ISCP member Sally Bosson describes how she helped Odie to overcome his fears.
I’d never even heard of the term reactivity until I met Odie. He’s a beautiful rusty German Shepherd mix with eyes that look like they’re trying to tell you a thousand stories. He’s perfect inside the house, but outside is a whole different ball game.
Two and a half years ago, my partner and I got our first house together and we both brought our dogs. At the time I was clueless about dog behaviour and body language but I realised pretty quickly I needed to change that. Any walk with Odie was insanely stressful for everybody involved; he couldn’t focus or take treats, he had his ears flat to his head at all times and was terrified of just about everything. Walking took him so far above his reactivity threshold, that whenever he saw a cat, a stranger – or worse, another dog – he was just ready to blow. He would snarl, bark, lunge and strain at the leash. He’s broken one at the metal clip before and has caused numerous scraped knees, elbows and lost flip flops. Needless to say, I upgraded my walking attire and started making changes immediately as Odie was a danger to me, other people and their animals.
Managing reactivity is all about getting creative! I decided to go from ground zero with Odie and here below is an outline of what we did:
- Stop Walking – it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? A dog needs walks after all! But look at it from another point of view. Would you force your child to do something that made them uncontrollable, aggressive or scared? Probably not! We can extend this sympathy towards our canine friends too. Odie and I stopped all walks for about a week and it gave us both vital time to decompress and rid our systems of cortisol – the stress hormone that can build up and have negative effects on our health.
- Brain Games – But my dog needs exercise! Yes, but a week or so without exercise won’t be detrimental to your dog. During this physical down time, Odie and I worked on exercises that strengthened our bond together and made use of his natural instincts. He worked for all of his meals using the principles of the game Sprinkles which encourages dogs to use their nose and sniff out their food. We also did some basic obedience training and did some target training. Anything just to get that mind active!
- Managing the environment – Odie would be set off by the sound of cats fighting outside, unfamiliar cars or even kids screaming. We found out he could jump our gate and front wall from standing, and managed to chase our neighbour’s cats and also attack one of their dogs. Thankfully it wasn’t serious but I wasn’t taking any chances. We installed new fences and a taller gate that he couldn’t see through, as well as erecting a chain link gate between our front and back garden so that he could be outside but was unable to charge the front gate. This ensured the safety of any visitors to the house. It also helps to have a radio on so that he can’t hear everything, which keeps him under his reactivity threshold.
- Start small – I had to teach Odie to take treats in the garden with clicker training before we could really get back in to walking. Even when we did, we limited the walks to ten minutes or so around our tiny compound of houses. If he was unresponsive to treats, I knew I had pushed him too far. The next day we would reduce the walk and try again. If he had an ‘encounter’ that really pushed him over the edge with another cat or dog, I would take a day off walking altogether. We continued this way for well over a month.
- Counter conditioning – Once our walks had improved and Odie could focus on me for the majority of the walk, I began to try counter conditioning. This meant that every time we saw a cat, I would scatter treats on the floor in front of him. To be honest, this was hard, because at first he would ignore them and go after the cat and we would have to cut the walk short because he was so hyped up and stressed. I thought it would never work and there were lots of tears. However, over time, he sometimes began to turn back to get the food, and in two years of training we have gone from what I called ‘game over’ and going home, to him being able to see a cat, turn to me calmly for treats and move off in the opposite direction. Granted, if one surprises him or is too close for comfort, he will lunge, but with nowhere near the same ferocity and it takes him almost no time at all to be calm again. I will confess that the first time he looked at me for the treat before reacting to the cat, I burst in to tears! I’ve never been prouder of a dog…or myself!
- Be your dog’s best friend! This sounds so silly, but really when you think about it – you wouldn’t put your friend, partner or child in a situation that scared them, so why do it to your dog? It can be so frustrating dealing with reactivity but as I have shown you through Odie – there is no quick fix. I’ll never be able to walk Odie off leash or let my friends bring their dogs over for play dates, but that’s ok; there are other things we can do together that are just as much fun.
These days, Odie really is a different dog and almost everybody who knows him has commented on that fact at least once over the last few years. He has come out of his shell and his playful personality gets a chance to shine through which it never did before. He greets familiar people with real love and enthusiasm whereas he used to skulk off to another room and hide. The changes are many and they are still happening every day. There’s still a lot to learn for both of us, but as one improves so does the other and we enjoy the journey with all its tears, laughter, barks and progress!