Sunday, February 5, 2012

Desensitization, Decisions and Discovery

Managing Reactivity

For almost a year, I allowed Chico to be reactive towards bikes. I tried to avoid those type of stimulating situations, however, if we encountered bicyclists, I didn't say or do anything to stop the behavior.  This wasn't the worst thing I could have done, I could have punished Chico for his reactivity by yelling or physically correcting him which would have made his reactivity much worse. My ignoring his reactive behavior certainly wasn't the best option, but I honestly didn't know any better until I started to talk to trainers and do some more research. 

One of the first pieces of advice many trainers will tell you is the best way to prevent reactivity is to not allow your dog to be exposed to what they are reactive to. In our situation this was not physically possible.  Reactivity may be a fear based behavior but it can quickly become a habit for dogs.  It didn't take Chico long to figure out when he barks and lunges at a biker...the biker goes away...mission accomplished. We live in an active neighborhood in a bike friendly community. We do not have a fenced yard so even taking Chico to go potty in our own back yard was filled with intense anxiety. Without a fenced yard, the main way our young, high energy border collie received his physical exercise was by running with me on leash in our neighborhood. There were times I did leave city limits and went out to the country, or we went to the dog park where Chico could exercise reactivity free. Unfortunately, everyday didn't allow the time needed for these activities. 

It's been about a year since I started to actively work on Chico's bike reactivity, and I must admit, it's been a challenge, however, with desensitization, Chico is now making decisions and discovering there's more rewarding behaviors than barking and lunging at bikes.  

True Dog, Chico

Learning to work through a dogs reactivity means you have to manage the environment.  The only way to improve a reactive dogs over-reactive behavior is by exposing the dog to their trigger (in Chico's case it's bikes and people...especially people on bikes). The thing that I have learned through trial and error is that the key is to not allow the dog to exceed threshold to the trigger.  At first this might be a bike two blocks down the street. Managing the bikers in a bike friendly neighborhood is somewhat impossible. Bikes are much faster than walkers, runners, and other dogs out with their owners. It's not always easy to determine where the biker will go if they are down the street. Often times, we'd turn down a street only to find another biker or the same biker from a block before follow us down that street.  Since we couldn't always manage the situation, I often exposed Chico to more stimulus than he could handle.  I wish it didn't happen, but through these trials I have learned a lot that I would like to pass along to others who may find themselves in similar situations.


Although I couldn't always manage bikers in our neighborhood, I could manage how I desensitized Chico to bikes.  Last spring, I solicited my avid mountain biker husband to help me train Chico to be less stressed when he sees the movement of a biker riding down the road.  It didn't take but a few seconds to see that Chico suddenly had a tolerance for his favorite person rolling up on a bike.  For Chico, having someone he knew and trusted near him on a bike certainly made training safe and fun for everyone involved. We started out simply by having Dustyn walk with his bike next to Chico providing him with lots of yummy treats. After Chico tolerated this, Dustyn got on his bike and road it slowly next to us. Again we both treated Chico for nicely running next to the bike. Dustyn continued to increase speed and we continued be successful.  Next we needed to integrate the dreaded direct front meeting.  Again, we started out with Dustyn walking the bike to meet Chico face to face. I treated Chico on the way, when the two of them met, Dustyn provided Chico with jackpots of treats. It took Chico months to get to the point where he could tolerate Dustyn increasing his speed on the bike to a slow roll. After about 3 months Chico's tolerance, and threshold, for meet and greets with Dustyn on the bike finally increased. They were less like a head on collision, and more like a happy, I know you, give me all the treats kind of meeting. 

Initially when we started with these face to face meetings it was at a distance and slowly moved closer. For Chico this wasn't ideal.  As Dustyn got closer Chico's anxiety increased and then reactivity was immanent.  Instead of starting Dustyn further away on his bike we started him closer and increasing distance as Chico was reactive free. Seems somewhat opposite, but for Chico, it proved to be a success.  Since Chico knew and loved the biker he was much more relaxed doing things somewhat backwards. If Chico started to react, both Dustyn and I turned around and walked in opposite directions. This teaches the dog there are other options than reactivity. It's a spin off on Grisha Steward's Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT.)

Chico using his great border collie "eye" to control the sheep


I must admit, one of the most important things that I have taught my dogs is to "Look" at me. This one "trick" is a MUST for any reactive dog. It has gotten me out of so many sticky situations that surely would have ended in reactive chaos or worse.  Chico is what I refer to as a "Lock and Load" reactive dog. Chico would lock in on a biker, then load with the barking and lunging. This type of reactivity is not uncommon with a border collie, as they were breed to control a flock of sheep with their eyes. Unfortunately, we don't live on a farm, and bikers are not sheep. We have had to train Chico to use those beautiful amber eyes to look at me, rather than the scary fast moving bike hauling down the road.  

Training your dog to look at you won't necessarily help with a dogs fear, but it will give them the better choice rather than barking and lunging. For Chico, training this very simple trick has taken him some time to master. Chico was so fearful, and submissive, that he didn't naturally like to look at me in the face. To change that, I made the "Look" Chico's most rewarded behavior. To receive dinner, Chico had to look at me, for a piece of popcorn he had to look at me. Even today, every block we run or walk I ask for a "Look" and in reward, Chico gets treats.  It's very easy to teach your dog to "Look" at you. 

To train your dog this trick simply lure the treat from their nose to your face then mark it with the word yes, or if you use a clicker mark it with a click. When I'm out of the house I use the word yes, because I don't always have a clicker. Once the dog has learned to look at you when a trigger approaches they will "Look" at you rather than the biker riding down the road, another dog, joggers, or whatever is your dog's trigger. Then, as you make progress, you can name the dog's trigger like "there's a biker" and then they look at the biker, or trigger, then the dog looks back to you. For most dogs like Chico it's not ideal to teach them "there's a biker" first because we don't want them to look at the scary biker or dog yet... They aren't ready for that. We want to them to look at us when they are confronted with their triggers. When they look at us, we have their attention, and we can ask for a sit and we can begin to redirect their energy and ultimately make them less fearful of trigger situations.

True Dog, Rue wondering if someone said treats?


After a solid year of desensitizing Chico with bikes we can now run with success but we still need some space between us and the bikes.  Just last week we were running and a biker met us head on. Rather than the usual reactive barking and lunging at the bicyclist, Chico looked at me, we slowed our pace and I kept asking him to look at me, he did, and he made the choice to "Look" rather than bark and lunge. 

Chico did consider the bark and lunge, in fact he jumped forward towards the biker, then turned and looked at me.  A task definitely worth celebrating! With proper training, Chico can now make the choice to receive a tasty treat, praise, and lots of love rather than bark and lunge. I love the decision he made to come back to me.  We will continue to desensitize Chico to bikes and make them a positive experience. The next year will surely be full of better decisions on behaviors and I can't wait to discover what's around the next corner.

Chico front, Rue back always working for treats!

Tips of the Trade:

While Walking/Running with your reactive dog:

  • Walk or run your dog with the flow of traffic (if on a sidewalk and the situation allows, be safe and use some common sense here). That way bikers come from behind and the reactive dog can't see them approach.
  • Carry lots of soft, biddable, treats, keep them in hand and ready to dispense. When I run I keep extras in a poop bag. (Yep, I said poop bag! The bags can be stuck in a pocket, pants or clipped to the dogs leash. They are lightweight and easy to take treats from. Plus I always have an extra bag on hand if duty calls!)
  • Teach your dog to "Look" at you. Practice often so your dog doesn't associate this behavior with seeing their reactivity trigger. Add some duration to the "Look" each time making the look longer and longer.
  • Have your dog in a flat buckle collar, head harness or body harness. Choke and prong collars shouldn't be used on reactive dogs.
  • Keep your dog and others safe. Try not to pass your dog's reactivity threshold.
  • Have fun. Celebrate success and focus on what your dog did good, and forget about failures.

The view of Chico from a tractor tire, less threatening to Chico than I bike tire

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1 comment:

  1. Your blog is really helpful. Love the great ideas. Thank you!