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‘Here Be Dragons’ – Understanding Reactive Dogs

It wouldn’t be very difficult for me to teach you that there are no dragons. I could probably do it in less than 10 minutes. But what if you woke up one night and looked outside and there, laying beside your backyard pool, was a 30’ dragon.

Could I convince you that there were no dragons after you had seen one? Probably not. I may be able to convince you that you will never see one again. I may be able to calm you, assuring you that it didn’t want to hurt you. But you would live the rest of your life with the apprehension that dragons exist.

One of the biggest problems when people are dealing with canine reactivity is that they are only interested in the symptoms. They want to stop their dog from barking and lunging. They don’t want to stop their dog from fearing, being stressed, frustrated, or forced to do something the dog really doesn’t want to do.

Anything can be a dragon for a dog. My dog Harley sees dragons in large mastiff type breeds. She was attacked while at a dog show. She has had 2 years of therapy. I have had her performing again, back at dog shows, trials, and lure coursing – but you can tell in her eyes – she is always looking for dragons. There is always that little fear inside.

If you do not address the fear (the problem) you cannot fix the reactivity (symptoms).

Has Your Dog Met a Real Dragon? Experience Taught Reactive Dogs

If your dog has met their dragon, then we are dealing with a group of behaviors that go beyond basic training. We need to convince your dog that it can defeat dragons. We need to convince your dog that the next dragon that it meets will run. Or, that we can run from dragons.

In this situation there really isn’t any tricks (look, redirect, focus) that can help. What I start with is classical conditioning. This doesn’t require thought or agreement on the dog’s part. Remember the Thorndike learning principal – Repetition and Reward.

But this isn’t a desensitization. Again, your dog knows there is dragons. We can teach your dog to tolerate dragons, but we cannot teach him to ignore dragons until he learns to be calm. Nothing can be done until the reaction (visceral response) diminishes and your dog is more cognitive (thinks).

Once your dog is calm enough to think then we can start teaching it alternative behaviors. This is the stage that most reactive rover classes, and behavior modification programs, skips. They try to dive right into the ‘operant’ (thinking) stage of the program

Does Your Dog Imagine Dragons? Learned Reactive Behavior

This can actually be more difficult to handle. Perceptions are often create emotions as real as the real thing. It is these emotions (not reality) that creates the problems.

When we are training dogs we are so fixated on the end product (long down, heeling, instant response to our commands) that we completely skip the entire learning process. We ignore the dog’s stress levels, or whether they are comfortable in a situation.  

We start correcting long before the dog really understands the exercise. This creates stress in a non-stressful situation. The dog doesn’t understand so it starts trying to find something causing the punishment. In the end we end up with a dog that (feels) it is corrected every time strange dogs are around, so strange dogs are bad. We have ‘created’ a dragon.

To fix this problem the handler needs to learn better handling skills. The dog needs to relearn to trust the handler.  Then, we need to show the dog that there are no dragons.