Following the assessment, a trainer should have some sense as to how a number of factors may be contributing to the reactive dog’s behavior. I tend to think of these factors in terms of three key areas:

  • Baseline response to trigger (absent other factors)
  • Dynamic between dog and handler (relationship/history)
  • Skill deficit (dog and handler)

Each area relates to one dimension of a comprehensive training strategy. Of course, there are some cases where only one or two of the above factors are truly in play, but those are rare in my experience. Most reactive dogs I encounter can benefit from all three areas being addressed, at least to some extent.

So, my training program will involve various measures of the following:

  • Socialization (when feasible), desensitization, counter-conditioning
  • Leadership and management coaching
  • Formal obedience (including handling instruction)

There is some overlap among them, too. Basic leash handling instruction, for example, relates to leadership, management, and obedience. Using food in proximity to a known trigger, may both reward compliance with a cue and have a counter-conditioning effect.

My immediate goal when beginning work with a reactive dog client, is to give him or her a way to handle the dog more productively in those real-life situations that are impossible to avoid, give them some exercises for building their dog’s attentiveness, responsiveness, and overall skill-level in the mean-time, and teach them some basic principles regarding what promotes leash reactivity versus what promotes better behavior.

My long-term goal is to build a dog/owner team that

  • Experiences substantively less stress in the face of triggers
  • Enjoys a healthy, balanced relationship involving clear communication
  • Has the skill necessary to cope with a wide array of real-life situations, including compliance with basic cues under stress or distraction

In other words, I want the dog to have a more relaxed and/or positive (not always the same thing or equally desirable) emotional response to any former triggers, but also want the owner to have enough influence over the dog (via their relationship and their obedience practice) that he or she need not depend on the dog exercising good judgement on its own in every case. Instead, the dog should be prepared to defer to his owner’s judgement when required, reflecting his owner’s attitude rather than acting on his own.

NOTE: The IAABC Facebook Chat on Leash Reactivity starts at 1PM Eastern Time (12PM Chicago). Please join me via IAABC’s FB page.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.