Does your dog lunge and bark at skateboarders, bicyclists, or other dogs? Learn how to manage and improve his behavior, help him control himself, and maybe even solve the underlying problem.
Way back when, I did an episode about “reactive” dogs – the ones who bark and lunge when they see another dog, or when a skateboarder or bicyclist goes by, or when, say, some guy with a hat and dark glasses suddenly appears from around the corner. I explained that reactive dogs are stressed and described a couple of behavior modification techniques that help. I also briefly mentioned some tactics to prevent blow-ups, or to manage them effectively if you’re blindsided. It’s about time I described those tactics in detail, wouldn’t you say?
Tip #1: Avoid the Problem
As I explained in my earlier episode on the subject, your dog would not be blowing up at whatever he blows up at if he felt peachy-keen about it. Constant repetitions of being startled and alarmed won’t help him learn to cope. So, to the extent you can, steer clear of problems. If you’re strolling along the sidewalk and spot someone else walking her dog directly toward you, turn around or cross the street before your dog has a chance to tense up or explode. Is it a gorgeous Saturday afternoon? Then take Skateboard Freakout Dog anywhere but that one spot in the park where the teenagers practice their ollies.
Tip #2: Use Tricks and Play to Keep Your Dog Out of Trouble
If your Dogalini barks and lunges at something she often encounters, you probably flinch when you spot one of her nemeses, too. Bicycle coming? Uh-oh. And many people’s default response in that situation is to gasp and freeze up, or to gasp and yank their dog away. You need a plan, and here come two.
Plan A. Teach Dogalini to bump your fist with her nose – a useful behavior that trainers call targeting. I explained how to teach it in an earlier episode, How to Teach Your Dog Tricks and Manners With Targeting. Treat targeting as a game, and play it in your house, in your yard, on the sidewalk in front of your house, in the woods when there’s nobody around. Do 5 or 10 reps a day and reward them lavishly so Dogalini thinks fist-bumps are the best thing since the fire hydrant. With enough practice, she’ll be smacking her nose into your fist the way Usain Bolt breaks the tape in the 100-meter dash.
Once you’ve got targeting down, you’re ready to play the fist-bump game when you need to escape a problem situation. Take two steps backward, give your fist-bump cue, and watch Dogalini do a U-turn away from that oncoming Enemy Dog before she even spots him. Now all you’ve got to do is reward her, rapid-fire, and keep moving.
Plan B (which might be just as good as Plan A). Hansel and Gretel is a variation on the easiest doggy game of all: Find It. Find It consists of tossing a treat on the ground for your dog to chase and catch, or hiding the treat so he has to sniff it out. When you play Hansel and Gretel, you drop treats right in front of your dog, leading in the direction you want him to go. As soon as he’s found one treat, drop another. Use fingernail-size pieces of a soft, smelly food your dog adores, and keep the game going as fast as you can.
Important! If you only play fist-bump and Hansel and Gretel when one of your dog’s explosion triggers shows up, she will soon learn that these games predict trouble on the horizon. So play each game on every walk, several times on longer walks, and be sure to do it when there’s no bike or skateboard or dog around.
Tip #3: Use the Landscape
Trainers who offer special classes for reactive dogs use portable barriers to block the dogs’ view of one another. Cut out the visuals, and the dogs can cope with their classmates’ sounds and smells. The same applies in the great non-classroom world outdoors: A 10-foot gap between that skateboard and your Zippy is probably not enough distance to keep Zippy’s head from exploding. A 10-foot gap with a parked car or a hedge in between might be a completely different matter. Even the slats of a park bench may block his view enough to prevent an outburst.
Of course you don’t want to spend every walk for the rest of Zip’s life ducking behind the shrubbery every time you see another dog (or whatever). But bear in mind that every time Zippy is aware of another whatever but doesn’t blow up, he is logging a practice round of just that: not blowing up in the presence of his special trouble whatever. In this way, hiding behind the shrubbery can help get you and Zippy to the point where you no longer need the shrubbery. Effective behavior modification is Zen like that: undramatic, even dull.
Tip #4: Rehearse
Rhetorical questions, so annoying! But here are two: When do we make the worst decisions? And why do pianists toil over fingering exercises?
We make the worst decisions when we panic. We hit the accelerator instead of the brake. We shoot the guy who’s reaching for his wallet, not his nonexistent gun. And, less catastrophically but still not productively, we yank on our dogs’ necks and yell “No!”
As for those fingering exercises, they turn the mechanics of playing music into second nature; when the musician doesn’t have to think consciously about how to move from one note to the sharp key two notes higher, she has more attention for the music itself.
Skillful handling of your dog takes practice, too. The Hansel and Gretel game for leading your dog away from trouble seems ridiculously easy, until you blow it because you’re fumbling for the treats and then dropping them in the street instead of in front of your dog. Do you freeze for one second when you see a bicyclist your dog might lunge at? It doesn’t sound like a long time, but it’s enough to bring the bike several feet closer.
So rehearse! Practice the games and avoidance maneuvers that will help keep your dog out of trouble. Visualize a problem appearing from around the corner, and act out your response. Rehearsals will polish your skills and help you respond calmly at showtime. They’ll free you up to watch your dog for subtle signs of tension and relaxation. And they have another benefit: Because you’re practicing when there’s no trouble around, your dog won’t come to see your evasive maneuvers as a tip-off that trouble is on the way.
As I said in my first episode on the subject of barking and lunging dogs, people often need in-person, professional help to resolve the problem. But if your dog’s behavior is relatively mild, these tips and tricks can make it manageable and maybe even fix it. Look for ways to help your Dogalini cope, to set her up for repeated success instead of failure. Be your stressed-out dog’s guide and protector.
For more about teaching and living with your dog, check out my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!