dog’s emotional state, you must become fluent in canine body language, especially the signals your dog prefers to use. If you can become aware of the very subtle signals your dog uses when stress levels are relatively low, you can help your dog before he/she begins to show the unwanted behaviours.