We’ve all been there – out in the world with our precious pups. Walking along, minding our own business, breathing the fresh air, and then out of nowhere, your dog goes wild: lunging, barking, whining, growling, pulling at the leash. And why? They’re reacting to something. Maybe it’s a stranger, another dog, a skateboarder, a cat, a weird looking tree. It might seem illogical to us, but for your dog it can be scary, stressful, and even dangerous.
If you follow me on Instagram – you know that I do themed weeks where I deep dive into different dog behaviors and how to begin to shift them. A few weeks ago I focused on reactivity in dogs, and here I’m compiling all of the best information for those of you who are parents to reactive dogs.
Reactivity is a response to a trigger. Like mentioned above, it could be any number of things and no two dogs’ triggers are exactly the same. So once you identify what your dog’s trigger is, your first step is to find SPACE.
Figure out how much room your dog needs to disengage from the trigger. It could be five feet, twenty feet, across the street, or even more. Once you know how much room is needed, you can start to build a more positive response. Your goal with creating this space is to be able to call your dog’s attention to you without them being too fixated on the trigger. Are they not able to return to you? You need more distance.
Once there is enough separation between you and your dog and their trigger, the behavior modification can start. We play the “look at that” game – where with the appropriate amount of space, you give your dog the room to see or hear their trigger. When they’re focused on it (body upright, ears at attention), use your marker word (I use “yes”) and reward your pup. They’ll begin to associate their trigger with a reward. Make sure this is a high value treat (see this blog to learn how to make super high value DIY licky pouches for easy training). Continue to mark and reinforce seeing the trigger until it is out of sight.
The goal here is for your dog to associate that rude skateboarder with delicious cheese or hotdogs. Or that dog behind a fence down the street with a peanut butter licky pouch. By doing this you’re conditioning your dog’s mind to be in a better, less reactive state overall when encountering one of their triggers.
Continue to do this, and play with the distance and space needed to maintain this positive reinforcement. You will find that eventually your dog will see a trigger, then look to you. This behavior makes you more rewarding than the meltdown. They get a treat and they get to have a calmer walk.
In our next blog we’ll talk a bit about other, unexpected factors that can affect your dog’s mental health and reactivity.
Training treats are an essential part of changing your dog’s behavior and if you’ve done any training with me you know how many you can go through! While there are loads of great treats you can buy, I also like to be able to control the ingredients, which is why I like to make my own training treats.
The other amazing thing about DIY training treats is that you can work in nutrient dense materials like real chicken. I’m a big believer in real food for dogs (studies show reduces cancer risk, helps mental alertness and mood, and more!), and training treats are a part of that equation.
These pyramid pan molds are the perfect size and you can make hundreds or in my case thousands of treats with ease. You can find the molds I bought in my amazon shop.
I was first turned on to using tapioca flour in training treats from a great blog by Eileen and Dogs, it helps to keep the treats dense and prevents them from crumbling and gives them a spongy consistency. The treats are quite easy to hold and dispense which makes them ideal for training!
There is a lot of room for variation but these are the 2 recipes that I made. They yield enough to fill 2 pyramid pans. Play around with your dog’s favorite flavors to find the highest value reward for your dog.
Orange/ Pumpkin DIY Training Treats
10 oz Pumpkin (about 3/4 of a 15 oz can)
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 TBS MCT Oil
1 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
5 drops orange essential oil (optional – great scent)
1 can chicken with water (9.75 oz)
1TBS MCT oil
1 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 TBS dried dill (optional – great scent)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
I sprayed my pans with oil to make it easier to get them out
Blend wet ingredients in a food processor
Mix blended wet ingredients with dry ingredients
Spread batter into molds with spatula and be sure to wipe off excess batter. ( I found it easier to pour the batter in small amounts in all four corners and worked the batter inward)
Bake for 15 minutes or until you can see the treats starting to lift. I made the mistake of not baking them long enough my first go which made a tedious task of popping each treat out individually. So if the treats don’t come out very well try baking it for longer)
I made a lot and then stuck what I wasn’t going to use in the coming week into the freezer.
If you’ve followed my work for any length of time — you’ll know that I really prioritize your mentality when approaching training your dogs. Generally speaking I think if you have a positive attitude about training, and use reinforcements and rewards to shape behavior, you’re on the right path. I don’t always get bogged down by little details, but in this particular case, the details really matter. My beef is with popular terminology — the word “command” that we use to describe a behavior we’d like our dog to do — for several reasons. For one: our dogs aren’t our servants so there is no need to “command” them to do anything! Second, words matter. FULL STOP. Using certain words can affect your mindset of how you’re approaching training! The intentions you set and actions that follow are hugely affected by the vocabulary you apply to training. Third, I strongly urge you to view your training as a conversation with your dog. Good conversations don’t begin with a command.
Dogs are emotional beings — and we are responsible for their emotional health as much as our own. Don’t buy into this outdated “pack leader” bullshit— I don’t. Controlling our dogs is not the goal, and commanding them has a hidden meaning of “control.” Utilize the science of how dogs learn to teach them in the most humane and effective way possible.
I am very intentional in my use of the word cue. I spend the time reinforcing a clear behavior, tying it to a cue, and continue working with my dog so their understanding of my ask is clear. I am also allowing my dog the space to not respond — consent is as important in human/dog relationships as it is in human/human relationships. Some people think consent is controversial in a lot of dog circles, but my goal is to work towards my dog willingly responding to a cue. If they don’t, that’s ok — just more information on what my dog needs going forward. Like, was my cue confusing? Were they distracted? Are they not quite to the level where they can do this consistently? Are they not being rewarded enough? All of these things are questions you should ask yourself if your dog is not reliably and willingly responding to your cues. Tough truth time: chances are that you haven’t done the work to get your dog to that success point.
Opening a “dialog” with your dog starts with understanding how dogs learn. Humans and dogs have a lot of similarities in learning behaviors (minus the spoken language part). Dogs do what works for them. That means that if your dog performs a behavior you like and want them to repeat, reward them. The more you reward for a repeated behavior, it is more likely that your dog will repeat that behavior again and again. Once you start to use this knowledge consistently you will see your dog start to offer behavior to earn their desired reward. That is the dialog that we hope to achieve with our pups. It takes work, but the results are very rewarding for human and dog alike.
I encourage you to intentionally choose to cue your dog to perform trained behaviors and discontinue commanding!