Go after the fuse, not the explosion; too low too slow; cap don’t chase
If you’ve followed our work at TGD you’ve probably heard one, if not all of these favorite sayings of ours for helping owners wrap their heads around strategies for reactivity issues on walks.
What they all have in common is beating your dog to the emotional punch. Getting your dog out of the sequence of escalation before it gets so hot that you’ve lost him. Getting and mastering these concepts is usually the difference between an owner struggling with their dog’s reactivity or succeeding.
What we see most often is owners waiting to see if their dog is actually going to react. And we get it – you want to be fair, you want to give your dog a chance to succeed. But here’s the thing, if your dog is truly struggling with reactivity issues, that moment where you wait to see if the explosion is going to come this time or not, that teeny window of time where he’s loading, that split second when your dog first perceives the other dog is your only moment. That’s your only chance to catch that escalation sequence and cut it off at the pass. Your only moment to put out that little spark before it becomes a roaring forest fire.
And here’s the the thing that just might make all this easier for you: your dog doesn’t need to be looking at other dogs. Period. That’s not the purpose of the walk. That’s not the determiner of of your dog’s happiness and fulfillment. He doesn’t need it, and if he’s got reactivity issues, he’s definitely not ready for it.
Instead, make it easy for you and him. Just teach your dog that the walk is about walking with you, and that his new job is to ignore dogs. Yep, ignore them. And we do that by correcting at a level our dogs care about, and we do it the instant we perceive a state change in our dogs. A state change looks like, ears suddenly up, forehead wrinkled, body stiff, speeding up suddenly, breathing changing. Those are the beginnings, those are the signs you want to get extremely familiar with, and you want to address them instantly. Once you get to barking, lunging, growling, you’ve missed your moment. The opportunity to catch that sequence and block it is likely long gone. Getting to the right level at the right moment is the whole game.
But so many folks are worried (or have been programmed) that correcting their dog around other dogs or triggers they’re reactive to will only make it worse. That it will create negative associations. Let me assure you, the negative associations are already there! That’s why you have the reactivity in the first place! But by blocking and stopping it you actually create a gateway for a neutral state. You create a new way of perceiving the trigger, without all the accompanying emotional and chemical upheaval. And that’s where you begin to change reactivity.
Any habit or pattern that gets blocked consistently enough, with the right timing and value, will start to recede and lessen. If you make it easy for yourself, instead of trying to walk the high wire, or assessing grey areas/moments, and just decide that your dog isn’t allowed to look at dogs (until he knows how to without escalation), you’ll gain the certainty and timing advantage you need to successfully block, and eventually change reactivity issues. But the first step is pattering your dog to ignore. Once he can successfully (and consistently) ignore dogs that are barking and going bananas, you can start to think about allowing him more latitude in the looking department.
How do we help so many owners get their dogs over the reactivity hump? Just like this. And I’ve yet to see a dog become worse or more worried or reactive from this approach.
You get a teeny moment when you can change your dog’s reaction, don’t miss it trying to decide if it’s time to correct or not. Just follow this blueprint and you’ll be off and running.
P.S. Of course this also assumes you’re creating an immaculate heel with zero pulling, not allowing sniffing or marking unless ok’d, and using space to help relieve the pressure of triggers – especially early in the process.