Welcome to the next part in this social distancing series, today we are going to be discussing important foundation exercises for reactivity. If you haven’t checked out the previous post on exercising a reactive dog then do so for information to keep your dog physically and mentally stimulated through these though times. This is the perfect time to be working on these skills, firstly because you have the time to brush up on them, check if your dog really knows what you are asking and secondly with less people currently outside, it is a great time to gradually proof these behaviours. I have provided you with 3 very powerful skills that when strengthened and developed properly by you and your dog, shall make it easier to manage this problem (from a distance of course).
What Are Foundation Exercises For Reactivity?
Foundation exercises for reactivity are crucial when it comes down to overcoming this issue. These are a set of skills that you and your dog constantly strengthen and develop until they can perform outside even when around distractions and triggers. This can be as simple as getting your dog to sit facing you while a trigger walks past or to disengage from the trigger to look at you.
Sounds simple right?
Many owners struggle to develop and strengthen these foundation exercises for reactivity, they’ll practice at home a few times and expect their dog to comply, and when they don’t they resort to the yanking of a leash and shouting to try and stop a reaction. Even though distance is a big factor (the closer a trigger the harder it may be to get your dog under control), if you don’t proof behaviours it doesn’t matter how many times you practice at home, they will only be useful at home!
The Proofing Is In The Behaviour
Why is it you can ask a dog to sit at home and they’ll do it straight away, but you ask them outside in a dog park and they don’t blink an eye? The simple answer is proofing, proofing helps the dog understand that no matter what is going on or the location, when asked to do something they know it so shouldn’t be a problem.
Proofing is training behaviours and adding gradual distractions or adding duration before you reward or by increasing the distance you ask your dog for the behaviour. Food and toys are great distractions to start with, different environments and around people as well will help proof a behaviour.
This is a key factor to why some dogs struggle to listen outside, regardless how many times the trick is done inside the house, without proper proofing in different environments, your dog will always struggle in real world situations where there are distractions everywhere.
You vs Distractions and Triggers
Both distractions and triggers are rewards for our dogs. Take a squirrel for example, one runs past in the line of sight of your dog, chances are they will want to chase it, this is the prey drive. This can happen with cyclists, runners and even running kids, the prey drive kicks in and the dog self-rewards by giving into natural instincts.
This does too work for triggers even if they scare your dog. Let’s say your dog is fearful of other dogs, when one approaches, your dog self-rewards by barking, lunging and pulling on the leash. The reward is the distance created, the dog think it’s managed to keep the other dog out its space and when this is repeatedly done it becomes a default behaviour for your dog.
Although there are numerous distractions and opportunities for our dogs to self-reward, it is entirely possible to become more rewarding than the majority of everything in the environment.
High Value Treats and Engagement
Before we get started with these exercises for reactivity, let’s take a moment to talk about becoming more engaging for your dog.
Firstly, engagement. You can’t complain about having a distracted dog if you aren’t engaging with them. Owners feel that they have a distracted dog, yet some don’t even talk to them on the walks from point A to B. If you aren’t going to engage with your dog then chances are they won’t engage with you, they’ll find reward from the environment (get ready for pulling on the leash and constant sniffing). This doesn’t mean you have to talk to your dog for the whole walk, even doing something as simple as rewarding and giving a treat every 20 steps can build engagement! Watch how your dog starts to pay more attention to you during the walk!
Secondly, high value treats! Obviously a lot of these foundation exercises for reactivity are going to be done indoors and you can get away with using things like kibble or normal treats (be careful though, if your dog has kibble for breakfast and dinner you might want something a bit more of value to teach these skills with). When you move on to training outside, you will want to start bringing out the big guns! You want something that makes your dog forget about the world around them – hot dogs, cheese, chicken etc.
By being more engaging and having an incentive for the dog to choose you that is positive and high value, you can start working on strengthening and developing your foundation exercises for reactivity.
Foundation Exercises For Reactivity
Out of all 3, this happens to be a favourite of mine and Jasper. It requires you and your dog to engage with each other and in unsettling situations this can do a lot of good. Targeting just requires putting up hand signals where your dog will aim to touch their nose to your palm. You can do a series of these when you have to walk past a trigger or to regain engagement in high distracting areas, anytime you’d rather have your dog focus on you than the environment.
Start this in a low distracting area in the house before you start working on this outside
- Have your dog sit in front of you
- Hold a treat between two fingers such your ring and middle finger or your second and middle finger
- Hold your hand out to your dog, the aim is for the nose to touch the palm of the hand, but start small, reward for sniffing with the other hand
- Go slow, you may need to repeat numerous times until you get a ‘touch’
- Give a jackpot of treats when they start to understand
- Remove the treats from in between fingers and try again, if this is too hard for your dog then go back a few steps, they will learn better through what they get right than what they don’t!
You can string multiple targets together to keep your dog distracted, change direction, switch up your pace, be engaging. Your aim is to provide enough engagement and distraction that your dog simply isn’t phased by whatever triggers them.
The focus command is where you get your dog to look and focus on you during the walk. This is a bit more complicated especially when you require them to hold that level of focus as a trigger passes by.
If your rewards aren’t a high enough value or you simply deliver the treat too late, you increase the risk of an outburst from your dog.
- Start with your dog sitting in front of you, have bunch of treats in both hands
- Make fists with your hands and either stand or sit in front of your dog
- Your dog might paw, muzzle and lick your hand to get to the treats but don’t say anything
- Once they stop AND look to you – reward from one of your hands
- Repeat from step 2 until ready to add a verbal cue
Repeat this as much as you can, wherever you can, the trick is being able to break your dogs attention away from something else. Practice sitting, standing, while your dog is on a leash etc.
- Leave it
A powerful command when fully understood, it tests your leadership skills and the impulse control of your dog. Really useful when your dog starts a sniffing spree or is rummaging for something in the grass, but also great for when walking past distractions and triggers. You are literally teaching your dog to choose you over their own reward that is right in front of them!
Once again start in a low distracting area such as the house and slowly progress to more difficult and distracting areas.
- Start with your dog in front of you
- Drop a treat between you and your dog
- Your dog should attempt to get up and grab the treat
- Stand on top of the treat if they attempt so
- Ignore any pawing, nudging and licking for the treat under your shoe
- Wait for a sit, praise, then move back
- Wait for eye contact
- Praise and reward with a separate treat than the one on the floor
Repeat this process until your dog picks up the skill, then add a verbal cue that they can start to learn, in this case ‘leave it’. When approaching a trigger, as soon as your dog notices, tell them to “leave it” and then quickly change direction before they can react and reward for following.
You don’t have to use these 3 foundation exercises for reactivity, you can find your own set of skills, every dog and owner are different! Whatever you choose, use this time wisely to work with your dog in calm and non-distracting areas. Make sure every experience is positive and most of all just enjoy this extra time that you have with them!