Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Reactive Dog


Culebra Park is Worth the Trip


Some of you have met my special little red dog, Matt-Matt.  He really is a good boy.  He just gets a little over stimulated sometimes and he can be a little reactive on leash at times.  His Mom (me) is mostly to blame because I worry about him and of course he picks up on that.  Sometimes I hold the leash to tightly. That reduces his movement, affects his body language and can make him more nervous, thus reacting more.
Another issue I have that most humans have is attributing my human emotions on to his actions:  My other 3 dogs enjoy meetups so it's not fair to keep Matt-Matt away from meetups (in my mind).  So because I felt bad about not taking him out, I have taken him to dog walking meetups even though they stressed him - of course if he's stressed, I'm stressed, and if I'm stressed he's stressed and so on and so forth.
I'm not saying one shouldn't take their reactive dogs to meetups but for Matt-Matt's sake, I should keep him far enough at a distance so the he feels comfortable - far away enough that he doesn't feel the need to lunge or bark at others.  I've been telling people about Karen Pryor and how dogs should take baby steps but I've been a hypcrit because I have been tossing pour Matt-Matt direclty into meetups where he is surrounded from all sides by dogs.
I finally realized my mistake when I was reading a book by Turd Rugaas - Barking: the Sound of a language. It wasn't even the words in the book that got to me. It was a picture on page 31 of the book.  Caption: "Standing with your dog at a distance watching other dogs is a good strategy".  The picture shows several dogs in a large field (much like Culebra) with one person standing far away with his dog.  The dog standing far way looks very calm and the handler also looks relaxed.  At that moment I decided that is what Matt-Matt needed. 
I had not driven out to Culebra park before simply because I hate driving (for many reasons) and I have 3 other dogs at home. I like to make my individual trips short so that I can get back to the other dogs.  But after looking at the picture, I felt like the long trip (over an hour) would be worth it.
Not only was it worth it, it exceeded my expectations.  Matt-Matt was calmer, more relaxed and so was I. We started at the other end of the field. He did so well that we moved closer than I expected that we could in one day. He never barked, lunged, glared, stared, or even stiffened.  I know that Matt-Matt isn't going to be cured in one day, mind you. Maybe he won't ever enjoy a close-up meetup with a bunch of dogs. But that's okay.  I want to do what makes him happy, not what makes my other dogs happy; not what makes me happy.  Just like humans, every dog is an individual. Some humans love to go to night clubs, get loud and party with their friends.  I prefer a quiet evening at home with the fur kids.
Will your reactive dog be able to move as close as Matt-Matt and I did on Sunday? Maybe not or maybe you could have moved in closer. It depends on the dog. We have to be patient.
If your dog is reactive, I urge you to take the trip at least once, start at the other end of the field, give your dog a bunch of good treats.  Maybe even issue some commands.  You might be pleasantly suprised.
 So what are some general ways you can help your reactive dog:

●     Check your own behaviors.

○     Do you hold the leash too tightly?  Restricting your dog’s head movement?  Do you get nervous for your dog when other dogs/humans come around. Your perceptive doggie is going to feel this and react accordingly 

○     Do you scold your dog for aggressing? Yanking your dog harshly and repeatedly on the neck when she aggresses?  Do you poke your dog, yell at your dog, kick your dog, hit your dog when she aggresses?  This type of behavior tells your dog that when another dog is around, bad things are going to happen to him, thus making his reactiveness worse

●     Don’t alter his/her body parts

○     Dogs communicate with other dogs with their ears, their tails and the entire bodies.  Alternating a dog’s body parts can affect how they communicate.  So besides pain, surgical complications, etc.. shortening, cropping, docking ears/tails can have an adverse affect on their relationships with other dogs

                                     ■Of course this isn’t going to happen all the time.  But if your dog is prone to be reactive, cropping certainly isn’t going to help.  Dr Stanly Coren (in his book: How to Speak Dog) speaks of a friend’s dog who had to get his tail docked for a medical necessity.  The dog got into a lot more scuffles afterwards.  It may not affect how your dog reacts but it is going to affect how other dogs react to your dog.  Which isn't going to help a dog who is already reactive

                                     ■Of course there are occasionally medical reasons to do this.  Make sure the medical reason is sound and is a last resort.  Example. If a dog constantly gets ear infections, you can clean the ears daily or use an ear sock to open up the ears rather than cropping.

●     Don’t throw your dog into the lake.

○     This is a figureative way for me to say, don’t set your dog up for failure.  Example.  Your human child doesn’t know how to swim, you don’t throw him into the lake.  This will probably make him afraid of water for the rest of his life rather than teach him how to swim.   Instead of throwing your child into the lake, you take baby steps. First you get your child to wade in the water. Then you get her comfortable with putting her head under water. Then maybe you help her float while holding her. Then maybe you let her dog paddle a little....etc.
    • The same can be said of your dog. If you know that your dog is reactive or nervous around other dogs, tossing your poor baby into a dog park is not only not going to help, it might make your dog’s reactiveness worse
    • Forcing your dog to meet other dogs when she is nervous or aggressing is also not going to help.  Take baby steps, start at a distance far away enough to where your dog feels comfortable.  If this is 300 feet away, so be it.  There is no rush.  Take your time moving up to 250 feet, 200 feet, 198 feet, etc..
    • Learn about body language and don’t force your dog to do things that might get him into trouble.  For instance face to face meetings can cause problems. Holding the leash too tightly, restricting your dog’s movement can cause problems

    ●     Spay/Neuter your dog
    • So many reasons to get your dog fixed. Including aggression issues. You see it all time.  People get a puppy who is sweet and loves everyone but for some strange reason, at about 1 year to 15 months, this normally sweet dog starts reacting to other dogs (and sometimes humans) negatively.  One of the factors mostly likely is hormones.  It’s never to late to get your dog fixed, but the earlier, the better. Talk to your vet about a how early is acceptable.
  • Read everything you can from Turid Rugaas. Excellent resource for postive reinforcement and understanding and appreciating natural dog behaviors  http://www.canis.no/rugaas/
  • Then read everything you can from Karen Pryor: http://www.clickertraining.com/


Related Articles/Links on positive reinforcment, reactive dogs, dog socialization, etc..