So you've completed a Reactive Rover Foundations Course or Workshop and now you're wondering what to do next? If your instructor has another reactive dog specialty course, join the class. Even if it just means that you have a controlled environment to practice your basic training, you'll be able to focus on your dog and master the skills you've learned, in a safe place. The only way to make the skills you've learned automatic is to practice, and typically level two reactive dog classes are a lot of fun and challenging for all participants anyway.
If there isn't an option for further reactive dog coursework, sign up for a class where you already know the subject matter so you can focus on working with your dog and growing her confidence. Be sure to let your instructor know that you will need special care and may need to hang out on the sidelines to practice some of your foundation skills, such as, "look at the dog." Only move into the classroom once you are sure your dog is ready for it, and spend short periods of time in the training space with lots of breaks outside if it becomes too much for her.
If you plan to work on your own, check out my blog post called The Art and Science of Closed Environment Exposure for ideas on how to continue your working sessions safely and effectively influence learning.
Here are some general guidelines for the next steps with your reactive dog in a class setting:
1. Always check the environment first, without your dog, before you bring him in so you know what to expect and don't get caught in tight spaces or hallways.
2. Plan ahead to create a quiet space for "down time" where you can put your crate or plan to keep your dog in the car between working sessions or to give a break. Bring a blanket to cover your crate so she can rest up and not be bothered by other dogs or people in the training area.
3. Set up your home base for treats and gear ahead of time, before you bring your dog in, so once he enters the training space, you can give him all of your attention.
4. When it is time to enter the building, use the "get behind me" behaviour before going through any doorways, gates or go around a corner, so you can check out the space for safety before your dog enters.
5. If you are the only one with a reactive dog in this particular class, be sure to let your instructor know that you will enter the working area after the class has started so there won't be any other teams around the entrances to the building or the ring.
6. Also leave before the class ends so you are the first one out of the ring, but be aware of teams arriving for the next class. Don't get stuck in a small corridor or hallway with other people or dogs. If you see someone coming towards you, just calmly express that your dog is reactive and ask that they go back so you can get through safely.
7. Pay close attention to your dog's signals and body language and decided based on what you see, what level of exposure you'll work at. Don't assume that because last week one thing went well that will same behaviour will exist this week.
8. Choose your criteria based on the behaviour you are observing today, and in this moment and build on it at a progression that is conducive to success. Don't overwork your dog and push her super-threshold. You want her to win.
9. When entering into a new environment, relax your criteria slightly and briefly. As your dog begins to generalize the behaviours in various environments, the adjustment period for criteria will take less and less time.
10. Increase your rate and value of reinforcement so that it is higher than the competing motivators in the room so your dog wants to work with you to earn more of it.
11. Do whatever it takes to keep your dog sub-threshold, for short periods of time, so they can learn.
12. If she's refusing to take food, she's over her threshold, Learning cannot take place at this level of trigger presentation. You must reevaluate and proceed under threshold only.
13. If a reactive episode occurs, increase your distance from the trigger. Unless it's a safety concern, try to regroup and refocus your dog first, then creep away slowly from the trigger so you don't inadvertently escalate the level of arousal.
14. Take away the opportunities for your dog to rehearse the reactive behaviours. Each episode only means more money in the reactivity bank account, and we want that account to run dry so we can build up a stronger account for more socially acceptable behaviours.
15. Be ready to use your Emergency Response Plan frequently and automatically while in a highly stimulating environment. You have to practice your emergency behaviours ahead of time. Body blocks or get behind me, watch me or eye contact, targeting for recovery, all of these emergency behaviours are useful and necessary as you continue on with your training.
At the end of each class or session with your dog, update your training journal and note the successes of this session and note the opportunities for improvement next week. If you encountered a reactive episode ask yourself the following questions so you can plan your next, more successful class or session:
Remember to be patient with yourself and with your dog. Learning takes time and changing existing behaviours that are motivated through emotion like fear, takes practice and careful counterconditioning.
And don't be too hard on your dog, they aren't trying to be bad, they are just performing behaviours they know have worked in the past to get them what they want. Besides that, as Karen Pryor says, "It's only behaviour!"
I have spent the past 15+ years learning the science of how all things learn and mastering my art as an animal trainer, behaviour consultant and transformative coach. With my specialty in canine reactivity, fear, aggression and canine communication, I have many insights to share into understanding, preventing, predicting and changing canine behaviour.