For my first post in this series on Leadership, I talked about the importance of reacting when things are happening around you, whether talking about a dog or a child. Few things scream lack of leadership like an absence of human direction, so avoid that!

In the second in the series, I talked about handling a situation where your dog is behaving badly, and neither the dog nor the human has any training. Regardless of the cause, my advice was the same: get out of there one way or the other.

Next, I considered a slightly more sophisticated situation; a handler that happens to be carrying cookies with her.

And now?  Now let’s talk about a handler who is aware that their dog may react badly to something and who wants to be prepared should a bad situation arise.

Note that we are still talking about the concept of leadership; the difference this time is that we have a pro-active handler who is willing to put in training time in advance, should they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.

Let’s start with the goal. The goal is to get out of a situation with your dog as a willing participant, rather than having to physically remove your dog from the situation, or rely on a cookie that you’re probably not holding anyway.

And to reach that goal, we are going to teach the dog to orient to you and move in your direction.   Not a recall with the dog on a 6-foot leash facing you (whenever might you need that?) and not a recall where the dog runs to you from across the yard (though that is useful).  There will be no stationary handler, no stationary dog, and no distance,  because right now, we don’t need any of that.

What we need is a dog that orients to you, regardless of what else is happening, on a specific cue, like the dog’s name.

Here are a few steps to get you started.  Note that the more proofing (distractions over time) that you add to this exercise and the more effort you put into it, the more useful this skill will be – not only for for management in public but also for teaching a more traditional recall – when you want the dog to come to you in spite of the amazing things that are happening in the world.

You will need:  a dog, the most amazing food you can possibly come up with and space behind you to back up. That’s it.

Here is what you will do.

  1. When your dog is looking away from you (this is important), you will reach in front of your dog’s nose, wiggle that amazing food, and back up quickly at least 10 feet while your dog chases you and the food.  Give the dog the food.  I chatter cheerfully during this training, but that’s your choice.
  2. When that is solid (which should take a matter of minutes;  all your dog is doing is chasing food while you back up – no talent required), you will repeat that step, except this time you will wait until your dog is actually doing something else.  For example, sniffing a spot on the ground.   Put that cookie right under your dog’s nose, wiggle it, and back up at least ten feet before handing it over.
  3.  When your dog is already turning around when he sees you coming up behind him and before you have a chance to show him the cookie, add your cue (I use chatter as my cue) – back up immediately with that cookie, wiggling away!
  4. When your dog responds instantly to that verbal cue, start practicing when your dog is doing more interesting things.
  5. When that is going well, repeat all of the steps WITHOUT a cookie in your hand – as you are backing up you will be reaching into your pocket to get one.  However, you will still do a mousy move with your hand – that is going to become your visual signal to your dog.

This video attempts to show the basic idea.  In the first two repetitions, I am holding/wiggling a cookie in front of his nose.  For the final repetition there is no cookie in the hand, but note that my behavior still mimics the first two repetitions, as if I were holding a cookie:

Training for Reactivity Management

The goal is that your dog will respond instantly to your cue and turn away from whatever it is out there. The more you work on this, the more likely it is to become a reflex for the dog. So rather than thinking about whether or not they want to respond, often in a time when they are no longer able to think, they will simply respond to the words (in my video example, my chatter of “pup pup pup”.) It is not at all unusual for dogs to be able to respond almost reflexively to a cue or noise that is extremely well-known, even if they can’t respond to much else.

Now take your dog into the big wide world. Remember that you are paying attention, because you are the leader, and you are responsible for your team. You notice your dog start to react to something, hopefully at the “looking” stage rather than the slathering, screaming, lunging phase. You are behind your dog and he is looking away, so this should feel very familiar to both of you. You instantly work to get your dog oriented to you, start backing up and making chatter (wiggling your hand all the while), and backup as far as necessary to get out of the situation. At that point, get out a cookie and give it to your dog and then congratulate both of you for your excellent training and management!

But…what if it doesn’t work? What if you waited too long? What if your dog didn’t respond as expected? What if retraining had not progressed far enough to get to this level of distraction?

In spite of the fact that I just asked it, I am not going to answer that question. Read through the past blogs and see if you can figure it out for yourself.  If you can’t, keep reading those prior blogs until it is obvious to you.  Believe me – it’s there in spades.

And when the event is over, what will you do? Contact a trainer, your mentor, or a sophisticated dog-friend, and asked for help dealing with your dog’s problem with reactivity.

I can almost guarantee that your reactivity training will go much better now because you’ve put some time into showing your dog that you are paying attention and that you are trustworthy to solve problems – you are showing leadership. You have taught your dog that you can get him out of situations where he should not be. You have stepped up instantly, rather than passively watching as situations spiraled out of control.

That’s leadership. And it is, hands down, the hardest thing I teach people.

If you would like to learn how to teach your dog a rock solid recall (a godsend for a reactive dog and quite useful for all dogs), go ahead and check out our recall class at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for the August 1st term.   Chrissi Schranz will take you through six weeks of step-by-step recall training.  And if you’d like some help working through your dog’s reactivity issues rather than simply managing them, check out Dr. Amy Cook’s class, Dealing with the Bogeyman.

Good luck!