Dog training

Reactivity in Dogs: Silent Reactive Behaviours

What is reactivity in dogs? What does it look like?

Reactivity is one of the most common issues that dog owners have with their dogs. Usually people ‘label’ dogs as reactive when they display unwanted behaviours such as barking, lunging, and snapping towards certain triggers such as other dogs, people, objects, and noises. When we use this ‘label’ for dogs, our judgement is merely based on observable behaviours. When we actually address those behavioural issues, we need to delve into the cause, such as fear, stress, trauma, etc.

However, what I want to discuss in this post is not how to reduce reactivity in dogs, but to highlight those equally important but often more subtle behaviours that indicate a dog is struggling and needs help.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

My dog, Jasmine, and I were recently approached by another dog that was on leash pulling towards us. The dog put its face to Jasmine’s and showed the teeth, staring at her. Then, Jasmine started barking at the dog. The other dog’s owner didn’t seem to have noticed her dog’s behaviour. Not only the dog’s owner but also all the other people around us must have thought that my dog had reacted to a friendly dog.

In another incident, in an off-leash park, I saw an off-leash dog approaching another off-leash dog, which is no problem. But, at the next moment, the approaching dog suddenly growled and snapped at the other dog who looked very friendly. If the dog had displayed the behaviour when another dog approached it, it would have been nothing unusual. In such a case, most people would simply label the dog as reactive.

However, the dog’s owner didn’t look worried about her dog at all. She just laughed it off and kept walking. After seeing the dog doing the same thing to another dog, I asked the dog’s owner to put her dog on a lead. She looked puzzled. So, I explained that her dog didn’t look comfortable around other dogs, although I wished I could have described what I saw. (I couldn’t because I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of other people.)

In both cases the dogs didn’t bark or lunged. So, from a distance, it would have looked nothing concerning. But, it was clear that both dogs were uncomfortable with such close encounters with other dogs.

In training for reactive dogs, one of the most important concepts that we try to teach the dogs is increasing the distance to their triggers helps them feel better and safer, bringing them back under their threshold. But, if a reactive dog doesn’t display obvious reactive behaviours in close encounters with his triggers, his owner may not notice the dog’s fear or stress. As a result, the dog’s owner may miss an opportunity to help the dog overcome it before the issue gets more serious.

So, watch your dog carefully especially when he is facing his likely triggers with his back toward you.

Dog training

Loose Leash Walking Session with Tucker


Tucker pulls and pulls the lead when he is on one. I had heard that his owner had been having trouble walking him on a lead, but I didn’t realise how bad his pulling was until I tried walking him on a lead in their front yard after a trick training session in their home. At that time he got extremely excited, as soon as he saw his lead, and dashed toward the front door. He couldn’t even step away from the door.

We had our first loose leash walking session in a park, because the footpaths along the street would have been too narrow to do things that I wanted to do. To start with, I wanted to burn his extra energy before actually practising loose leash walking. In order to do that, I let him run in circles around me on a lead so that he would pull the lead sideways, not in the direction away from me.

If you try to pull back in the opposite direction when your dog pulls, it will only encourage him to pull even stronger. But, if you gently pull sideways as you move to the side of your dog, he is likely to move sideways. Once he has started moving sideways, you can use the momentum to let him run in circles around you at the end of the lead.

Running in circles

While we were doing that, Tucker sometimes passed near me, so I took the opportunity and threw a piece of food in the direction he was heading, saying “Get it”. And, if he looked in my direction after eating the food, I called him and turn so that he would come from behind me. Then, I again threw food in the direction he was heading just when he was passing me. When he didn’t look at me after eating the food, I waited until he disengaged from the thing he was looking at, and invited him toward me as I praised him.

Most dogs enjoy this exercise as a game that helps them to stay focused on you.

Food circuit

For the warmup exercises explained above, I used a 180 cm lead. But, if you use a long line, you could stay in the centre of his running circle without moving much. Also, for these exercises, I put the lead on the back hook although Tucker was wearing a harness with a front hook.

When he had settled enough, I moved the lead from the back hook to the front hook and started practising loose leash walking. I kept talking to him to stay connected with him. I changed directions frequently to maintain his attention on me. I asked him to sit sometimes too, which he responded to very well.

The start of walking on a loose leash

Because Tucker is short, the lead can get under his body easily when the lead is on the front hook. So, I made sure that the lead was kept off the ground.

If you have a dog who keeps pulling the lead, please practise above exercises. If your dog pulls but is calmer, you may skip one or both of the warmup exercises. Hope it helps!!

Dog training, Tricks

Enjoy “muzzle training”!

Don’t you think that we see more dogs wearing a muzzle on their walks than we used to? Yes, one of the reasons (here in Auckland, New Zealand) is the council’s regulation that requires all dogs identified as menace to wear a muzzle. But some dogs are wearing one for other reasons, such as a precaution for a reactive dog or a scavenging dog.

I don’t put a muzzle on my dogs on our walks but sometimes I need to put one on Cinnamon who can get nippy when she is being examined closely at the vet.

Last week a student in a tricks class asked me about muzzle training. Her dog was able to put her nose to the end of her muzzle to earn treats, but she was unable to sustain the contact.

After giving the student some advice, I decided to muzzle train Cinnamon, as I knew that she had not been comfortable wearing a muzzle when she needed to.

Muzzle training with Cinnamon
  1. Present a muzzle in front of your dog.
  2. Mark and reward for touching the muzzle with the nose.
  3. Repeat Step 2 many times.
  4. If your dog looks comfortable doing it, start delaying the mark and reward.

Although I have seen some dog trainers giving treats through a muzzle, I think that you need to be careful so that your dog doesn’t start comparing the fear of the muzzle and the value of the treats. Even if you are intending to reinforce the behaviour positively with treats, the treats can enhance the fear for some dogs. So, if your dog is very scared of a muzzle, I advise you to think twice before luring your dog with food into the muzzle.

At the end of the above video I tied the strap and quickly untied it. However, she didn’t look comfortable about it. So, next time I might try “tying and untying the strap behind the neck” without putting the muzzle on her.

If you progress slowly so that your dog doesn’t get stressed, you can do this training as just another fun trick. So, enjoy “muzzle training” with your dog!! I will with Cinnamon!

Dog training

Your dog’s training is “never done”

When I am walking my dogs, I occasionally get asked if I am “still” training my senior dogs. To me it is nothing unusual. Is that because my dogs are naughty? Well, yes perhaps… Is that because I am not a good trainer so that I haven’t been able to train my dogs well enough? Well, yes maybe…

A couple of days ago a dog owner told me with a frowning face that her three-year-old dog had started failing recalls. So, I asked what she was doing to reinforce her recalls when she actually came back. Then, she looked puzzled and said “Penny used to always come when called. But, now she chases rabbits and doesn’t come back when I call her.” I asked again if she ever gave her dog a reward when the dog chose her over distractions and came. Then, she said “Do I need to carry food when I walk her? I never needed treats as she always came back.”

It’s so exciting to chase rabbits!!

Dogs are not robots. They have their own mind. You cannot program how they respond to your cues correctly every time by writing lines of code. They make their own decisions. They make decisions to suit themselves. They choose an option that is likely to result in something they like. If they think that a certain option will results in something they don’t like, they will learn not to choose the option.

When it comes to dogs’ recalls, some dogs may choose to come when called, even if they aren’t taught to do so. For example, some dogs, especially young ones, do so because they feel safe being close to their owners. But, as they develop more confidence in various environments, their need to stick to their owners may decrease. So, they are likely to learn to choose it over their owners when when they find something more interesting than their owners

If you want reliable recalls from your dog, you need to reinforce his choice to come back to you by rewarding him for his successful recalls. The reward doesn’t need to food. It can be toys, interactions with you, or other activities he likes, such as sniffing the ground or even running free! If you praise and give him a reward every time he comes, it becomes a reason for your dog to come back every time he is called. Also, when you give him a reward, whether it is food or not, for his successful recall, he doesn’t only get the reward but also learns what it feels like to come and get rewarded. If he learns that he feels good when he comes back, it will be a reason for coming back whether he gets rewarded or not.

If the case of the dog owner who I mentioned earlier, she might need to retrain her dog from scratch, because the dog has practised to ignore her calls so many times, which means that the dog’s choice to ignore her owner’s calls has been reinforced. There are various ways to teach a dog recalls strategically, but that will require a separate post.

Even if now you think that your dog has highly reliable recalls, you never know what kind of competitions for your dog’s attention can appear in the future. So, be prepared to compete with them by reinforcing your dog’s recalls from time to time, if not always!!

Dog training

Yes, focus is important, but if…

In our tricks class at Manukau Dog Training Club, I got a very interesting question from a student.

In the class I had been emphasizing on how to get and keep your dog focused on you. But, the student said “When I read your article, I thought that what you do for the focus might be too much for the dogs”. “Article” means that a piece of paper I give to our students each week, explaining what we have done in the class that week. I thought that she meant that dogs in the class would be too exhausted by playing my focus games to actually practise tricks, which we usually do after the focus games. But, then she added “I understand that the focus is important, but some dogs are always focused on their handlers and keep offering behaviours, such as Border Collies and Malinois.”

992c3c414406ce825b86727812176260_sYes, she is right. There are dogs who don’t need to learn to focus on their handlers because they do it naturally.  Well, as is the case with any type of training or learning, you may need to teach different dogs different things. Thus, in case of dogs who tend to get hyped up by offering behaviours to engage their handlers, we need to teach them something different. Although it again depends on each dog, things that you could teach those dogs may include: 1) how to calm down and 2) how to wait for the handler’s cue.

Making your dog to do a behaviour that has duration could help him calm down, while your dog needs to be vigilant to prepare for the next cue if you give your dog a cue for a different behaviour each time.

As always, when you train your dog, you need to think about how to help your dog, the dog in front of you.