Having a reactive dog can really affect vacation or camping trips. In order to make time away with a reactive dog more enjoyable, and so that the dog doesn’t have to be left behind, training in advance of the trip can be a useful and prudent activity.
Training for reactivity issues goes hand in paw with other things that are done to reduce or prevent reactivity, but for now we’ll discuss the main things I work on with my dogs to help make camping trips, or vacationing at other locations, better.
One Is Not The Other – Properly Identify Reactivity
When I first started working with dogs, I had not only a reactive dog but a human and dog aggressive one as well. It is important to note that reactivity and aggression are not the same thing, but often go together. Currently in my case, all my dogs are reactive to something, but not all the same things. And only one dog is what you could call truly dog-dog aggressive.
If you have a dog with true aggression it is crucial that you seek help from an accredited (and more importantly one that does not train with corrections) dog training professional for that issue.
If a dog is normally friendly, but reacts to squirrels, people walking down the street or birds etc, I can modify the behaviour somewhat to make it less embarrassing and less stressful on me and the dog.
Training is done in order to help reduce a dog’s stress level. Stress can cause or increase reactivity.
Now we will discuss TWO simple but important behaviours that I focus on training a dog to do to help reduce reactivity.
I always make sure my reactive dog has really good name recognition. This is actually the most important thing anyone can teach a dog even if he is NOT reactive.
For example, a dog’s name usually precedes the recall word “come” or “here”, so it is therefore a way to get a dog’s attention, and it can be used to put a positive tone into a reactive situation. When I train my dog to respond in an instant to his name by practicing over and over again, I am giving myself a way to manage behaviour when the reactivity happens, but also a way to help PREVENT reactivity in the first place.
Teaching name recognition is no different from teaching any other behaviour to a dog. You don’t go to a highly distracting environment where the dog will be reactive and try to get him interested in food rewards or start badgering him by calling his name repeatedly.
Any behaviour I want to teach my dog you will need to start training in a place of NO distractions.
I always stay vigilant about knowing what is happening in the area I am camping. This way I will know what potential reactive situations will be coming up, often before my dog does. It might become a little tiring to alway be alert, but with really good name recognition, it should be able to get a dog’s attention and then divert it to something other than barking and lunging BEFORE the dog notices what is coming. By doing this repeatedly, the dog will get better at paying attention and redirecting towards me.
To train name recognition, I use food rewards and reward my dog, at first whenever he is looking at me. Then when he is doing that well, I start waiting until he is not looking at me, but is not overly distracted. Then I will say his name in a happy tone of voice. Even if all I get is an ear twitch in my direction, I click and reward (I use a clicker most often, but sometimes I will use the word “YES”). If my dog doesn’t react at all, I know we are in too distracting a location, and I will change locations or wait until later and try training again.
Once my dog is turning his head quickly in my direction on hearing his name, I will change to a more distracting location, and continue with the same procedure.
Walking On A Loose Leash
Keeping the leash loose is crucial to keep a dog’s stress level (and mine) under control. When walking a reactive dog, I always use a body harness that does not restrict the shoulders. If you have enlisted the help of a correction free dog training instructor, do what the instructor suggests you use. Each instructor will prefer a different type. It is an individual choice.
I personally use a harness for all dogs no matter whether they are reactive or not. My two choices are the Hurtta harnesses and the Sensible or Sensation harness. These are just my choices out of all the harnesses I have tried. I don’t get paid by these companies to promote their products. Both of these harnesses, WHEN USED CORRECTLY, do not inhibit shoulder movement at all.
To train proper walking on loose leash I practice A LOT and start by working inside the house in a place on NO DISTRACTIONS.
Below is a link to my Loose Leash Walking videos. This explains everything in detail and demonstrates how I do this with dogs who are not fully trained to walk on loose leash so you can see the process. You may want to do this differently but the videos show that it can be done without corrections.
Having said this about leash walking, your dog doesn’t have to walk perfectly on leash to go camping or hiking. Do your best and don’t make your dogs behaviour mean anything about you and how you train, or about your dog. Enjoy yourself.
In The Meantime…
While these two behaviours are being trained to a high level of reliability, I have to be careful to try to limit the number of times my dog becomes reactive to the things he is reactive to. When a dog practices a behaviour – even barking – he is creating a stronger habit of that behaviour.
If I have to exercise my dog, I do it in a fenced in yard where the dog can’t be as reactive to things. I do a lot of training. Training tires dogs out mentally and physically. I don’t rely on simply walking my dogs for their exercise. If I do walk my reactive dog I make absolutely sure I will not come into contact with what the dog is reactive to.
If I’m going camping with a dog who is still in training (which most are!), I do my best to prevent reactive outbursts so that they are not practised by the dog.
Training these behaviours alone will not necessarily reduce or stop reactivity, but it is a start.