Read part II here: Teaching Reactive Dogs A New Habit, Part II: “Look At That!”
Do any of these statements describe your dog?
Your dog over-reacts to exciting stimuli, especially another dog walking by.
He barks and lunges at passing skateboards, bikes, or other dogs, like she wants to attack them!
Sally is great at home, but barks at people when you take him out in public.
Rover enjoys being outside with you while you work in the yard, but forget it if a bicycle goes by!
Rufus walks great on a leash, unless someone else with a dog comes along.
Yes! My dog goes crazy and it’s scary when she barks and lunges!
None of this means that your dog is a bad dog. She just needs to learn a different behavior to perform when one of these events happens. We can change her behavior by changing our own behavior when we confront the things that make her crazy! The “Open Bar” technique will help you (1) desensitize your dog to whatever upsets her, and (2) counter-condition her response of barking and lunging. You can actually teach your dog to be calm and check with you when the things happen that used to turn her into a raving maniac. Isn’t positive reinforcement training amazing?
How “Open Bar” works:
The idea behind “Open Bar” is that when your dog sees a dog, bicycle or skateboard nearby, whatever tends to cause barking and lunging, he gets lots of treats — and he gets them before he reacts, but while the stimulus is occurring. In other words, when the cue to over-react is present, the treat bar is open. Once the cue to react is gone, the bar closes and you become boring and nonchalant, not paying much attention to the dog, just walking along again.
Your dog will learn to notice the cue to over-react, but it will come to mean it’s time to look to you for good things and guidance, remaining calm. This behavior will replace the previous behavior of barking and lunging.
How to train your dog to do something new when a dog walks by:
To teach this, it is essential for you to be aware of the cue before your dog is, so that you are prepared to train. When you go for a walk, be prepared with a bag of fabulicious food treats — treats your dog will do anything to get — broken into bite-size pieces.
Here’s what you’ll do: Stroll along with Rufus. When you see Mr. Smith and Fido turn the corner, starting to approach you on the other side of the street, grab a handful of roasted chicken bits from your treat bag, and begin feeding Rufus one treat at a time as fast as you can. Pay full attention to Rufus until the dog passes by, praising and feeding him while you continue to walk. Focus completely on Rufus. He’ll be focused on you, his mind happily on scarfing down treats. Ignore Mr. Smith! You can’t take time to chat right now because you’re training your dog. You can explain later. Once Mr. Smith and Fido have passed, and you’ve put enough distance between yourself and the other dog, stop feeding Rufus and go back to walking along normally.
Practice with bikes and skateboards and cars as they pass, even if your dog doesn’t over-react to those. It will give both of you good practice for the times when the real stimulus comes along.
What is “enough distance” for a reactive dog?
You and Rufus know what enough distance needs to be: “enough distance” means how far Rufus has to be from the distraction before he becomes calm again. It’s also the distance at which he’s still calm when the other dog appears – before he turns into a lunatic. Notice that distance, and start giving treats right then. You’ll see the distance decrease as you do the training.
Don’t accidentally cause your dog to get too close to the stimulus.
You have to notice the dog before Rufus does. You can’t wait until he is already amped-up before opening the bar. A dog who is in the midst of reacting isn’t open to learning a new behavior. If he starts barking and lunging, abort! Your best bet is to get out of there: turn around and head the other direction; cross the street; go behind a car to provide a visual barrier. If your dog is smaller, you can pick him up and carry him away, reminding yourself to pay closer attention next time.
You’re going through a teaching process, and you have to prevent the behavior.
Remember that every time your dog practices barking and lunging, he gets better at it, and the habit becomes more ingrained. You’d rather he practice the behavior of looking to you for super-awesome treats when he sees another dog, and with practice, he will. ( Thanks to Jean Donaldson for the catchy name of this exercise.)