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As a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, I've set a personal goal for myself this year to participate in at least 8 continuing education webinars or courses on various dog training topics. There is always more to learn about dog cognition, behavior and developments of studies that can help me be a better trainer, or at least explain things more clearly to clients I'm working with.
Today's focus was a webinar on dog/dog reactivity and something that struck a cord with me was the role that we, all dog owners, create a hostile culture for those handlers working with a reactive dog, through our own actions.
This is something that I often try to impart to students, that even if your dog is well socialized, and enjoys the company of other dogs- you do not have a right to create an environment where dog/dog greetings are mandatory or expected. In fact, we may be harming even our friendly dogs by not allowing for a more constructive, organized, and reserved greeting.
My pup Rio, has yet to meet a dog that she doesn't immediately think is wonderful. This makes her very social- but sometimes that sociability looks to me, like an over confidence and even an unwanted behavior. She doesn't always know (or perhaps, as a herding dog she thinks she can convince otherwise) when a dog is stressed, or thinks she is coming on too strong. I've had to work hard to control her interactions, and train a very strong recall to help manage her interactions and greetings. This way, I'm keeping both dogs safe. I've also found that greeting in a dog park is way too stimulating for her, even though she seems to enjoy making so many friends. I prefer her to have a large indoor space for a greeting, as her interactions are more reliable. We're working towards expanding her best dog/dog greeting options- not because she is aggressive, or shy- but because she is very excitable and can be vocal. I see it as my obligation to help build her impulse control and create space between her interactions with other dogs by acting as an intermediary.
Swanson and Badger are both dogs who love the company of other dogs, but Badger shows some reactivity when not introduced slowly, with controls. Reactivity in a dog doesn't automatically mean aggression, though for some dogs it can lead there. Rather, it means that the dog is over stimulated and prone to making decisions that are embarrassing, dangerous, or just out of control. When any of my dogs show reactivity, for a variety of reasons, slightly different from each other- my main focus is getting their attention, and redirecting them to something as an alternative, usually a sit and eyes on me. I often use the "touch" command to get them more interested in engaging with me. I also use my body language to set a more physical barrier and presence in between myself and whatever the current distraction is. But what should our jobs be when it is not our own dog showing reactivity?
The same thing as the handler who is working the reactive dog, of course! 99% of the time, Rio and Swanson are non reactive. Badger probably averages about 85% percent, depending on what the distraction is. But that isn't something that happens automatically, no matter how much time we have spent working together. Rather, every day is still a training session, and I try to keep a dog's focus on me no matter what is happening around us. I want to be the most exciting, fun, and safe option in the room at any given time.
Recently, this was put to the test when we took a trip to the nursing home. While we were hanging out with family who were visiting our relative who lives there, and making some friends in the lobby, a full bag pipe band and group of carolers walked in. That's right, a full bag pipe band. And yes, we have done parades, loud tractors, and lots of other big prep work to lead up to situations just like this one. But I still switched into a high active mode, making both dogs face me, in a sit, and look directly at me on command while the band played on. I wanted to communicate that I wasn't at all concerned about the loud music, a particularly less familiar strain of sounds then what they are used to at home. I reinforced their attention with verbal praise and even a few treats.And they reacted beautifully, with no stumbles! My process would be same if we saw a dog who looked reactive. I don't want my dogs to escalate a problem because they feel threatened, or challenged. Rather, I want them to act as though it's not of their business, and trust I will shepherd them safely through every scenario.
I want handlers who are teaching their reactive dogs new patterns and coping strategies, the space and lessened stressful environment. So I use these guidelines for dog/dog interactions when in public, leashed spaces. This is incomplete, but it gives a baseline for rethinking how we allow for dogs to greet new dogs, or not at all.
1. First, I try not to be totally distracted when walking with my leashed dogs. Even when my head phones are on, I'm scanning the perimeter and noting my surroundings. I look for turning vehicles, on coming dogs, children, bikes etc. Along with this, like many trainers will tell you, correctly, I try to keep my dogs leashed loosely on the opposite side of whatever distraction I pass, so that I'm the first interaction between whatever the challenge is, and my dogs.
2. As we are walking, I periodically practice eye contact ("look"), and work to maintain a close position with my dog, on a loose leash no longer than 6 feet. It's much easier to keep control and good communication on a short leash.
3. If I'm in a space where we may be asked if the dogs are "friendly", I first gauge how comfortable and confident I am with the handler requesting a greeting. If they are handling a dog that is very excited, lunging, pulling, even with a wagging tail, I automatically pass. Usually I can diffuse disappointment with something neutral like "I'm sorry, we are running late!" or "not today!".I won't compromise on this even if it feels uncomfortable, because that level of excitement is reactivity, and I don't want it to escalate at all. Also automatic turn downs are those dogs with intense glares, even non vocal.
4. Most often, it's the handlers who don't ask about greetings who we end up interacting with, and only if both dogs seem interested, completely loose leashed, and not hyper focused. It's very rare that I'm totally comfortable and interested with my leashed dogs greeting another leashed dog. I'm happier to pass by or even travel together briefly with dogs who aren't interested in my pack!
5. If I see a handler struggling to work towards resolving or preventing reactivity of any kind, I give a ton of space, including crossing a street. I don't want to make their job any harder. Furthermore, though my own pack probably doesn't need it, once I have enough space, I will use food as a reinforcement to their complete attention and move quickly away from the other handler. Once we are in the clear, I will use positive verbal reinforcement and that food reward to reinforce that I'm very pleased with their powers of impulse control, and focus!
Working together to agree that dog greetings should be the exception, not the rule can aid with dog safety, and provides a great option to help your dog build their focus and impulse control.