December is a great time to reflect on the past year and make resolutions to improve our lives going forward. Itʼs a great time to set new training goals for your furry family member, but remaining on track with those goals can be a lot of work, especially if you share your life with a reactive dog.
When exposed to various triggers in the environment, reactive dogs find it hard to respond appropriately to the emotions they are feeling. These emotions can manifest into a fury of barking, causing stress for the dogs and their owners.
Try implementing the following “Reactive Resolutions” into your dogʼs daily routine for a stress-free new year that you and your dog can truly enjoy together.
Set your dog up for success
Keep your dog out of situations that are beyond her current level of training. Every time she “rehearses” the problem behavior, it gets reinforced. The first step in any behavior modification plan is to stop rehearsing the problem behavior so that new habits can begin to form.
Create a calm space
Ensure that your dog has a special space in your home environment where she can go to relax. Regular reactive episodes could leave her full of stress hormones, which take a toll on her physical and mental health over time. A quiet room, away from family activity, works well as a stress-free space where your dog can unwind. If your dog is reactive to noises outside, use a white noise machine or calming music to drown out the sounds.
Teach your dog to relax
Relaxation is a skill set and a learned behavior that many reactive dogs havenʼt mastered. Teach your dog to relax by taking her to her calm space and rewarding her with her favorite treats for laying on her bed. Encourage her to relax by giving her a gentle massage and rewarding calm behaviors such as rolling onto a hip, lowering her head, and keeping her tail still. Try massaging your dog for five seconds and then pausing, allowing her to communicate to you if she would like you to continue. Incorporate daily relaxation practice into you and your dogʼs routine.
Stimulate your dogʼs mind
Exercise your dogʼs mind by utilizing dog puzzle toys to provide mental stimulation. Ditch the food bowl and begin feeding your dog using her preferred food puzzle toy. There are different types and brands on the market for dogs of all sizes and temperaments.
Take up a new activity together
Explore activities that you and your dog can do together that donʼt expose her to her reactive
triggers. Teaching her a new trick is a great way to begin showing your dog how much fun training can be. Hiding treats around the house and teaching her to find them is another fun activity that most dogs enjoy.
Use technology to your advantage
Recent advances in technology can aid in effective dog training. Wireless internet cameras can monitor your dogʼs behavior when youʼre away. Is she barking out the front window all day long or sleeping soundly on the sofa? Petsafeʼs Auto Trainer is a remote feeding machine that rewards quiet behavior by dispensing your dogʼs daily kibble as treats and can be used to minimize reactive barking around the house.
Donʼt blame your dog!
Dogs can exhibit reactive behavior for many reasons beyond your – and their – control. When your dog is having a reactive episode, remember that she is having an emotional response to a specific trigger in her environment. The possible barking and lunging that occur are symptoms of the underlying emotion. Just as you would not be able to stop feeling frustrated or fearful just because someone asked you to, your dog canʼt turn off her emotions either.
Accept your dog for who she is
Some dogs are party animals and some can be more introverted, just like people. While you might be hoping for your dog to be a social butterfly, she may be happier participating in solo activities. If thatʼs the case, you can still find lots of ways to enjoy your time together.
Take care of yourself
Living with and caring for a reactive dog full-time can be stressful for owners. Avoid compassion fatigue by remembering to take care of yourself and to engage in relaxing activities, such as reading your favorite book or enjoying a soak in the tub.
Seek professional help
If you and your dog are experiencing regular, ongoing stress from reactive episodes, realize that they can be minimized and that your dog can learn better ways to cope with her emotions. If you feel overwhelmed by the training challenge, seek help from a professional dog trainer.
Sharing your life with a reactive dog has its challenges, but also its rewards. Sticking to your training goals will reduce the frequency and intensity of episodes and your friendship with your dog will get better and better. Gradually overcoming training challenges leads to a great sense of satisfaction and creates a very tight bond between you and your dog.
Make 2015 the year you implement Reactive Resolutions during thoughtful and frequent interactions with your dog.
Sara Scott is the owner of Whatʼs Up Dog?, a private dog training service that specializes in working with reactive dogs and their owners. You can find her online at whatsupdogtraining.com.