This is specifically a step-by-step instruction of what to do on walks with your reactive dog. This is called reactivity reconditioning.
Whilst the individual steps look easy, they must be done alongside the taught knowledge of distance and emotional threshold.
ANY questions you have, please contact the rescue for advice and to be put in touch with Cleo Wiltshire (FF Level 4 Trainer/Behaviour Consultant).
You must choose when the right time is to do it, based on trigger stacking and your dog’s emotional state, plus reward values and what your dog specifically likes, to achieve a more positive emotional response over time.
Here is a small break down of the Distance and Emotional Thresholds for you to understand how and when to implement each stage of this document.
The emotional threshold is the measurable level of anxiety or fear (sometimes excitement) at which a dog becomes unable to focus and engage with you, and/or disengage from the trigger (stimulus that caused the emotional response). When a dog is above this threshold, they are totally overstimulated, and the brain is almost impossible to influence.
In other words, learning cannot take place when over threshold. Since reactivity reconditioning is a type of learning, once a dog reaches that “overloaded” state, reactivity reconditioning cannot take place either. You may even find that depending on how “overloaded” they are, distracting him may even be challenging.
Accompanied by the “Reactivity Chart” – this shows how the emotional response affects the dog’s ability to learn/focus/recondition.
This is how we use the points at which the dog may be at:
Emotional reconditioning happens here; the dog is calm enough for their brain to create new connections, change their emotional response and take on new information about the observed trigger.
This is where we can action reactivity reconditioning, using positive and managed exposure to the trigger.
Distraction happens here, the dog is alerted and needs distracting, and a little space, before a full reaction is set off.
This is where we use distraction techniques and engagement that we practice outside of the situation first, to build strong habitual responses to the cue first.
Often dogs “don’t listen” at this point due to lack of foundations of the cue.
We must “proof” a cue – this means that we practice it in multiple environments, starting with low distractions and working up so that the brain is not overwhelmed.
Orange to Red
This is where your dog is reacting in some way and they are unable to listen, especially recondition, it’s all negative and this is going against the goal in mind so just get them out of there.
Preferably, avoid this totally by keeping space and/or items between them and the trigger as anytime a reaction is set off, it creates more of the association and only compounds the present emotional response.
The threshold of distance is the amount of area between yourselves and a trigger, that your dog can relax or that they feel the need to react.
Keeping the distance at which your dog can be calm allows a dog to observe the trigger without becoming overwhelmed.
We call this the “distance threshold” and we are looking to find exactly where that is for each individual “trigger”. Threshold will vary with each individual dog.
We use this distance for our reactivity reconditioning and a lot of issues that people have when attempting to avoid a reaction, is that they do not know to keep SPACE between themselves and the trigger.
The distance threshold is explained here using spiders, as that generally is a fear that many people have.
If you are okay with spiders, replace it with something you are afraid of (snakes, bees, werewolves etc.)
If you’re 50 feet from a spider, you may be able to notice it without reacting because you feel safe from the distance. You may even be able to hear a kind word about spiders in general and accept that information. (Reconditioning – Green)
If you’re 20 feet away, you will likely be more on edge, keeping a watchful eye on the spider’s movements. You may feel a little uncomfortable with its presence. (Distraction – Yellow)
If you’re 10 feet away, you’d feel slightly worse about it being closer to you.
You’d probably want to move out of its path, perhaps run, hide, or simply get back to the 20-50 feet away to feel okay again. (Distraction – Yellow)
Lastly, if you are right next to it, if the spider is moving (compounded by if you are trapped there – like a dog would be on a leash or picked up being held) – you would be likely to completely freak out! (Get out of there – Orange/Red)
Helping a Dog with Reactivity
Start by ensuring that your dog is not practicing the habit of reactivity, not creating further negative associations with the trigger, and not being pushed over the emotional threshold:
a) You can use the environment to help you avoid triggers; going behind fences, walls, cars, trees, benches, and wheelie bins are popular choices.
b) Crossing the road when you can see a trigger in the distance
c) Turning in the opposite direction
d) Being aware of the size of the areas you go to and the space you’ll have to navigate your dog’s threshold when choosing walking routes
e) Being aware of peak times for there being lots of dogs/people out and about, also where the busiest places may be, and avoiding these whilst practicing distraction techniques
Prepare Distraction Techniques for getting your dog’s attention in the presence of a trigger:
“Walk on/Come on/Heel”
This also is good for loose leash walking, recall and helping a dog who gets too excited by the sight of the leash)
Starting in your home, without the leash on.
Call your dog to your side. Reward.
Throw a treat away for them to go and get.
Call them to your side again.
Repeat the above.
This starts the understanding to come to your side and focus upon recall of their name.
Once your dog understands this, you can start to walk a few steps before you reward and use your cue (whether you use “heel/come on/walk on” is up to you, whichever comes more naturally)
Teaching the cue in stages like this is called “shaping a behaviour.”
You teach them how to do it in parts and then extend it to build a larger habit.
Once they’re by your side, get them to follow you for a few steps by holding the reward in your hand whilst you walk.
Throw a treat away again.
Repeat this so your dog does it flawlessly.
Recall back to you and reward. (Again, you are teaching recall as a separate cue here so 2 for the price of one!)
Then, walk a few more steps this round, and reward.
Continue repeating these steps and extending the distance that you walk before you reward to build distance.
Take it outside and repeat.
Once your dog understands this, add on the leash and practice it in the home and garden consistently.
(Added bonus is desensitizing to the leash & making it “not so exciting”, as if you are going out for a walk every time you grab it!)
“Look at me” / “Focus”
Very simply; this is rewarding your dog when they look at you.
This promotes focus on you and allows you to ensure their attention is on you, rather than the environment.)
The easiest way to train this behaviour is through a “capturing” protocol.
Waiting for your dog to look at you, mark and reward it.
Add in your cue when he/she is understanding the “engagement” gets them rewarded.
they catch on quickly.
“Find it” / “Hunt” / “Get It”
Scatter feeding is not only an enrichment activity for your dog, it’s also a good distraction for your dog to keep them busy whilst triggers pass.
Scatter some treats in a small area in front of your dog and say your cue “find it”, “hunt”, “get it” – whatever comes the most naturally to you, that isn’t used in everyday speech.
Gesture for your dog to collect the treats (you only need to point at them & say your cue. Let them figure out where they are with their nose)
Repeat this step until your dog knows what is being alluded to.
Then, start to spread the treats a little further away from your dog, again, ensure you are pairing this action with your chosen cue word/phrase and continue doing this at this stage more times. (Can be repeated 5 times, can be 30, just remember you are repeating it for your dog to make the association between your hand gesture and the phrase/word you’ve chosen to use)
Once your dog knows what they’re doing and has successfully hunted all the pieces you’ve thrown, you can start to make it harder for them by throwing the treats further away.
This is a great activity to do in the garden among the grass!
Grass is a giant snuffle mat after all.
Adding in another step would be to hide the treats/food underneath and inside things like toys, household & garden items (lamp shades, cups and plant pots are great for turning upside down and putting food underneath!)
This is specifically for dogs that are NOT hand shy.
This will help with getting your dog’s attention,
When your dog comes to you, or when you call them, hold your hand out in front of you.
This is easier to do if you are sat down and at their level.
If their nose goes toward your hand, reward this.
This is another “shaping” of the behaviour.
Hold your hand out again and say your cue (touch)
Every time you do so, even if your dog doesn’t touch you yet, still reward them for their nose coming toward your hand.
If you find yourself stuck at a point, slowly bring your hand closer to them and touch their nose with your hand gently.
Mark and reward the behaviour every single time.
Repeat this until they understand what you are asking for every time.
Pair Triggers with Positive Reward to Create New Associations
Pairing high value rewards with the observation of a trigger changes the emotional response of the dog that is being rewarded by creating new, happier experiences in relation to those triggers. Over time, the presence of a trigger elicits the excitement for the reward, as opposed to the fear of the trigger, usually being too close and there being no outside influences (space and paired positives) to decrease that issue.
Note: Choose 2 larger area places that you know are quiet (or choose times of the day that are quiet, ensuring it is daylight though so your dog will be able to see around) to start this process. It is easier to do stationary at first, then build in moving and walking with reward once your dog is generally more comfortable with triggers in eyesight. It also gives you the space and choice to move in any direction that you can away from triggers should you need to.
a) Put your dog on a well sized, loose lead in a safe, spacious environment, like a large open field to start.
b) Allow your dog to have a good sniff around the environment first. The better acquainted they are, the calmer they will be able to be.
Combine this with practice some cues for training and make it fun with some games too.
c) Relax in an area where you can keep space, even sit down. When your dog observes a trigger without reacting, mark this and reward them.
Doing this reinforces a new habit upon seeing the trigger.
d) Do this every single time they look at the trigger.
Whether it’s the same trigger or a new one, mark and reward ALL calm observations.
Note: If your dog is reacting, you are too close! If your dog has been set off, it will be ineffective to do this now, therefore move away, finish your walk, and come back in 24-48 hours.
e) We repeat the exposure at this distance. A couple of times a week, do specifically this!
f) Once the dog is calmer and actively looking at you upon observation of the trigger, this means that the dog has started that more positive association, expecting reward instead of becoming fearful.
g) Next, you will be able to decrease the distance slightly. This is usually done in increments of mere feet. Whether the dog can handle 3 feet closer, will be individually specific, start at 1 foot.
h) Repeat the exposure and reward cycle at this distance and watch their body language for signs of discomfort.
i) If your dog is uncomfortable, go back a step. It’s easy to move too close, too fast, so just keep that patience and move closer in increments of single foot lengths.
j) Repeat exposure for two more weeks at the new distance.
k) Close the distance again by another foot-3 foot (depending on your individual dog)
l) Repeat exposure for another two weeks.
m) Keep decreasing the distance in increments, and repeating exposure, until you can walk past reasonably close without a reaction.
n) Take this skill to various places over the course of your reactivity reconditioning journey. The smaller your dog’s distance threshold gets, the more places you’ll be able to practice in!
Note: 2 weeks is a guideline for 3-4 sessions a week of doing the reactivity reconditioning.
Some dogs may take longer, and some may be quicker.
Remember, if your dog is reacting, then they do need up to 72 hours of avoidance of triggers to bring the possibility of trigger stacking back down.
Work with the dog in front of you and be aware of their emotional state by watching their body language signals and their behaviour day to day.
Note: Ensure that you up the reward value when you are starting the reconditioning process.
The better the reward for calm observation of a trigger, the faster the dog will be happier about the presence of that trigger.
Our thanks go to Cleo Wiltshire (FF Level 4 Trainer/Behaviour Consultant) for writing this guide on Reactivity Reconditioning for us.
We hope your have found this guide on Reactivity Reconditioning useful. You can see other help guides here: Dog Training Guides.