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How I Helped My Reactive Dog

My 11-month-old Trinket is prone to overreacting; here's the training that changed her behavior.

 |  Jan 22nd 2014  |   38 Contributions


Is there a way to take your sensitive, hysterical, barking and lunging dog to a calmer place while out in public? Can you do it before you lose your sanity and any tiny shred of humility!? The answer is YES!

My 11-month-old German Shepherd, Trinket, has an inherited form of reactivity, meaning she overreacts by either trying to bolt or choosing to lunge and bark at things and people in her environment that concern her. Her mother and some of her siblings have this same genetic wiring and have exhibited many of the same behaviors. Trinket -- the runt of the litter -- has been properly socialized from the first day she arrived at my home. I’ve done other crucial things as well, such as using behavior modification programs I’ve learned from some of the top behaviorists in the country. Trinket also receives force-free obedience training every day. Still, she retained her predilection for overreacting, although she was s-l-o-w-l-y and steadily making progress.

Here are two examples of my dog’s unwanted behavior:

Trinket barks or barks and lunges as something within her line of sight passes by. I ask her to return her attention to me but she is unable to do so -- she is over threshold.

The video below shows a much better reaction. I'm feeding Trinket a tasty treat when a jogger going by makes an appearance. Trinket remains calm and unbothered:

How did I get her to this now happy place? Counter conditioning. Trinket had conditioned herself to be afraid of new things in her environment, so I used the reverse, counter conditioning, to help her more readily accept new stimuli. I used food to change her underlying emotional response so that she learns that new things approaching are great indeed because her association with them has changed. She didn't need to do anything (I ignore any barking or lunging) to get a meat treat -- the scary object is the trigger for the meat to appear under her nose. 

I began to take her into our small mountain town once a week to see where she was in her response to new stimuli. She’d been to town many times as a puppy, but I stopped going (which is what a great majority of dog owners with these kinds of dogs do) when I noticed how much it had begun to stress her out. I wanted time to help her in her home environment, where I could control everything around her.

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Trinket met and played with countless dogs as a puppy. This is her friend Charlie.

She made steady improvement, so I started venturing out again. She did fine . . . until she didn’t. One day I pushed my luck and her too hard and she went off on three people: a man wearing a huge parka with the fur-lined hood up, small children running and screaming in the aisles at Home Depot, and two large dogs who attempted to fence fight with her behind a low picket fence.

I pushed my dog too fast, too hard. I had to back up, so I did. I backed straight up to counter conditioning work with Trinket. I decided to spend five straight days of doing nothing but counter-conditioning in town, starting at the Home Depot parking lot. Because of all that I had done with her previously and due to the great strides she had made, I set my goal of being able to walk her through a hardware store again but this time she would be eager and brimming with confidence. It was a lot to ask in just five days.

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Trinket received quality, frequent socialization as a puppy.

Day 1: In the farthest corner outside the front door

I chose this store because they allow dogs inside but also they had a nice big area with lots of trees near the “pro” doors. Whenever Trinket noticed a person walking to a car, a yummy meat treat appeared under her nose. She didn’t have to do anything at all -- the human walking in the distance was the trigger to make the treat appear. If she had barked, lunged or became stiff in her body (she didn’t), then I was too close and we would have backed up.

We saw 15 people coming and going and each time she noticed a person, I made a treat appear. She saw four kids, which was the only thing that made her tail shoot up into the air, so I did a U-turn into the wooded area and began again. She ate the treats and never barked once. She did give hard stares now and again but kept taking the treats, so I kept them coming but only when a person appeared in her line of sight.

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Trinket has been overreacting to new things, so we helped her through it with counter conditioning.

Day 2: The parking lot

Several burly men loaded up the back of their trucks. Trinket leaned forward and stared each time but never barked or lunged. Treats appeared under her nose every single time a person walked out the door, which at this point was about 25 yards from us. She excelled.

Next I went to the Durango Dog College where friend and fellow trainer Traci Moriarty was waiting for us. I wanted to desensitize and counter condition Trinket to people wearing odd-looking jackets, such as those with hoods. 

Traci walked by at a distance with her face covered and Trinket did not recognize her. We tried three different coats and only got one little bark with less than 10 feet of distance between us and Traci. At the end, I asked Trinket to go say hi. She tentatively approached Traci, still bundled in a hooded jacket, and leaned forward to explore. We had a happy happy party with a lot of treats when Trinket realized she knew this once scary-looking person.

Bonus: Trinket slept all afternoon both of these days, even snoring -- something she doesn’t do even after running off leash on our property for an hour or longer. It told me that this work was emotionally hard for her, but she was willing to give me her best effort.

Day 3: Back to the dog college

Traci exits through a side door in a full-length, hooded Little Red Riding Hood-type coat. Trinket barked once and we did a U turn and went further into the building. After that, Trinket and I did tons of back-and-forth walking and jogging and watching Traci go by. Every time Traci showed up in Trinket’s line of sight, Trinket got a delicious food treat. After many repetitions, I let Trinket greet Traci. She did so with a slight hesitation, but then loved knowing it was Traci in the coat.

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I want Trinket to see every new person as a friend, even when they're wearing hooded coats.

Day 4: Getting closer to the door

Because Trinket had been so wonderfully calm 25 yards or so away from the door, I moved up closer. We watched people coming and going for 25 minutes just off to the side, with a heavy tree cover behind me, although we never needed to back up.

Trinket observed children running, two dogs on leashes, and tons of human activity. Every time the door opened and someone came in or out, I gave her a treat. Some people got close enough to ask to pet her, but I politely said she wasn’t ready for that kind of interaction yet. I walked her several times just inside the doors and let her look around and delivered more treats when she spotted people. She was a rock star!

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Major progress!!

Day 5: The big day! 

I decided to try her inside a smaller hardware store one town over to give her every chance of success. It worked!

She happily greeted everyone she met inside the store and even stood in line nicely waiting to check out. She jumped up on the cashier’s counter twice when I asked her to and took treats from the cashier. This was a huge day in her progress.

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Trinket could not have been this comfortable in a store without counter conditioning work.

Is Trinket cured? No, she isn't.

She still has a proclivity to bark and lunge at new stimuli that concern her. My job is to lessen that concern for her and show her that people are wonderful indeed. We are well on our way to a happy lifetime together.

Please note that I would never move this quickly with a dog with a bite history. If your dog has used his teeth to communicate or gives warning growls, you need a qualified trainer to help you with this process. It's not worth risking a bite to yourself or an innocent bystander. You do need good human timing to make this procedure work. Every dog is an individual and it takes the time it takes. If you try counter conditioning, please hire a positive reinforcement trainer the first few times to walk you through it. Let me know in the comments about your progress!

About Annie Phenix: Positive-reinforcement dog trainer and author Annie Phenix never met a mountain she did not love. This explains why she lives in Colorado, where she's surrounded by mountains, and why she is always smiling. She delights in the snowy season here, as do her five dogs, two horses, and six adorably cute donkeys.

More by Annie Phenix:

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