I learned two separate, but equally amazing methods of working with a reactive dog who barks, lunges and is uncontrollable at any sort of trigger. The first method is the Premack Principle with a focus cue. The second method is “Find It” and I picked this idea up from a colleague who is working with Paul Owens, the Original Dog Whisperer. I found both are excellent as separate training principles, or could be used concurrently. These are so useful in changing your dog’s emotional response which is fundamental in counter conditioning training. These two approaches can help with training a fearful dog in becoming comfortable and find pleasure in meeting strangers to helping a frustrated dog feel relaxed around a motorcycle or loud, bouncy truck. By no means, are these the only triggers a dog may have in his daily life. These are just some I’ve experienced with Jack.
First thing is first, understand your dog’s threshold for reacting to another stimulus. By threshold, I mean that particular distance where your dog is relaxed when the trigger is present and that any distance over that limit will initiate a stress your reaction from your dog. When you’re working on reactivity, its imperative to work under threshold and slowly work towards shortening the distance between your dog and the trigger. For instance, Jack is an extremely sociable dog. He gets frustrated when he’s unable to greet another dog. He also becomes a bit unruly if another dog gets overly excited around him while on leash. So, in order to help him feel relaxed and keep his conditioned emotional response of frustration at bay, I keep an eye on his body language. If he has a loose body, ears are back, he’s looking around and he responds when I give him the “focus” cue, I know he’s comfortable. At the same time, I keep an eye on what I know his trigger is and slowly move towards it watching him and how he’s perceiving the situation. While he’s relaxed, I practice our commands of sit and focus.
I know Jack to be observant beyond measure. He is a sensitive dog and by his nature of a Jack Russell Terrier, I started using his natural instincts for training purposes. This is where the Premack Principle comes into play. The Premack Principle is essentially this; higher probability behaviors can reinforce low probability behaviors. In Jack’s world, he enjoys vocalizing and alerting us to anyone at the door, when he hears the FedEx or UPS truck (but not the garbage truck) or if another dog walks on by. I know these things trigger his response of barking and getting overly aroused. Yesterday, we were at the park. I noticed Jack pick up on a dog walking across the street which was about 20 yards away. Since he became a bit more alerted, but not becoming overly aroused, I worked the Premack Principle. He watched the dog and then I called him over. I rewarded him for his recall, asked him for a sit and focus cue and released him. Since the dog was still walking by, he was rewarded to go back to watching the dog across the street. I let him for a few seconds and repeated the steps. He remained relaxed, but still working out his instincts. As I mentioned in previous posts, he used to be an overly reactive dog, but a combination of obedience training along with behavior modification, his reactivity has diminished, but he has his moments when the distance from his trigger (another dog) is too close and he gets too excited. When this happens, all bets are off, but the best thing to do is get your dog to move with you in the opposite direction and praise, praise, praise when he is calm and is able to reorient his attention towards you. Getting to this point has taken a ton of work on both of our ends, but we are both feel a sense of accomplishment with his improvements in behavior training.
Then there are times when things are a bit more unpredictable like when a truck drives by the house and Jack hears it before I do or when we round a corner and before you know it there are dogs barking behind their fence. This is when “find it” becomes a useful cue. Yesterday, after our encounter at the park, Jack had another training moment. A FedEx truck came whizzing by. Jack’s arousal was more than seeing the dog across the street. His ears were forward, he was on his toes and his tail was up. As the truck approached us, I threw a bunch of treats and asked him to “find it”. He gladly redirected his attention on finding all the goodies that rained down than barking and lunging towards the truck which eventually parked a half of a block in front of us. After he was done with finding it, he naturally looked up at me for direction and I gave him lots of praise. Then we continued along towards the truck. Since his emotional response didn’t peak with wild energy as the truck passed, he remained relaxed. As the driver got out of his truck, Jack watched. I then worked the Premack Principle and subsequent commands which he did with pride. Over time, he has drastically changed his emotional response when an identified trigger comes by.
The key is keeping the emotional response low and slowly reducing the distance towards the trigger. Depending on the dog, this process can take time and consistent training by the pet guardian. At any point Jack became uncontrollable I would swiftly increase the distance between him and the trigger and give him praise when he becomes calm. There is no way behavior modification training can happen if he was lunging or barking uncontrollably. In working the Premack Principel and Find It, he is now looking at me when a truck drives by, a bicyclists zooms past us or if a motorcycle revs its engine. He finds these events to be happy occassions rather than ones which cause him distress.