By Gary Wilkes
I was at a dog park the other night with a 45 pound ABD (American Black Dog). It had the typical medium–length, all black coat and built like a border collie. A couple of weeks ago he pulled his owner off her feet while going after his favorite target—’little white dogs’. He gave no warning before he lunged. The owner is old enough that a broken bone or other injury would be serious. The fear of falling down plus the possibility that her dog might hurt someone else’s dog was very troubling to her. This is a common problem —so much so that a new word has developed around the common inability to deal with such behavior. These dogs are called ‘reactive’.
The reason reactive dogs are such a problem is because of a gradual but powerful shift in our culture. Pleasant methods are assumed to be good, regardless of outcome. Unpleasant methods are labeled abusive—again, regardless of outcome. To please the sensitivities of our modern culture, methods that can suppress ‘reactivity’ are shunned. You need only walk through a ‘big box’ pet store and hear the droning recorded voice pitching their ‘positive’ training methods to confirm this.
This philosophy carries over to the big–box grooming salons—which is why neither their trainers nor their groomers are allowed to handle difficult dogs. The companies know that what is considered ‘nice’ by the general public cannot control reactive dogs. (Vets know this too—which is why they have ‘treatment rooms’ where the public cannot see how they deal with defensive aggression.)
Practical Solutions to the Rescue
I used three tools to start the process of removing this dog’s reactivity; a Gentle Leader, a bonker, clicks and treats. Some of you may not know what a ‘bonker’ is. It’s a soft, rolled, terry cloth towel used as a projectile. You can find several videos on my YouTube channel showing its use (wilkesgm1). Modern trainers often vilify such tools—regardless of outcome. Though no harm comes to the dog and major problems can be fixed, the tool is opposed because of a perception that it isn’t ‘nice’.
My first step was to teach the dog to wear a Gentle Leader, a form of ‘head halter’. This halter is designed for dogs. It allows you to clip the leash under the dog’s chin rather than at the back of the neck. This offers a major advantage to the handler. Instead of fighting the whole dog, you only have to defeat the muscles that connect the head to the neck. If the dog lunges, he ‘jack–knifes’ and is suddenly looking at something other than the target. An aroused dog will not tolerate losing sight of the target. Over a series of repetitions he will learn to stand stock-still or actually back up to make the leash loose. That’s because he had to keep the target in sight. It’s a dog thing. To see a video of this, again on my channel on YouTube, look up ‘HalterDogAggressionLeash AVI’.
To the Dog Park
Stage 1– Dog parks offer the perfect setting for fixing reactive dogs. That’s where the dogs are. That’s where the reactivity is guaranteed to happen. I started the dog’s training by stopping about 50 yards from the park fence to let him see some dogs go by. He didn’t do anything at all, even when a little white dog walked by. The other dogs weren’t close enough to pose a threat to him. Then we moved him closer and walked him along the fence line. (I don’t take dogs into dog parks, as a rule. I have broken up enough dog fights that I consider it a risk to my client’s dogs.) At this closer range he started becoming reactive—meaning highly aroused over the presence of other dogs racing around.
To reduce his arousal I let him lunge forward as much as he liked. The Gentle Leader convinced him that lunging forward removed the target–dog from his sight. The key to this is to keep the leash loose unless you are reacting to his lunge. The process is simple; let him lunge forward and then put enough tension on the leash to halt him. Then you quickly release tension so that he gets to ‘try again’. If he lunges again, you apply tension again. This makes the event a series of repetitions that improves the dog’s ability to piece together what is happening. Within about five minutes he was standing, stock–still, as dogs raced quickly by the fence.
Stage 2 – After we achieved a decrease in his reactivity, I described some aspects of body language to the owners—primarily tail carriage. While I was doing that, a husky mix with a rather straight tail came over with perfect timing to be a demonstrator. His tail was immobile and slightly elevated. He was not wagging his tail, but simply holding it still. Then he made direct eye-contact with the ABD. After about 20 seconds of that my client’s dogs launched, full force toward the threat.
The Gentle Leader turned his head sideways as he hit the end of the leash. I said “NO” and bonked him on the head with the rolled up towel. Then I added tension on the leash and the Gentle Leader caused him to buck–jump backward to maintain sight of the target. The bonk barely brushed across his forehead but was still effective to suppress his behavior. He had learned its importance on our first meeting at the owner’s home, so I could use dramatically less force and still get a big reaction. Meaning I used his reactivity to get him to suppress his aggression.
The same Husky mix came back about five minutes later. It brought the same result—it triggered a lunge from the ABD that was about 80% of the first one. Within a couple more lunges, the reactivity was gone. Now that the arousal was under control, we shifted gears. We started using clicks and treats for responses to commands. The aversive control of the bonker and the halter increased his likelihood that he would actually hear the commands.
While you are unlikely to hear this elsewhere, the punishment stopped his choice of lunging to engage other dogs. That opened up our ability to use positive reinforcement. If there is no punishment, there is no drop in arousal. If there is no drop in arousal, you have no ability to use food.
By using aversive control first we suppressed his arousal. Once that was over, he started actually listening to his owners. That was the key to be able to use positive ‘nice’ methods as a component in fixing the problem. Using this strategy, we had the reactivity under control in two sessions—one at home to create a foundation and one at the dog park to give the owner control. I had the owner walk her dog along the fence line several times to start refreshing her confidence. We aren’t done yet but I do not anticipate any wrinkles in the process.
I have done this many times over the last 25 years. It is something that a groomer/trainer could learn how to do without much difficulty. Knowing about this or finding a trainer familiar with the process can literally be a life saver for your clients. If there is no life–saving, there is no dog. If there is no dog, you don’t have a client. ✂