Hope for competing with a reactive dog
When I first started agility with my first dog Mikki, I had no concept of dog behaviour or proper socialization. As a 13 year old kid, my dog training knowledge was based on what I had seen on TV, or read about in magazines. Going along with what I thought was best for socializing my puppy; I introduced him to as many dogs as possible. The problem was that I didn’t know all of these dogs and some of them reacted negatively towards my puppy. I was told by my instructors at the time that my puppy “needed to be told off,” and I listened to their advice even against my gut instincts. Afterall, the more socialization the better right? Wrong. At about 8 months old my puppy started to show signs of aggression towards other dogs. Shortly after, he was labelled as “a reactive dog” and was kicked out of his training classes.
Heartbroken and embarrassed that my dog had been cast out of the training I was growing to love so much, I went on the search for a trainer that could help me fix Mikki’s problems. This is when I first started training with Adrian Rooyakkers. He enlightened me that my dog didn’t have to tolerate other dogs in his space, and it was my job to keep other dogs away from him. He didn’t send me through lengthy behavioural training, or tell me that my dog would never be able to do agility. He recognized that my dog was reacting because he felt threatened by other dogs. The solution? Manage his interactions with other dogs to him feel safe.
I stopped trying to get him to tolerate other dogs. I stopped pushing him outside his comfort zone. And while doing so, his confidence in me and his environment grew. He no longer felt that he needed to look over his shoulder because a dog might come attack him. In my training sessions, I kept him leashed and away from the other dogs unless we were running. When I started competing, I kept him away from high traffic areas with other dogs and was careful to avoid anywhere that another dog might approach him. We stopped having reactivity issues because I made sure there was nothing for him to react to.
Mikki and I competed successfully for many years with very few people even realizing that he had reactivity issues with other dogs.
Here are a few lessons I learned while dealing with his reactivity:
1. Don’t assume people have control over their dogs. I learned the hard way that many people (especially in a public setting) don’t pay attention to what their dogs are doing. This meant that I had to constantly be watching the dogs around me to make sure that none of the approached my dog. Many people will let their dog try to approach yours, or not notice when their dog infringes on your dog’s space. Noticing those in your environment can help prevent issues from happening
2. Stay away from high traffic areas. In an agility trial, this is likely the warm up jump or near the gate list. I always kept Mikki away from the ring until it was time to go in. Many people come up with their dogs to the gate list to see when it is their turn. This results in a large number of dogs in a small space….a disaster waiting to happen for reactive dogs. Send a friend to check the gate list for you in this situation so that you don’t risk having an issue.
3. Know what triggers your dog: For Mikki, he was triggered by another dog getting physically too close to him. Some dogs react to the look of particular dogs, barking, or movement (like another dog running or warming up). It is important that you know what sets off your dog so that you can avoid it to the best of your ability. For example, you could ask people to stay away from the fence if your dog has issues with seeing other dogs close to the ring.
4. Have an exit strategy: For reactive dogs, exiting the ring can be a big issue. Not only does a run typically end by running towards the fence which can be highly distracting for many dogs, but actually coming out of the ring without having any dogs around is quite unlikely. I would always turn away from the fence when I was finished my run to help stop my dog from noticing the dogs outside the ring. I know some people that have placed a second leash at the exit in case the leash runner didn’t have their leash there on time. You may want to ask the gate steward not to let the next dog enter the ring until your dog is on leash. Having your bag of treats or a toy near the exit can also help you have a way to distract your dog while you pass through the potentially high traffic area.
5. Don’t be afraid to let people know your dog has an issue with other dogs: many people are quite happy to keep their dogs away from yours if they know that your dog has reactivity issues. Don’t be afraid to tell people that your dog needs their space. I’ve even seen embroidered tags that you can put on your leash to help warn people that your dog is reactive towards other dogs.
I feel that reactive dogs should be allowed to play in dog sports as long as the handler is managing their dog. I hate to see people give up because they have been told their dog has issues like mine had. Obviously none of us wants to be put in a situation where our dog is attacked because someone didn’t have control of their reactive dog. But similarly it is our responsibility to make sure that we have our dogs under control as well and that they aren’t encroaching on another dog’s space. So let’s all do our part to be respectful, and keep our dogs feeling safe.
Jess Martin of Agile Dog Training