Observant people familiar with dog body language know that a dog is more relaxed and less stressed if the dog is able to choose an “indirect” path — a curve if you will — when approaching people, other dogs, or objects/locations that are unfamiliar or have a history of causing the dog anxiety. Watching well-socialized dogs meet each other while off-leash illustrates this beautifully.
Have a look at the videos from this study where dogs’ heart rates were measured during direct approaches (head-on) and indirect approaches (curves). You will witness the correlation between the heart rate and the dog’s body language and tightness of the leash. In my Wellness & Enrichment dog class, I instruct students to monitor the amount of leash pressure the dog is causing on the walk and use that as a guide to assess the dog’s level of arousal in order to keep the dogs under threshold.
When walking a dog on a leash, remember to avoid head-on direct approaches when passing people, other dogs, skateboards, the yard with the dog barking at the fence, etc. Your dog might be trying to pull away to make that curve, but an uninformed dog handler may give a “correction” or lure/coax the dog to continue the direct approach, causing increased stress levels. This is how dogs become sensitized to these situations, and how many dogs begin to show over-reactive behaviours when encountering these things on a leash.
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
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
“How long will it take for my dog to stop _______?”
“How much time will it take for my dog to be able to ________?”
I get questions like this often when people hire me to train their dogs. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer other than “It depends on many things.”
How long has your dog been doing this behaviour? Is this behaviour self-reinforcing (feels good to the dog just to do it) or are there external factors that are reinforcing the behaviour (and can these be removed or used to reward an alternate behaviour? What behaviour would you like your dog to do instead? Does your dog have an intense emotion connected to the behaviour?
And there’s more.
How much time can you put into dog training? Are there others that interact with the dog who will be “on board” with the training plan? Do you understand that some behaviours are strengthened if you reinforce them infrequently? Are you willing to tolerate the frustration and extinction bursts that may occur as your dog tries to learn or “unlearn” a behaviour? Are you willing to change your own behaviours in order to be able to effectively train your dog in a way that your dog understands? Do you hold a strong belief that your dog is doing the behaviour “to spite you” or because the dog is “dominant” or because your dog “doesn’t respect you”?
As you can see, there is no definitive answer in dog training — each situation is different and many factors must be considered. This is one reason why dog training programs on television and radio can be so problematic, even when the dog trainer on the program is highly qualified. People hear the advice and then think it should be tried at home with their dog. It may not work for your situation.
One thing I can tell you is that clear communication with your dog and following the principles of the science of behaviour will significantly speed things up. Misinterpreting your dog’s behaviours, trying to train when your dog is stressed, and misunderstanding the science of behaviour will slow things down.
Dog training is not rocket science. But it is science.
What is a “lifestyle” dog or puppy class? I define it as a class that teaches dog owners how to help their dogs learn to be relaxed, comfortable, and under control while participating in activities with their human. What is your lifestyle and how do you want your dog to participate in it with you? Are you looking for a relaxed dog walk both you and your enjoy? Group dog walks with other dog owners in park settings? For an active lifestyle, my clients can try some Search Fun games outdoors, get a little taste of dog parkour, and teach their dog to safely ride a Stand Up Paddleboard so the dog can come along on the board. Think of lifestyle dog and puppy classes as dog training for real life.
The lifestyle dog and puppy classes that I offer always start with ensuring that the dog is comfortable and relaxed. Emotions drive a lot of behaviours. In fact, I would argue that emotions are the primary driver. I show dog owners how to recognize their dog’s signals and the possible underlying reasons for fear, frustration, anxiety, etc. The primary goals are that the dogs are having fun and they are not over-stimulated. Once those two goals are met, the manners and skills training some so much more easily.
Lifestyle training can (and should, in my opinion) start when a puppy is young (taking safety precautions into account). Build a solid foundation of confidence, impulse control, and self-regulation.
Think of lifestyle classes as ways to train and bond with your dog for life.
The dog training options in Regina just got better. Dog owners can now train their dog to ride a Stand Up and Paddle board (www.SUPPupRegina.com). This program teaches dog owners how to ensure their dog enjoys the experience while showing good manners on the board to keep everyone safe and happy, including the person riding the board and others on the water (especially wildlife).
This SUP with your PUP certified training program is also a great way to socialize puppies and adolescent dogs to new experiences in a safe, positive way. Fearful, shy dogs can learn confidence with this certified program that uses science and positive, force-free dog training methods. It’s also a fantastic bonding experience for dog and owner. Having fun together is the best way to strengthen a friendship!
This program is taught by Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA, Regina’s first Certified Professional Dog Trainer certified with the CCPDT (www.ccpdt.org). For more information please visit SUP Pup Regina or use the contact link here.
Traditional dog training classes and puppy classes are changing. Instead of a training your dog obedience in a dog training facility, let you and your dog enjoy the outdoor spaces in Regina while you train for real-world situations.
“My dog can do it in dog class but won’t do it on a walk.”
“My dog is okay around other dogs in dog class, but my dog is out of control when I walk my dog in the neighbourhood.”
“Dog class is too stimulating for my dog; the minute he sees the building he is out of control.”
These are common complaints, and they are valid. A lot of dog training is about “proofing” the skills learned in class (increasing the level of difficulty of the skill by increasing the duration, distraction, and distance you are from your dog), and part of this involves generalizing the skill to new locations. Just because a dog knows how to walk on a leash beside you in the dog training facility, doesn’t mean that dog can do it in the neighbourhood. A traditional indoor dog class is limited as to how much it can help in the real world.
Don’t get me wrong — indoor dog classes have their benefits. They are sheltered from poor weather, unforeseen distractions, and quality classes will reduce the risks of infection if they have a robust cleaning regime and restrict participation to dogs in good health. But they have their limits in helping people and dogs with “real life” dog training.
Unless the dog owner wants to participate in dog sports and shows, most traditional indoor dog classes are not serving the average dog owner. The average dog owner wants their dog to have manners at home, in the car, and on a walk.
The best places to train dogs are the places similar to where dog owners want their dogs to behave — where dog owners want to bring their dogs regularly, so both the dog and the human can enjoy the experience. Some outdoor locations can be great places to work on puppy socialization, too, if precautions are taken to protect a puppy’s immune health,
Here are my top 5 picks of the best places to train dogs in Regina:
- Wascana Park (when it’s not too busy. Start easy and work up to more difficulty)
- Neighbourhood Park (the one you will use the most often)
- Outside the dog park (far enough away that the dogs in the park are a bit of a distraction but not too much)
- School Yards (not during school hours)
- Pet Supply Store (this is a HUGE challenge, so work on the skills well before trying them in this location, especially Leave It).