You asked me for my secret.
How did I manage to hack so many computers and steal millions of dollars while everyone was distracted by Kim Kardashian’s butt?
Oops, wrong secret.
I mean, how did I train my exuberantly friendly golden retriever Honey to be less friendly so we could pass other dogs and people on walks without her going crazy town banana pants?
Okay, I’ll tell you how I did it.
DO Try This At Home
It starts with a clicker.
If you’re already a clicking expert, you can skip ahead to the next section. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a quick description.
Basically, a clicker is a device that makes a small sound. The clicker sound marks a behavior and tells the dog a reward is coming. You introduce your dog to the clicker by “loading it”—basically, clicking and giving your dog a treat several times. Soon your dog will know that the funny sound means a reward is on its way.
Is the clicker really necessary?
No, you can do behavioral reinforcement without it. But it will speed up your training and help you communicate better with your dog.
If you’re teaching your dog how to sit and every time he sits you struggle to find that treat in your pocket while he, in the meantime, has stood up, you’re in for lots of frustration. For both of you.
Some timid dogs are afraid of clickers.
I recommend using a Button Training Clicker (affiliate). And you can muffle the sound by putting the clicker in your pocket.
If even that small sound freaks your dog out, mark the proper behavior with a soft word. When I don’t have my clicker, I say “yes” in a calm and quiet voice.
If you want to know more, check out this short introductory video to clicker training.
Teaching Your Dog Not To React On Leash
I’ve used the same method to teach my last dog, Shadow, not to lunge and bark at every dog we met that I used to teach Honey not to jump playfully at every dog we see. The basic principles are the same.
You need to be able to get your dog’s attention before she reacts. And you need to make not-reacting more rewarding than reacting.
Set a strong foundation by making yourself interesting to your dog on a walk.
Important tip here: this will be harder with some dogs than with others. You’ll need more time to train fearful dogs who can’t relax (try confidence-building first), hound-type dogs who follow their noses, dogs who pull for the joy of pulling, and terriers and other dogs with a strong prey drive.
Let’s face it, it’s hard to be more interesting than 100 squirts of urine or that cheeky squirrel.
So if your dog is highly distracted outside, start your training indoors or in the backyard. Put her on leash and walk around the house. Every time she looks at you, click and treat. Slowly add distractions (like family members doing something fun nearby) until you’re ready to go on a regular walk.
Continue to click and treat (or reward with something they like more like a tug or squeaky toy, or a scratch behind the ears; make sure it’s a reward your dog really loves). If you use food treat, use something really delicious, like liverwurst. Or soft, stinky treats.
Soon you’ll see your dog looking at your more often on walks. And she’ll break away from other distractions like sniffing or watching squirrels more easily than before.
If your dog is food-motivated or lives for your attention, you’ve got it made. Go ahead and start outside and click and treat every time your dog looks at you.
Eventually, you can teach your dog to look at you on cue. I ask Honey to “watch me” when I want her to make eye contact.
Make sure you start at a quiet time of day in a place with few distractions. Training a friendly dog outside your local school when classes let out is a professional-grade challenge. Take it from me.
Practice Set Ups
Honey and I honed her skills at paying attention to me instead of other people and dogs by practicing with our trainer. He brought his dog to training sessions. We’d walk up and down the sidewalk several times, rewarding Honey for reacting calmly when we stopped to talk.
But what if you’re on your own?
I took note of other calm dogs I saw around the neighborhood. Most people are creatures of habit and if you live near a place with lots of dog walkers, you’ll probably see the same dogs and their people at the same time every day.
With Shadow, we’d set out around 6:30 a.m., before all the families started walking their kids to school.
You’ll need to keep a sharp look out for other dogs. When you see one in the distance, ask your dog to watch you. When he does, click and treat.
Make sure you stay far enough away so your dog doesn’t react to the other person or dog. If you sense your dog starting to react, move away. Or hide behind a car or other barrier so your dog can’t see the trigger.
With fearful Shadow, a stiff tail and posture was a sign she was getting ready to react. For playful Honey, it’s short little leaps in the air and a waving tail.
Slowly Decrease Distance
You’ll start to see your dog paying more attention to you. So decrease the distance from whatever triggers her reactions.
But do it slowly. In fact, you can’t go too slow.
If you dog doesn’t react to someone a block away, try getting his attention when they’re a block minus five feet away. If your dog starts to react, you’re too close. Step back.
Over time, you’ll figure out the closest distance your dog can pass by a trigger and stay calm.
For Shadow, we could eventually pass by another dog as close as ten feet away.
Honey can walk within one or two feet of another dog or person without going nuts with excitement. To signal that I want her by my side, I tell her “with me” so she walks beside me until we pass whomever is likely to get her dancing and jumping with joy.
Know Your Dog’s Limits
Not every dog can be a seeing eye dog. Not every dog will learn every behavior perfectly.
It’s true for humans. It’s true for dogs.
Continue working with your dog all the time, to keep them calm in the face of triggers. But understand they can only do so much.
Honey’s Rubicon is greeting people she loves and dog loving strangers. Once someone bends over and says in a squeaky voice, “Oh, what a pretty dog. Can I pet her?” it’s all over.
If I want to improve Honey’s ability to greet people calmly, I need to round-up some dog loving volunteers who are willing to stand calmly in front of Honey and only pet her when she is calm and relaxed.
Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Humans are much harder to train than canines.
Don’t Lose Hope
If your walks end in tears because your reactive dog is making you nuts, you’re not alone.
Perhaps you’ll feel encouraged if I tell you more about working with Shadow.
Shadow was a hound mix who knew nothing about walking on leash. I’d return home bleeding and bruised from her pulling me down on ice and dragging me down the street.
Before I learned to walk her at quieter times of the day, she pulled me across the street into traffic to lunge and bark and a calm Bernese mountain dog who was walking by with his person.
Even when it was quiet, Shadow paid no attention to me on walks.
Once her sniffer was engaged, I could wave cheese under her nose and get no reaction at all. The scent she was following shut off her brain to any other stimuli.
When the trainer at the SPCA manners class we took her to suggested clicker training, I was skeptical. Shadow couldn’t hear, see, or smell anything once her nose was caught by a scent. And she was just plain dangerous when another dog walked by.
But by starting indoors, before Shadow became aroused by all the activity and smells outside, we built up her interest in me. Eventually, she spent shorter times sniffing before breaking off to look at me.
Shadow was eight years old when we adopted her. And she eventually learned to sit calmly on our front porch while other dogs walked by.
I’ve never been more proud.
Not every dog can learn every behavior perfectly. But I believe every dog can become better. If we’re willing to become better trainers first.
Disclaimers & Other Help: I am not a dog trainer. I simply apply lessons I’ve learned from qualified dog trainers. If you’re struggling with your dog, please get help. One great source to search for well-trained, positive, and science-based trainers is at the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.
If you’re in the Ithaca area, I’ve taken great classes at the Tompkins County SPCA. And I enthusiastically recommend Russ Hollier Dog Training for personalized training at your home. Russ is largely responsible for how good Honey is. And he was a tremendous help when we were fostering the extremely fearful Cherie.
Finally, the button clicker link will take you to Amazon. If you buy something after clicking the link, I will earn a few cents. Your item will not cost you more. Thanks for supporting Something Wagging.
Your Turn: I shared in one blog post a topic that has filled books. Anything I missed? Or do you have suggestions for helping people who react to other people and dogs, whether aggressively or aggressively friendly?