If like us you happen to own a dog that is reactive then you probably keep your dog on the lead when you’re outdoors. Our own dog, Buzz isn’t ever allowed off the lead on walks as he’s a reactive dog. Or he was…read on to find out just how much he’s improved.
We brought Buzz home in July of 2016 and although he was initially OK, he very quickly turned to the dark side and started reacting at any and every dog he spotted. He was ‘that’ dog that rages from the back of the sofa looking out of the living room window should another dog dare to come into view. On walks he would react to another dog on the street even it was 50 yards from us. And god help you if he seen a cat.
We did wonder what the hell we’d brought home from the RSPCA. We were told that Buzz was a Lurcher cross. Quite quickly we were pretty sure he was crossed with the Tasmanian Devil.
I would like to say though that he was a brilliant dog at home. He settled in immediately and there wasn’t a hint of badness in him, indoors there were no negatives, he was a lovely dog. Take him outside though and he’d turn into what the experts call ‘a pain the in arse’.
He was just a complete nightmare; I can’t emphasise strongly enough how stressful it was taking him for a walk. Whenever we’d go out with him there would be multiple highly charged incidents. He’d see a dog and he’d lose the plot.
He’d be tense throughout the whole walk; his lead work was horrific as he’d be pulling this way and that looking for other dogs and then once he had a dog in his sights he’d go nuclear. There was lots of lunging and barking and his behaviour was just horrendous.
We had to do something, we couldn’t give him back to the RSPCA, could we? No, we couldn’t, they knew him so they probably won’t let him back in anyway. Maybe we could try Dogs Trust, they might take him?... nah, only joking. In all seriousness we probably did have second thoughts, but he was our dog and we couldn’t just give up on him. We had to begin to break down what was happening and look to see how we could correct his behaviour.
As you know I’m a dog walker, not a behaviourist. Personally, I’m sceptical of behaviourists as I know a lot of people who’ve spent a lot of money on them to no avail. I now know one or two dog behaviourists that I would recommend but back in 2016 we decided to do what we normally do if we have a problem and need some help. We Googled it.
In the short term we muzzled him. This gave us some breathing room to be able to try and correct his behaviour whilst minimising the risk of him attacking a dog.
We then started taking him out when there were less dogs about, early mornings and later in the day. Other dogs were unavoidable (there are 9 million other dogs in the country!) but at quieter times of the day he wasn’t bumping into other dogs around every corner.
As mentioned earlier his lead work was very poor so we decided to try and tackle this issue at the same time. There are lots of great videos on YouTube that can help but in a nutshell we just took him back to basics and rewarded him with training treats when he’d walk well and we would stop dead when he pulled. Once we stopped we would only walk on once the tension on the lead had gone slack. Eventually he did start to get better, but this took quite a long time, we put months and months into this often taking half an hour just to get around the block.
To be fair we were a bit lax at times with this Stop and Go training method as we were often in a hurry to get from A to B so we’d sometimes just put up with the pulling just to get to where we were going as we were so often in a rush. I feel if had we had the time to properly use this technique every single time we went out he would have cracked it in less than a month.
Our mission was now to try and correct his reactive nature. He was definitely improving on the lead and on our walks his focus was on us because we were giving him lots of praise and lots of treats. It was clear that these 2 things (praise and treats) were going to be key weapons in our battle to recalibrate his behaviour.
What we did was actually very simple, but just like teaching him to walk nicely on the lead it took a long time to work effectively in every instance. What we did was to give him a nice treat every time we seen a dog relatively close by. By ‘relatively close by’ I mean close enough where he would be about to react – for Buzz that would be dogs on the other side of the road, dogs behind fences or gates and dogs heading toward him at a distance of about 50 yards or so.
The exact timing of giving him a treat was important. It was no use seeing a dog heading our way and giving him a treat and then expecting him not to react once the dog was passing by. The key to it was showing him the treat and tempting him with it, making a real fuss whilst the other dog was drawing closer and closer and then after the dogs had passed each other he got his reward. A lot of the time we’d get him to sit and almost hold the treat to his nose whilst the other dog got safely by and then he’d get the reward. If he reacted, he wouldn’t get the treat. We would try not to get stressed or animated about this. We rewarded the good behaviour and bit our lips when it didn’t go to plan. In time I believe we got better at timing the treats and this helped because giving the treat too soon or too late often led to an unwanted reaction from Buzz.
The only verbal command we’d ever really used was ‘leave it’. Perhaps this worked well on 2 levels. On one hand he was leaving the juicy titbit as he already knew that command and wouldn’t take the treat until you stopped saying ‘leave it’ and told him to ‘take it’. A by-product of him concentrating on leaving it was that this took his mind away from ‘I must react to the other dog’ which brough his tension levels down to a level low enough to allow the other dog to get past.
I have since read online that using higher value treats (cheese, ham, chopped up hot dogs) can work better than the stuff we used which was just shop bought basic training treats. Perhaps we would have had a quicker resolution had we used these higher value treats, but we were thrilled to be making any progress at all. It was clear to us that what we were doing was working.
We took treats on every single walk we went on and we continued to improve both his lead work and his reactive nature. It took many months but gradually he became less and less reactive and we now find that he’s still on the lookout for other dogs when we’re walking him but now when he sees a dog he looks at us for his treat. We are still in the habit of rewarding him whenever he sees or passes another dog but he’s at the stage now where he can walk past another dog without incident.
Buzz is now almost 8 years old and he’s just a great dog. He’s still not the best on the lead, sometimes he’s very good and sometimes he decides to be a pain but overall he’s significantly better than he was. In terms of his reactive nature I would say he’s entirely rehabilitated, he doesn’t even react when another dog reacts at him. Even his hatred of cats has gone. Now when he spots a cat he just looks to us for a treat!
Coastal Dog Walkers
Welcome to the occasional ramblings of a North Shields dog walker.