By Alexandra Feldt, Assistant to the President and CEO
When I come home from work, my beagle Fred can smell the evidence on me; I have spent another fulfilling day helping the District’s animals, including those he fears the most: dogs. Sniffing me at the end of day is about all of the dog action Fred can stand; he needs space from his canine brethren. Easier said than done in the big city.
So Fred won’t feel the need to stress and go ballistic each and every time a dog is in the area, we began clicker training. With the basics in hand, we were on our way to reactive dog recovery and started attending classes for similarly-afflicted pooches.
Now on walks, whenever Fred looks at or hears a dog and remains relatively calm, he gets a click followed by a tiny piece of cheese (you need something really delicious to make the emotional effort worth it), repeated each time he looks at or hears the dog. It’s oddly gratifying when Fred spots a dog, licks his lips, and turns to me or my husband for a treat. Sometimes I wonder if an onlooker might assume Fred is contemplating making a meal of another dog.
During this process, if he gets upset, we do a couple of “tricks” from his repertoire (sit, turn, paw, etc.) and treat for those—switching to a different activity that diverts attention from the other dog and reacting. Bear in mind, it took us a lot of work and time to get to this point, and there are occasions when he still loses it. If he is over the top upset, such as when we suddenly run into a dog around a corner, we get out of dodge. We do our best to guide Fred away from the situation by blocking his line of vision with our bodies or by luring with treats. It is important to do what you can to avoid the temptation of pulling—pulling or jerking a reactive dog when he or she is triggered can intensify an already negative connection to a stimulus. Because of this, we also use a harness when walking Fred, rather than affixing his leash directly to his collar. If he does lunge at another dog, we don’t want him to have a choking sensation and be more fearful as a result.
Here’s the beauty of this work: the more progress we make, the less stress I feel, and thus the same is true for Fred. While I used to do my best to fake not being upset during or in anticipation of a reactive episode, Fred could hear it in my voice. Remember, stress travels down the leash—your dog can feel your own tightness and agitation. Marika Bell, WHS Director of Behavior and Training, explains how the clicker helps with this:
The “click” noise has no emotional baggage, but when you use a verbal reward marker, it carries a lot of information beyond what you are trying to convey, just like “good dog.” The dog’s brain must interpret not only the words, but also the voice and the tone.
When I can relax and not overreact to a situation, Fred is calmer, and so am I. Gotta love those positive feedback loops!
Many of these principles are easily translated indoors as well. There are many dogs in our building and they like to bark a lot right outside our door. Because of his loud beagle bay, Fred is the one who gets in trouble if he barks back. He didn’t even start it! We click and treat every time Fred hears a dog inside, even if the sound is just the jingling of a collar or breathing (yes, even that gets him). We are now to the point that he won’t bark if he knows there is a dog nearby, as long as we follow the clicker protocol.
With constant vigilance, I am proud to say that Fred can go several days in the apartment without barking once.
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