Leash Gremlins, Dog Tornadoes, and Reactivity

by Hilary Bentley • Posted in: Behavior, Fundraising

We could also call this post, “Things that make you say woof.”   Or, on a sadder note, things that prevent dogs from getting adopted or cause them to be surrendered to the shelter.  Reactivity.  To other dogs, to people, to things with wheels, or to a very specific subset of one of those things…large men in hats, for example.

Reactivity triggers can be complicated, but two of the most common reasons we see in our shelter dogs are fear and lack of social skills.  Many dogs are afraid, especially in a shelter environment that is unnatural, frustrating, and full of other barking dogs.  These dogs may put on a big, fierce show around other dogs, hoping to get a reputation as a tough dog and thus, not get chosen as a target from the other dogs.  Unfortunately, that often also means they don’t get chosen as a new family member by adopters.

Many dogs show reactivity when on a leash, but don’t show any reactivity when off-leash or only show reactivity when behind a barrier like a fence or kennel door.  This is often the build-up of frustration at either not being able to go over and meet the other dog they’re seeing or being afraid and not able to get away.

Reactivity is a common challenge our behavior team works on to help great dogs get past something that is often hurting their adoption chances.  Our goals are to get the dogs comfortable in the presence of the other dogs, so they can show off their true natures when meeting potential adopters in the shelter, walk through public spaces without giving a ‘leash gremlin’ demo, and to decrease the anxiety they feel that’s showing up as a need to act out as ‘dog tornado.’  For some dogs, those who really want to and benefit from time spend with other dogs, the goal is to build their social skills to enable them to have canine friends.

We use several different techniques for working on reactivity including engaging in various types of parallel work, using strategic housing and walking routes for reactive dogs in the shelter setting, developing better default behaviors, coping mechanisms, and social skills, and often working on supportive training goals like socialization and confidence building.  One of our favorite tools for working on reactivity is the BAT, or Behavior Adjustment Training, program.

BAT uses a functional reward based approach to addressing reactivity.  In the case of the fearful dog, his top goal is getting more distance from the dog he sees.  The trainers teach him that by giving appropriate signals (looking away, sniffing on the ground, yawning, “shaking it off”, etc.), he’ll get that space.

Let’s say the fearful dog is ok with other dogs who are 30 feet away, but when he gets within 25 feet of another dog, he starts barking, lunging, or doing something inappropriately reactive.  “25 feet” becomes that dog’s threshold.

The trainer will start out with exposing the dog in training to another dog who is more than 25 feet away.  As soon as the dog in training gives an appropriate signal, after noticing the dog over 25 feet away, the handler will praise and move the dog farther away.  By reacting toward the other dog in a dog-appropriate way, the dog in training gets what he wants – more distance.

Treats aren’t even needed because what the dog really wants – more space – is much more of a reward than a treat.  Treats can be used to reinforce the good behavior even more, though.

Once the dog gets comfortable, his trainers will start trying to decrease his threshold and expose him to other dogs at increasingly shorter distances.  The dog becomes more and more confident that when he gives appropriate signals, he’ll get the extra distance he wants.  We have then created a new behavior chain where, instead of barking and lunging to get distance, the dog relies on socially appropriate communication skills to ask for additional space.

With consistent training, this once reactive dog can now remain calm in the presence of another dog, passing nicely by on leash, maybe attending group training classes, and possibly even making some canine pals.  The dog has also become much more adoptable.

There are non-aggressive, reactive dogs in Austin who are still not making it out of the city shelter alive.  They take a lot more resources to be made ready for adoption.  This year, APA wants to save all of these dogs, but we need the help of the community. Can you donate $25/month to pay for one hour of a professional behaviorist’s time?  You can sign up for recurring donations here.

Can’t donate now, but want to help?  Become a volunteer and join our dog behavior team or follow the team on facebook.

Do you have a reactive dog at home? Check out the awesome community and resource library at DINOS (Dogs in Need of Space)!

*All photos of happily adopted APA! pups by Scarlett Blue Photography.