The best training method for reactivity

A question that often comes up with clients and in discussions on line is what training method is best for working with reactive dogs? Should I use BAT or CAT or LAT or LAD or CARE or .... (fill in your favourite acronym!)?

Personally, I don’t think there is a one-size fits all technique that suits every dog and guardian in every situation. Last year I wrote a blog about how to decide what to do to support your dog and it is all down to the context.  We need to learn to read our dogs and the situation we are in and choose the most appropriate tools to help them in that moment.

Like everyone, I have my “favourite” frameworks. Personally I use TTouch, of course, as well as Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed programme, much of the time. But I also use elements from elsewhere and variations and adaptations to suit the environment and the dog in question. My choices are constrained only by whether an approach is kind, fair and effective for both dog and guardian.

For me, what is more important than the specific tools is that we address fundamental elements of training. When we are working with reactive dogs we tend to focus our training on helping them to handle their triggers but, for me, this is only one part of the necessary training. I use the following framework when I am planning what to do with clients. Each level contributes to the overall solution and builds on the one below.

  1. Relaxation and calm. In many cases dogs who are reactive are anxious or easily frustrated and benefit hugely from work to lower their arousal and teach them how to relax. I use TTouch for this, as well as Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and exercises like Take a Breath and mat work from Control Unleashed. This benefits all dogs but is absolutely essential for those who are highly aroused as soon as they leave home.
  2. Essential Life Skills. With any dog, there are core behaviours that would make life easier for them and their guardian. This might be a really reliable recall so they can be called away from entanglements with other dogs. It might be getting (and staying) behind their guardian so that they can be protected if a dog approaches. It might be walking on a loose lead. It might be maintaining focus on their guardian even with distractions. It might be being comfortable wearing a muzzle. The more we practise life skills such as this, the more options we have when we face our dog’s triggers. So a fundamental part of training our reactive dogs is identifying the life skills that would help us most. 
  3. Relationship. One of the casualties of reactivity is often the relationship between dog and guardian. The pressure of handling a reactive dog and dealing with incidents that are stressful and embarrassing can lead to relationship damage. The joy seeps out of it. So, it is essential to ensure that we include in our training something that both dog and guardian can really enjoy together; something that reminds us what our dog is capable of. This can be anything - a doggy sport or activity, trick training, interactive play - but it needs to be fun for both parties. My favourites include canine parkour and scent work. Both are great fun and can be done anywhere, but have the added advantage of being practically useful in dealing with reactivity as well as building confidence. But you can choose whatever works for you and your dog. 
  4. Triggers. Only after we have addressed these three, do we reach the top of the pyramid: specific training to help our dog become more comfortable with triggers and to negotiate them without becoming over-aroused. Again, my personal “go-tos” here come from Control Unleashed. I use pattern games and Look at That, to help support our dogs and enable them to communicate with us about their level of arousal. However, there are many other tools we can use here. The important point is that all are more effective and easier for both dog and guardian if they are supported by the training we have done at the other levels.

One of the things that I like about this framework is that most of this training can be done away from the triggers, so if we have a dog who is highly reactive, there is a huge amount we can do to work on that before we ever need to start working with triggers.  We can (and should) start at home and build up our foundations so that we are equipped to handle triggers in the world. This may, of course, mean walking our dogs in more remote, quieter locations while we work on the fundamentals or, in some cases, it may mean taking a break from walks while we get these core elements in place.

When we focus on what we need to achieve rather than whether we should use this or that technique, what we need to do becomes much clearer! How are you addressing each of these levels for your dog?