Q: My 10 month old female rott/mastiff is a pain in the butt everytime we walk her. When we cross other animals dog, cat, skunk, etc she get all yelpy and such which makes her sound like she is going out of her mind. How can I stop it. Since I cannot at this moment afford a trainer I need this solved regardless. I have been off work waiting for wrist operations and holding her back while trying to stop her is impossible. I have resorted to a choker with spikes and that does not even slow her down. I need help.
Hi Danny! Thanks for writing in with a good question. I can completely empathize with what you are going through with your pup, who while not fully grown yet, is probably still rather quite large and strong! I am also sorry to hear that you are having medical problems, and I understand that trying to hold her back, especially with sore wrists, must be extremely hard and painful.
To me, it sounds like you might have a reactive dog on your hands. Reactive dogs are dogs that overreact in certain situations, or when faced with certain things or stimuli. There are a number of factors which may contribute to a dog becoming reactive. It can be genetic, a lack of proper or enough socialization, traumatic experiences, environment, and are sometimes fear based.
What is very important to understand though, is that as the owner, you are usually aware of what causes your dog to over act like this. Her actions become predictable to you. You try to keep an eye out for an oncoming dog, a stray cat, or a squirrel who may dart across your path. You try to see them before your dog does. And when you do notice something, you very well might tighten up your hold on your dog’s leash. You may even start tightening the hold on the leash before you’ve actually seen anything, just in case. The whole experience is probably very nerve wracking for you,and you should understand that your dog knows this, and it then makes the experience very nerve wracking for your dog as well.
A very good thing about your dog’s reactive behavior being predictable, is that it allows you to determine the stimuli that you most want to work with.
Before we actually start the training, shaping and associations, we need to begin with incorporating certain tools that will help us the best. In these types of situations, I find that head collars, especially the Gentle Leader, can be your best friend, toolwise. I suggest a head collar instead of any other type of collar, due to how it works with the dog, rather than against it. With other collars, when the dog pulls, there is tension and strain put onto the dog’s neck, which will just cause the dog to react as it feels the need to, which would be to pull, or work against that strain. This is a normal reaction on the dog’s part, which is why I find it much more helpful to use something else that does not trigger this response.
A head collar helps you gain control of the dog’s head. And by controlling his head, you control where he looks, where he moves and what he sees. It also offers you the perfect way to guide your dog, and eliminates correction. It is often much easyr to teach your dog what you want him to do, rather than to teach (or punish) him what you don’t want him doing. So not only does it give you much greater control, it also helps teach the dog, without any punishment. It may take some time to introduce your dog to a head collar, but this investment can be priceless. If your dog struggles or reacts negatively to the head collar, do not give up. The dogs who are most resistant to head collars are the ones who would benefit from it the most!
When it comes to walking and being around the stimulus that causes your dog to react, it’s best to work in small baby steps. The key here is to determine the distance your dog needs to be before he will react to the stimuli. We will want to keep her as far away as is needed before she starts to react. This can vary greatly with different dogs, and your dog is the one who will decide this. I know that it’s impossible to control the whole environment, and that you’ll have no idea when a cat or a squirrel may appear, so it might be best to try recruiting the help of a friend who has an unreactive dog.
But before we want to start working with her outdoors, around other dogs, it would be a very good idea to work with her on her basic obedience skills. The benefits of doing this is tremendous. This will really cement the bond between the two of you, it will stimulate her both mentally and physically, and will give her the basics of what you’ll be asking of her when you teach her that you want an acceptable alternative behavior rather than the unwanted one(s) that she exhibits with certain stimuli. It’s also a great idea as she is still in her adolescence, and will be testing boundaries.
Once she has her basic commands down pat, can you then move to working with her outdoors. Until that time, it would be a good idea to ensure that she cannot view the stimuli that sets her off from indoors. This might mean crating her, keeping her on a leash, or just shutting the curtains.
Once you are able to start working outdoors with her, enlist the help of a friend with a dog, and ask them to walk far enough away from you so that your dog does not react. If your dog reacts at all, then increase the distance. When the both of you are walking, make sure you are both walking in the same direction, not opposite. Walking towards each other, even while far apart may illicit a negative reaction in your dog as eye to eye contact (with staring) is often perceived as confrontational behavior. We want to make it as less stressful as possible for her.
The goal here is to set your dog up to succeed. To make it as easy as possible for her to do well, to do as you want. So increasing the distance to where she doesn’t react is the beginning of a good training plan. Like I mentioned before, any changes need to be done in baby steps. You should only lessen the distance between your dog and her stimuli once she is unreactive 90% of the time. For that 10% that she isn’t, you will be able to control her more with the head collar, and then you will ask her to perform another action that is acceptable. This can be the ‘focus’ or ‘look at me’ cue, or it can be the sit cue. It can be any cue that you want, so long as she cannot do both actions (negative and positive) at once. She should also be highly praised for doing what is asked of her. Her favorite treats should be saved for this type of training. When using HVTs (high value treats) it’s also a good idea to make sure that you are training your dog when she has an empty stomach so that she is more motivated to work with you. If she does not take an offered treat while working near the stimulus with you, then you are either too close to what it causing her to react, or the treat is not of high enough value to her.
Whenever she is not reacting negatively to the stimulus she should be rewarded. You want to reward good behavior, and you do not want to call her out on, or punish her for any negative behavior. This means not yelling NO, no pulling on the leash, or any type of correction. Like I mentioned earlier, it is much easy to teach a dog what you want her to do, rather than to teach her what you don’t want her to do.
You will also need to pay very close attention to your behavior in these situations. Our dogs mirror us, and we are constantly conveying our emotions to our dogs, whether we think we are or not. So it will be very important to not have any tension on the leash. If she pulls, then you do not move forward. At all. As soon as she stops pulling, then you reward her, and keep walking. Any time that she pulls you, and you don’t stop it, you are conditioning her that pulling is an acceptable behavior. So, from now on, you will have to stop, or change direction whenever she pulls on the leash. This is also best practiced without being near any of the triggers that cause her to become reactive.
Living and dealing with an over reactive dog is not easy, but it doesn’t have to become the way of life for you and your dog. There is no quick fix here, reactive dogs take time. But if you are dedicated, and work at your dog’s pace, then you should be able curb your dog’s enthusiasm when encountering other animals!
Good luck and Happy Training!