How to help your dog (out on walks)

A common question I have from clients is how and when you choose to move on to the "next stage" when you are out and about with your reactive dog. How do you know when your dog is ready to progress? The same clients are often disappointed when, after a series of successful encounters with other dogs, or children, or whatever their dog's trigger is, they have a situation where their dog reacts. "We are back to square one", they say. But I think that misunderstands the process of working with a reactive dog.  

Working with your dog’s reactivity is not a linear process, where you move steadily from one stage to the next.

Of course we need to be working at home on the skills we and our dogs need and on building their (and our!) confidence, resilience and focus, so that they can handle the situations we face out on our walks - and we can make steady progress with that. We may also be able to arrange “set ups” where we can make steady progress in a controlled environment.

But if you are like most of my clients, you are also working with your dog as you go about your normal activities and, in those situations, the progress we see can be very contextual. Your dog learns to handle  a particular trigger in a specific context, but may then need more support to deal with another trigger or another context.  And there may be days that feel like backward steps, situations when things don’t go to plan, when you are surprised, or when your dog is finding it harder to cope than usual. At those times we need to be prepared to do things a bit differently. 

If you are working with your dog in this way, it can be helpful to think in terms of our available training (or intervention) choices, and how we make them. There are at least six possible (helpful!) responses that we can have to a situation where our dog encounters a trigger. These are our intervention choices. We can:

  1. Perform damage limitation. Apply whatever kind and safe emergency measures we have in place to get our dog out of a situation that they can’t handle. We are not expecting our dog to learn much - we are just minimising the stress they experience. This is what we do when we caught out and we just need to “get out of Dodge”, as Jean Donaldson puts it. It involves moving out of trouble and then doing what we need to do to help our dog calm down.
  2. Micromanage our dog. This is where we use food or a toy to distract our dog - perhaps to let someone pass us on a path. Again - we are not actually teaching our dog much - we are simply getting through a tricky situation without negative fall out.
  3. Do counter-conditioning and desensitisation (CC/DS). This is the first choice we have where we are actually helping our dog to learn something. We are not teaching a behaviour but changing their emotional response, through associating the thing they are worried about (the trigger) with something positive, like tasty food. So the sequence is: trigger appears and we give food; trigger moves on and we stop feeding. Crucially, it doesn’t matter what our dog is doing and we don’t ask for a particular behaviour.  We are not reinforcing behaviour - we are associating the appearance of the trigger with fabulous things, so that our dog will start to feel differently about the trigger.
  4. Ask for known behaviours. This is the first of our choices where we are looking for a particular response or behaviour from our dog. It doesn’t really matter what the behaviour is, though it will be something we have already started teaching away from the trigger. It could be targeting or touching a hand; looking at you or looking at the trigger then back to you; going behind you or between your legs; moving in a simple, familiar pattern. Whatever works for you and your dog. But, crucially, we are asking for - and reinforcing - a specific behaviour. My preference is for behaviours that acknowledge the presence of the trigger, such as Leslie McDevitt's Look at That. But there are certainly situations where other behaviours are valuable to keep your dog's focus on you or to place them in a less challenging position in relation to the trigger, and some behaviours - well rehearsed - can become part of your emergency tool box. 
  5. Engage in play activities. This is engaging your dog in a game that they love in the presence of the trigger. Scent games, Parkour and tug are all great options for this. Again, we need to build the value of these games well away from the trigger but, after that, they can be an excellent way to shift and keep our dog's focus on us around triggers, as well as associating the trigger with the enjoyment of play ("I see another dog, I get to play tug"). In humans, there is evidence to suggest that it is easier to shift from anxiety to excitement than from anxiety to calm, as the physiology of anxiety is very similar to that of excitement (and very different to that of calm). If the same is true for dogs (and I don't see why it shouldn't be as the physiology is the same), then it may be easier for a slightly aroused or alert dog to shift into a play activity than into a calm state. If your dog is likely to become over aroused in play, then choose a lower energy activity like scentwork over a high energy one like tug, unless you have built a lot of self control into your tug games. 
  6. Do nothing. By this of course I do not mean ignoring a reaction or leaving a dog to struggle. But, ultimately, the ideal is that we are simply able to ‘be’ with our dogs, to hang out, to carry on with what we were doing, without any particular intervention. Note that we are not looking for our dog necessarily to engage with the trigger - just to be comfortable enough to ignore it. Note too that this may never be an appropriate choice for some dogs - and that is also fine. 

All of these are all valid and valuable intervention choices that you might make in different contexts when out with your reactive dog. The key to success is to be able to decide what is the most appropriate choice to make for the situation you are in.

In an ideal world, we would never need the first two choices. We would always be able to ensure that our dog feels safe and under threshold, so that we can focus working on changing their emotions and behaviour. And that is why we always try to ensure they have enough space to learn, and adjust where we are in relation to the trigger to keep ourselves to a position where our dog is able to be calm*

But most of us don’t live in an ideal world. No matter how careful we are, we will still sometimes find ourselves in situations that are more than our dog can handle. At these times we will choose 1 or 2 so that we can keep them safe. This is entirely appropriate and necessary for those situations. But these should not be our standard or regular choice, as neither will help to change our dog’s behaviour or how they feel. If we want our dog to improve, we need to be working with choices 3-6.

So how do we know which of these choices is most appropriate for the situation we are in? Well we have to learn to read our dog. What is their body language telling us? Are they staring at the trigger or choosing to look away? Is their body tense, alert, or relaxed? Is their heart rate and breathing normal or raised? Are they able to take food? Do they snatch or take the food gently (assuming they have been taught to take food gently, snatching can indicate over arousal). Are they able to respond to cues? Are they able to offer behaviours? Can they stand and watch on a loose lead?

I will usually start with intervention 3 (CC/DS) and, while a dog is able to take food but is not able to respond to cues or offer behaviours, I will keep using this. It is particularly valuable for dogs who are fearful of a trigger, and can be the key intervention choice over a long period of time for some dogs.

I will move on to interventions 4 or 5  (known behaviours or play) when a dog starts to offer a behaviour in response to the trigger. Often this is to look at you when they see the trigger, in expectation of food coming.  When that happens you can safely move on to using interventions 4 or 5 (which you will have been practising already at home!) and, once your dog is really relaxed doing these, you might occasionally delay cueing a behaviour or starting a game to see whether or not you need to do anything at all (choice 6).

But even if you can ultimately choose to do nothing (6) in some situations with some triggers, you may still need to use other interventions in other situations and with other triggers. The choice you make is always contextual and you may find yourself making a number of different choices on a single walk, depending on the situation and how your dog is responding. That is perfectly normal and shows that you are in tune with your dog's needs.

So let me give you some real life examples from recent outings with Otter. Otter can be a little reactive to large dogs but mostly she just wants to run over to see them (not something I want her to do) and she can be worried about small children, particularly when they are moving quickly.  On recent walks we have faced the following situations and these have been my intervention choices:

  1. We meet a couple of dogs for the second time on a walk, having previously established they are happy to meet - but on this occasion they are happily playing ball with their guardian. So I opt for 5. and ask Otter to "get on" as we pass a rock. She is focused on Parkour, which she loves, and the other dogs pass without any interruption to their ball game. 
  2. A family with three small children is coming towards us on the path. The toddler starts running towards us, pointing at Otter, who starts to growl. I opt for 1. damage limitation - she is already aroused and this is too risky to use as a training opportunity. So I pick Otter up to get her out of the situation, then do some TTouch to calm her down as we walk away. 
  3. Walking on the beach, we see a couple with two large, off lead dogs walking the other way. Otter is also off lead but relaxed and interacting with me. I opt for a known behaviour (4) and ask her to "Walk with me", her cue for walking casually beside me. She passes the dogs without trying to meet them by focusing on a known - and heavily reinforced - behaviour. 
  4. We walk down a lane and someone has left some birthday balloons tied to one of the fences. Otter looks concerned and begins to back off. This happens so infrequently it doesn't warrant attempting to counter-condition, so I opt for 2 and use food to distract her and get her past. 
  5. On the beach there are children playing, at a distance where Otter can watch comfortably. We pause and I feed her each time the children run, stopping feeding when they are still - counter conditioning - option 3.
  6. We see some dogs running and playing, some distance down the beach. I know they are far enough away for her not to be tempted to join them, even though she has seen them. So I choose 6 and just continue with what we are doing (keeping an eye on her body language in case I need to intervene). 

When you are working with your dog’s reactivity out on walks, you are not simply doing one thing: there are different intervention choices available to you. As long as my dog is comfortable,  I aim to use the one which gives her the most autonomy and choice in what she does. I want her to feel she has the resources to handle the situation - whether that is a behaviour that is familiar and makes her feel safe, a game she enjoys, or simply being able to process the situation and move on.

But always remember - you are better to err on the side of caution than push your dog beyond what he can handle. Space is your friend and keeping appropriate distance from the trigger is your first priority. If you are unsure what to do in a situation, then opt for more space. The key thing to practice is reading your dog, learning the early signs that he is finding a situation difficult or, conversely, that he is comfortable enough to learn, to engage in training or play, or just to process what is going on.


* Note: If your dog is over-aroused as soon as you set foot outside your house, consider whether there is somewhere you can take them that would allow them to be calmer. This might involve driving somewhere quieter to begin with. If you don't drive and your neighbourhood makes it difficult to keep them under threshold, then consider much shorter outings and doing more at home to give plenty of breaks, or walking in less obvious places like industrial estates or commercial areas. If your dog is always reactive, even at home, then you may need to talk to your vet about whether medication would be helpful.