Terrific and Sometimes Terrible Teens!
(aka “How did my friendly puppy become a reactive dog?!”) It’s not uncommon for young dogs to start displaying some reactivity on leash as they leave puppyhood and enter adolescence. It’s also common for them to start being slow to return when you call them.
I get a lot of calls from clients whose dogs are between 6 months and 2 or so years of age and have suddenly started pulling on leash, barking and lunging at other dogs and/or people on leash and often their recall has also deteriorated when they’re off leash.
My own dog, Jack, started displaying some reactivity not long after he turned 6 months old. Previously, on our walks he was (or seemed to be) happy and eagerly anticipating a visit with whatever and whomever was approaching. Seemingly overnight, he suddenly felt the need to announce the appearance of every person and dog he spotted in the distance and was showing signs of being a bit fearful or concerned about them.
Thankfully, by nature he is very friendly and has some good social skills, any chance or surprise encounters ended with Jack happily playing with or greeting the dog or person in question. However, anyone approaching in the distance or passing by from a distance had started to become a problem.
Off leash, Jack was fine – friendly and comfortable with people and dogs and very responsive to his Recall and Stop cues. This can also be common with adolescent dogs – if they were friendly before, they seem to maintain their general friendliness off leash. On leash, however, a decrease in seemingly friendly behaviour can become more of an issue during maturity.
My Goals and My Plan.
First, I came up with some goals to work towards:
- Helping Jack feel more comfortable with random changes in his environment – specifically people and dogs.
- Helping him learn to think instead of just reacting.
- Building Jack’s ability to take his attention off the environment and to focus on me both at my request and also as a voluntary “check-in” behaviour.
- Being able to walk Jack, without concern, around people and dogs – on and off leash.
Then, I came up with 4 different steps to work on to achieve my goals:
- Change the context of “being on a walk” and help him feel more comfortable on leash.
- Being on a walk, on leash, with dogs and people at a distance.
- Being on a walk, on leash, among people and dogs.
- Being on a walk on and off leash among people and dogs.
Step 1 - Changing the context.
I spent a lot of time on this step and did most of it in front of our house, on our street or in a field across from a park. I started during fairly quiet times of day and I changed the context by being “on a leash, but not walking”.
Ultimately, I wanted Jack to notice something and then dismiss it without concern. His particular breed (a guarding breed) has a tendency to notice and stare at something (sometimes also barking) until it’s close enough for them to decide whether it’s an issue or not. This isn’t great behaviour and can cause other dogs to be reactive and, obviously, can cause people to be uncomfortable too.
My plan for this step was to find a reasonable distance away from things that cause Jack concern (people, dogs, stuff going on) and “pay” him for noticing things in his environment. This is something we call the “Look at That” game (developed by Leslie McDevitt, Control Unleashed / Pattern Games). Every time Jack noticed something, I clicked or marked that “look” and then offer a treat. If Jack didn’t respond to the click by turning to me for his treat, that was a sign to me that our set up was too challenging – perhaps more distance was needed.
The point was NOT to ask him to look at me, but rather to keep my attention on him and to reward him for observing things around him. His willingness to remove his attention temporarily away from something in order to get his treat would tell me that he’s still mentally with me and still capable of working and learning. Consuming really good treats in these circumstances would start to help him form a positive association in that context. Additionally, the game would ultimately lead to a kind of “check in” behaviour – Jack would notice things and look to me even before I had a chance to mark or click it. When he started to do this, that became feedback for me that he was starting to feel more comfortable. Previously he may have simply stared and/or started barking and lunging.
The “Look at that Game” is great for many things especially dogs who are very fearful. It gives them a way to stay in the environment but observe it all in small doses. This hopefully can help keep the experience from being too overwhelming – looking and then looking back at you. The treat they get helps build a better, more positive association.
This was my set-up on the front porch:
- I used a body harness and 10 foot line and tethered Jack to a sturdy post on our front porch about 50 feet from the street.
- Keeping my attention on Jack, I clicked and treated him any time his attention left me and was caught by something passing by.
- My goal was to keep him at a threshold where he could work with me and not launch into a fit of barking/lunging. I’m limited by the distance from the street we have available, so this was tricky at times – distance is always your friend!
- I only worked on this step for maybe 5 minutes or less at a time – very small training sessions – maybe the whole 5 minutes if it was quiet; maybe only 30 seconds if there was a lot going on.
- If I timed my click very well – clicking as he was finishing chewing his treat and making only the smallest movement to lift or turn his head – we did well, and barking/lunging didn’t happen.
- The clicking and treating was often happening very rapidly, and I had to work pretty hard when there was a lot going on - kids directly across the street skateboarding, playing or yelling, or more than one person and dog walking by.
- If at times the outdoor activity became too much for Jack, we simply retreated into the house.
- We started doing this at times when there was likely to be little or no activity going on to ensure it was easy for him and he could quickly become comfortable.
- We gradually worked up to him handling more activity, but we also still sought out times that were quieter, so the task wasn’t always increasingly harder.
Note that how often you do this, how long you do this really depends on the dog in front of you and your skill as a trainer. Err on the side of very short and plenty of hours or even days between the next session to start.
Step 2 - Being on a walk with people/dogs at a distance.
The training for this was identical to the training steps I used during the stationary sessions. The difference, of course, is that he’s tethered to me and that we’re moving.
I chose my areas carefully as I needed the ability to get distance when I needed it if dogs or people were getting too close.
I enlisted the help of a friend as my helper for most of these sessions. I wanted someone to take video so I could monitor our progress. Reviewing video can be invaluable. It’s really helpful to watch the whole session so you can see what you’re doing, what your dog is doing and make some changes or see some progress – something that’s hard to do when you’re “in the moment”.
My helper also came in handy to keep an eye out and let me know what was coming and if we were likely to encounter a problem. I didn’t want to be the one scanning around and put Jack more on guard if he figured out I was scanning the environment looking for problems.
As much as possible, I kept all my attention on Jack, observing his body language and marking and reinforcing him for noticing any person or dog in the distance or passing by while we kept moving through the area.
Notes for Steps 1 and 2:
- At times I introduced play as reinforcement – some low key Tug or some nose or paw targeting.
- I also started to introduce recall practice during these sessions as Jack’s recall (come when called) was and still is very strong and he loves doing it. (Yes – you can practice recalls even though your dog is on leash.)
- My goal was to keep reinforcing the message that good things happen in the presence of stuff going on - especially if he can remove his attention from the environment and focus on me.
- It’s important to keep all sessions short. I started with under 5 minutes and periodically did some 15 minute sessions over time but no longer than that. This work is very tiring for your dog and, ideally, no reaction takes place from start to finish – so shorter is better.
- In the walking sessions, I also occasionally got my helper to bring along a friendly dog that Jack knows and can walk and play with.
Step 3 - Being on a walk among people and dogs – on leash.
Once I started to see some positive changes in Jack’s behaviour (he seemed to be handling things better and the energy behind the behaviour had lessened), I took a deep breath and started to work on leash in parks among other people and their dogs.
Even though I knew Jack was very friendly with people and dogs, it’s still hard to take a barking and lunging dog right into the middle of people and dogs walking by. It feels like your dog is the only one acting up and everyone is watching and judging!
In reality I found that most people and dogs were really pretty good about just carrying on about their business or stopping and helping out by letting Jack greet them and/or their dogs if I asked them.
Again, I chose my areas carefully. I wanted places where some dogs were off leash but everyone was moving along a trail vs. lingering and playing in a dog park. It was easier for Jack to be in a slightly busier trail vs. a very quiet trail where someone appears infrequently off in the distance. (This will be different for every dog.)
Working on leash is important!
I got a lot of “helpful” suggestions to simply let my dog off leash! However, it’s extremely important to do this kind of work with your dog on leash at first.
Why keep him on leash? Well, it was safer for one thing. If I encountered what I think might be an iffy dog, I could simply move along and take my dog with me. Also, I wasn’t entirely sure yet what Jack would do with joggers moving quickly by or strollers appearing or what about the odd person on horseback – would he ignore them or follow them or, worse, bark at them? If he had a great play with a fun dog, would he carry on with them or remember that I was there, too? I had no great need to test (and possibly damage) my recall in those situations in the early stages.
Very importantly, to me, keeping him on leash initially allowed me to reinforce the idea that he’s with me and that we are working together – he’s not suddenly on his own and free to make his own choices. He was only 8 months old at that time – very much an adolescent dog with much more mental and emotional development to take place. I was also very conscious of controlling, to the extent that I could, any likelihood of his having a negative encounter with a scary person or dog. Being as young as he was and still going through the occasional fear period, traumatic events could have had a lasting impact on his behaviour.
No question keeping him on leash was challenging! He’s strong and working on leash skills in that environment was very challenging – so there was lots of bouncing around and pulling going on. Thankfully, despite his size and occasional barky behaviour, he looked very much like a happy, bouncy puppy and no one was terribly worried about him. However, I did do most of this work with a friend along for moral support – that was very helpful for me, and I highly recommend finding a supportive friend to help you too.
My friend also took the time to stop and explain what we were doing to anyone that seemed a bit concerned and coaxed lots of people into stopping to say Hi, which was great! She also brought along her slightly older puppy to help out. He had some great social skills and acted like a deflector for any dogs coming in too fast or too intensely for Jack in the early sessions. (My extreme gratitude to Pamela Murray of Canine Spirit dog training and her dog Dreki for their help and support!)
After several sessions of this, there was a point at which it became clear that Jack was progressing and ready to spend some time off leash. He had all but quit the alert barking - even in the parking areas when we were arriving. He could remove his attention from dogs or people when I asked him to; he had had numerous fun play sessions as well as a few appropriate dog corrections for being too bouncy or nosey and responded well. Thanks to our numerous “Look At That” sessions, he was choosing to do occasional voluntary check-ins with me and wasn’t showing signs of getting locked into any staring behaviour. Most importantly, he had become largely unconcerned about the people we encountered – joggers, people dressed strangely or moving strangely with canes or walking sticks, strollers and young children – we seemed to have passed a lot without issue.
Step 4 - Working off leash!
It was time to take an even deeper breath and let my baby off leash! We had already done lots and lots of work on his recall and off leash skills using his leash and progressing to a long line in many low distraction areas like our yard, our house, outside and inside with dogs he knows, and in the forest with no one else around. The new factor here would be the distraction of other people and other dogs.
Again, I had the help of a couple of friends and their friendly, well-trained dogs. Jack did great! He responded well to his recall, was able to check in with me on his own from time to time, didn’t stray too far when we passed by joggers or someone going the opposite way and was happy to greet a wide range of dogs and people. We had a few glitches here and there – chased a dog chasing a ball for a big run before remembering his recall, and got worried about a few dogs who were really stiff and staring at him before remembering that I was there to help him. Overall, though, it truly couldn’t have gone better the first time and only got better each and every time after.
I had to remember to keep our walks reasonably short at that point, as it was just all so exciting for him. If he got too tired, he got over stimulated, and his behaviour started to deteriorate. I also had to dedicate a lot of time to practicing his recall. I noticed that as he got more confident off leash, he was a little slower, at times, to respond as well as I had come to expect. We needed to keep that high on the list of items to keep working on!
It’s important to note, too, that I still spent some of our walk time with Jack on leash even though other dogs may have been off leash. I often hear people say about their dogs “he’s way better off leash” - I didn’t want that dog. He could be equally as well behaved on or off leash with some dedicated effort regardless of the circumstances. Again, I wanted to continue to reinforce our connection and also to work on his leash skills in distracting circumstances. If we could spend very small moments working on leash skills – what a huge reinforcement opportunity I had available to be able to let him off leash to play and run free!
I also continued to work on the first 2 steps we started with. Jack was still occasionally alerting to things approaching in the distance to some degree, so it was a work in progress until he was more mature. Most people should be doing this type of work until their dogs are fully mature which can be 2 up to even 5 years for bigger breeds.
It’s important to say that Jack’s behaviour was not extreme. He was a young, generally friendly dog of a guarding breed type and was displaying fairly typical behaviour for his age, his gender and his breed. It was, however, something that needed to be addressed, as it would not have simply gone away on its own as he matured. If you have a dog with this type of behaviour, or any extreme or concerning behaviour, please take the step of hiring a professional trainer who uses only positive methods, and who has had success solving these types of behaviour issues.
An experienced and credentialed professional has the training to recognize behaviour for what it is, can read dog body language skillfully and help you work at the correct pace with the proper positive methods and well thought out training plan.
Dogs are not mentally, emotionally and socially mature until they are between 2 and 5 years of age. Even if you have no issues whatsoever, you should still continue to work with and train your dog for at least this long. Remember to keep it positive and fun – for both of you!