Do you dream of be able to just go out on a relaxing walk with your dog? It can be really stressful for you and your dog if your dog reacts to every other dog that you pass. You may even start feeling stressed before you leave the house!
The first thing is to take a step back and have a think about exactly what the problem is, for instance whether it is all other dogs, dogs moving away or towards you, dogs at the park, on lead or off lead, male or female, large or small? How far away do they need to be for your dog to bark?
It's a good idea to write it down, and even to get someone to video it what happens. This all gives you a clearer starting point.
It's really important to keep your dog below their particular excitement or anxiety threshold from this point forward because no learning takes place if the dog is in the midst of a highly emotional barking response. If at all possible I would recommend ensuring that the dog is kept away from situations which would lead to the old behaviour so that it can no longer occur. The dog should be kept to calm walks only, avoiding other dogs and where this isn’t possible the dog should be given a complete break for 3 – 5 days before beginning to work on this behaviour to allow their anxiety levels and stress hormones to return to normal levels. If this fills you with horror because your dog would be climbing the curtains without their usual walk then please feel free to get in touch for ideas for support and ideas.
I would use Behaviour Adjustment Training and keeping the dog below the threshold let the dog see another but keeping them below their particular threshold so that they can learn to disengage on their own. I would use a loose long lead and a helper dog and handler for this. Starting at a distance with which the dog is comfortable which could be up to three times the distance at which he usually reacts. If the dog just walks straight towards the other dog slowly stop him. If the dog begins to show signs of stress or fixation recall them away and give them a treat; a good ability to read the dog’s body language is essential. A bit of professional help with reading body language as well as timing of treats can be invaluable here. If the dog is able to turn away easily and voluntarily from the trigger then allow the dog to continue to explore. This is a method of desensitising the dog to the particular stimulus.
Depending on the practicalities of the situation for the particular owner and dog I would also consider counter conditioning or training an alternative behaviour, for instance, a calm ‘down stay’ which can the rewarded with lots of treats. Really this just means giving your dog something else to do and to concentrate on. Some dogs find it harder to bark in a down stay and find it fun having a job to do for their owner. This doesn’t solve the underlying problem but allows the owner to manage the behaviour (and their own anxiety) and keep the dog from reacting and becoming stressed. If this behaviour is performed every time that they see another dog then the dog (and owner) may begin to positively associate the sight and sound of another dog (at a safe distance) with lots of treats and attention. A down stay can feel quite vulnerable for the dog and potentially increase his stress levels so it should only be used after the Behaviour Adjustment Training has been used to help desensitise the dog.
It’s worth being aware that dogs who are reactive in this way may have underlying anxiety or other issues to consider, so a trip to a qualified behaviourist could be well worthwhile if only to rule out other issues at the outset. You may just learn one thing that tips the balance and leads to a hugely positive result. At a good consultation you might also learn how to meet other wider needs your dog has to help your dog be in a calm state before any behaviour modification training takes place. This may mean including other mental stimulation and exercise in the house and garden and away from other dogs.
It’s really important that you are able to stay calm too! It’s so easy to use lead tension and your own body language to let your dog know that you are really worried about the approaching dog! If you shout at the dog for barking, from the dog’s perspective you are just joining in with the barking and adding to the intensity!! Keep your body language loose and to turn slightly away from any approaching dog. If necessary, turn around and go back the other way! It might even help to invest in a yellow dog tabard or dog coat which states ‘MY DOG NEEDS SPACE’ to prevent other owners inadvertently creating further stress for the dog. I felt ashamed the first time I went out in one of these but I was just bowled over by how supportive other dog owners were.
This is just a phase you and your dog are going through. Take some time with it and get help if you need it. You will have your faithful companion with you for many years so it’s a thoroughly worthwhile investment in all your future calm and happy walks together.