Mico is a very sweet 2 year old Anatolian Shepherd/Samoyed Mix, who’s just moved from Florida to the big city. He lives in an apartment building in Cambridge with his owners Donna and Jay.
Mico has had trouble adapting to the noisy, busy city. In his new surroundings, he has been acting protective of his home, barking at guests, even lunging at a young child who was running down the street. In general, he seems more reactive towards men, and people with hats or hoodies, when outside on walks.
His over-protectiveness has made things difficult for Donna and Jay. Walks were stressful, his owners never knew if a person walking down the street would trigger his protective behavior. Plus, it was problematic having guests over with Mico barking aggressively.
In addition to teaching Mico to be better around guests and house visitors, Donna and Jay needed to be able to control Mico on his walks. They wanted him to be relaxed on walks and calm when meeting new people at home or on the street.
What not to do
Given the nature of his behavior, it is very tempting to yell (Mico!) when he is barking or lunging. However, ANY attention coming from Donna or Jay, for example: yelling, scolding, looking Mico in the eyes, might actually reward him! Raising your voice and scolding him might be misunderstood as your approval. He could think you too are upset at what he’s barking at!
Also, yelling “No!” or correcting him may make him less likely to feel comfortable telling his owners he is upset. Growling can help owners identify situations that stressful to their dog so they know when to start training. Ironically, in these cases, training involves allowing certain growling (especially quiet vocalizations) since it is a signal that he’s upset.
What to do with a Reactive Dog
For training to work, the reactive dog has to feel safe. His owners need to learn to move him away from situations where he’s feeling overwhelmed.
A training plan for a reactive dog includes, Interrupting Techniques, a De-sensitization and Counter-Conditioning plan, making sure you have the right Tools and Equipment, and Refocusing techniques using positive reinforcement that teach dogs to focus on their handler during high-stress situations.
In Mico’s case, we recommended that instead of yelling, his owners take a yoga breath, breathing in and out, calmly for one or two seconds, then call Mico to them (name game). Refocusing him this way, and rewarding him if he responds will actually help him to calm down by encouraging him to focus when feeling stressed.
Building up this kind of automatic behavior, where he learns to quickly respond to his owners, will give Mico the message to focus and not feel like he has to worry.
Other Training Options for a Reactive Dog
Working with a reactive dog is more advanced. In addition to refocusing, it is essential to learn how to interrupt your dog when they are really out of control. (Interrupting)
Advanced training also incorporates desensitization and counter-conditioning to get your dog to start thinking positively about things that make your dog upset.
Mico quickly learned that people on walks and visitors are fun and rewarding and not a threat. In less than one month, he (and his owners) were feeling happy and relaxed on walks and when meeting new people at home!
For more information about Reactive Dog training or to learn more about Refocusing techniques, Interrupting, and other solutions, check out Zen Dog Training Online.