Counter Conditioning Leash Reactive Dogs - Less Stress More Success

Counter conditioning and desensitizing leash reactive dogs are perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of dog training. It is never as easy or as difficult as some make it out, but is surely work and it is work that needs to be done, after all no one wants to have a dog that is lunging and barking on leash.

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No matter how one goes about the process there are a few crucial aspects that must be adhered to or else things will either get very bad or stay at the same stressful level. The goal is to reduce stress and help the dog learn to deal with being on leash.

1 – Mechanics and timing of the dog handler. This is the prime function that all other aspect hinges on. If the dog handler is discombobulated and disorganized the dog will have many over threshold responses and thus the rehearsal of unwanted behavior will continue.

2 – The rate of reinforcements, which is directly tied to the handlers mechanics and timing. The rate of reinforcement is not only high value food rewards but also the ability to gain distance as a form of negative reinforcement, thus desensitizing in the moment.

3 – Under threshold responses to stimuli that has caused reactivity. This is tied to the handler’s mechanics and timing as well as the Rate of Reinforcements.

The formula is this -
Human Mechanics and timing = Rate of reinforcement = Under threshold responses from the dog = less stress for both humans and dogs.

The mind set that dog handlers of leash reactive dogs would do best to adopt is one of a guide or referee and the game is have as many under threshold response as possible when the dog orients to stimuli that has caused reactivity. In addition making walks as stress free as possible is also a big aspect to success.

Success is achieved when the dog starts to "jump the marker", or when the stimulus starts predicting the reward, or perhaps when the dog orients and disengages with out any prompting. Look for these.

Remember the results of legit and effective desensitization is the dog will feel better and eventually have at least a neutral association to the stimulus. The results of proper and effective counter conditioning are the stimulus will have a good predictive for the dog.

The main areas of reactivity and fear for leash reactive dogs are
Humans, other dogs, prey, environmental contrasts such as cars, bikes etc…

Humans and other dogs can be orchestrated and set up for proofing the results of your as it occurs training. Some environmental contrasts can also be orchestrated, such as skateboards.

Prey is what it is. Sure dogs be taught to “leave it” and disengage from prey, but we do not need them to "like" the prey or mingle with them.

Humans are a part of the dog’s life that we need to make sure if nothing else the dog is not too fearful so they are aggressive and or shut down.

By taking an accurate behavioral history, making sure the dog does not have an egregious bite history, and recruiting the proper humans to help, gains can be made with orchestrated sessions for the leash reactive dog that lunges and barks at people.

For the dog that has reactivity upon seeing other dogs on leash the same orchestrated and properly recruited dog assistants with expert handlers that are in sync with each other can be used to get the dog some much needed leash greetings and dog friends. Many gains can be made in reducing the dog’s reactivity to seeing dogs on leash by having them meet dogs that are social and that have lots of experience in leash greetings.

In fact the greetings stage of the process is crucial, however it is also the most risky and most commonly messed up by the handlers. My suggestion is always work with dogs and humans for these greetings that have years of experience with one another and always obtain an accurate bite history of the dog being proofed.

The greeting stages should be set up once the dog and the handler has had lots of success with distance work and day in day out counter conditioning. Don’t rush it.

One common mistake I see over and over is people rushing into greetings with people or dogs when they and their dog have no skills to execute the greeting with their reactive dog or any pervious history showing this is a good idea to do off the cuff.

Erroneously far too many people saddle reactive dogs with the label of “aggression” when they have had no bite history and are merely startled, excited or perhaps momentarily fearful of a sudden environmental contrast.

Make sure you are taking an accurate behavioral history of the dog so you know what the dog’s pathology is and how to address it accurately and appropriately. This way you are safe in handling the dog and your community is safe when you are working in open environments.

The counter conditioning of leash reactive dogs is a lifetime of events, as the environment is always changing. Even a small change in the environment can make a big impact. A matter of a few feet can be the difference between success and stress. The small change in the humans behavior can have big results and be the difference between less stress and more stress.

The more aware of the environment the humans are both while in the act of walking the dog as well as how well you know the area, and how well you are aware of your behavior (making a plan) ahead of time are both crucial for success.

There are no magic tricks there are no “quick fixes”, counter conditioning leash reactive dogs is a multi layered affair that takes all of your awareness and focus if it is to be done properly.

The good news is that once you get your bearings, make some changes and retrain yourself to focus on your behavior and the environments not the dog so much; you will see stress reduced and success increased for you and the dog.

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