By Mary Eckhardt
Dr. Phil says, “hurt people hurt people.” It’s a catchy phrase for a complex topic, meant to remind us that people who lash out are often victims themselves. I find the same true for dogs. Dogs that have been hurt in the past often lash out in the present and foreseeable future – unless we do something about it.
The solution involves teaching the dog behaviors, warming-up before each session and practicing before encountering the thing that upsets them (their trigger). Teach your dog to leave something alone and look at you. Then practice this exercise every time you get ready for your walk. Spend two to three weeks just practicing, setting up a situation where you and your dog work together to overcome their issue(s). To improve your chances of success, factor in some additional elements.
Be clear on what is upsetting your dog. Is it a dog? All dogs? Male dogs? Intact dogs? Dogs that are bigger than them? If you find that your dog has issues with more than one thing (i.e., male dogs and tall men), choose one thing and work on it then tackle the second and so on.
Once you’re clear about your pup’s trigger, it’s time to figure out how far away from it they need to be to be comfortable. Measure this distance by seeing the trigger and offering them a tasty treat (chicken or dried liver), then expanding the distance until they take the treat. Ideally, you and your pup get this far away every time you see the trigger. Every week, retest your pup to see if you can get a little closer, but remember, the goal is to have success, so don’t push too fast. It’s better to build trust at a safe distance than to force them closer before they’re ready.
Additionally, be sure to position yourself between your dog and the trigger; this lets your dog know that you’re protecting them. Also, many dogs need something to do with their anxiety/excitement. It’s not enough to tell them to leave something alone; you may also need to give them something to do – consider having them look at you or engaging them with a toy. And be sure to never let your dog feel cornered.
No matter the reason, when people – or dogs – behave badly, it stinks. When it affects the time you spend with your dog, it affects their quality of life and it’s time to change it. Practice is key; most reactive dogs need 50 to 100 positive repetitions to overcome their fear and anxiety. But getting the chance to walk your pup off leash or bring them with you on a vacation is worth all the effort.
Marcy Eckhardt is La Plata County Humane Society’s trainer and behavior consultant and executive director of pranaDOGS Behavior & Rehab Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.