I’ve said this before many times: all dogs are reactive – to something. This is the nature of a dog.
Most dog breeds were bred to alert humans to strange things in the environment. It can often make it difficult to do anything with a dog who is reactive, especially when it seems your enjoyment of the activity is being affected.
Why Is Camping A Problem For Reactive Dogs?
Camping (or even just parking in a lot while waiting for something), sets up a unique situation – you are creating a kind of home base when you create a campsite. Dogs are naturally predisposed to warn their humans if anything approaches the home. A campsite is the home.
The same thing happens when you park somewhere in a vehicle, as in a travel van or car. The vehicle becomes a home base and your dog is protecting it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, except that it can be annoying and potentially dangerous for your dog if he climbs over things inside to bark at something outside.
This is where some training can definitely make a difference.
What Can You Do To Help Your Dog?
The following information is what I did to reduce my dog’s reactivity to people walking by our camper van. This does not include dogs outside the van yet because we are still working on that. When I feel we are successful with that to the degree that I want to be, I will discuss it in a separate post.
I also don’t need harp on this point, but if your dog has aggression issues with people or anything else you need to consult a professional training instructor who does not use corrections or physical punishment to train to help you with your dog. Again, using corrections to train a dog simply compels the dog to stop using barking or growling to tell you that something is worrisome to him and becomes more likely to bite first and ask questions later in a reactive situation. This could include biting you or other members of your family.
The info in this article is for people with dogs who are reactive but have never shown aggression to people, are normally friendly, but reactive in certain situations – which as I have said before can be any dog.
How to start
To train your dog to be less reactive I use really good food rewards. This is a must.
In order to change your dog’s behaviour in your vehicle, you need to change your dog’s emotions surrounding being there and who and what goes by. You do this by using your dog’s favourite foods. My dogs like cooked meats like liver and chicken and also cheese. JoJo likes bananas. The training associates eating something the dog loves with the dog seeing his trigger. The premise is that the dog’s emotional state will modify so that the trigger no longer causes an outburst of stress from the dog.
Set up some training situations
You will need to go to some places in advance of camping to train your dog. This is in preparation for a more stressful time when you will not have time or desire to train your dog. You want to get this work done BEFORE you go travelling anywhere.
I really like store parking lots. There are usually certain times of the day in which there are more or fewer cars and people there. You are able to pick the best time to work there with your dog based on the amount of activity.
I started working with Ira with very few cars and people around and at a fair distance away from his reactivity triggers (walking people). I also did work at home before we even started training in public. We mostly did window reactivity training. Ira is also reactive to people walking outside our house. That was the best place to start this training.
The process is the same. I showed him the food rewards and while the trigger (a person walking) was quite a ways away from our window, I started rewarding Ira continuously while he was looking at the trigger. If the trigger disappeared, I stopped feeding.
This worked amazingly well. See the video below for some of the results.
After we had done some of this training, I started doing the same thing in the van. The only major difference between the house and the van is the small area in which to work. The van is more difficult to maneuver in and sometimes I had to toss the food to Ira from the front seat depending on what was in the van at the time. Sometimes I was able to sit in the back with him.
After a few sessions on different trips into the city, Ira was able to watch people walk by the van without reacting. If you live in an area with more people you will be able to do more sessions without much trouble. We have to drive in to the city to access appropriate parking lots.
Other than that issue, the training was very effective with people moving outside the van. We will be working on dogs next but that work will have to wait until the summer when we will be getting out to dog shows.
Reactivity causes stress to us dog humans but I still want Ira to bark if he feels there is something wrong or someone approaching that I didn’t see. However, I don’t want him to bark continuously or go nuts just because someone is walking near the van. This training has made him more calm and able to determine what to bark at and with how much intensity. This is also part of his inborn tendency – to bark at what he feels is a threat, being a livestock guardian dog. Other breeds of dog will not necessarily do this.
Once your dog has mastered the art of being calm in the parking lot, the camping spot training can begin. There will be some challenges and some successes, but consistency is the most important thing when trying to modify a dog’s behaviour.
As camping season progresses, we will be doing more training in camping situations and I will report back on our results.
But by doing this training, I am modifying his reactions somewhat so that we can handle participating in society without a great amount of stress that might come from this breed’s normal behaviour.
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