My Scars Help My Understanding

I recently heard someone express concern about the behavior of a dog that is owned and being shown by a 4-H member. I think this person was correct in expressing some concern but wanting the dog removed from 4-H seems extreme to me.

Management is the trainer buzzword for changing a dog’s environment to make it impossible or unlikely that it will be triggered to exhibit a behavior that causes it to be reactive. Management solutions can create a safe situation right away, because they do not require actively training the dog. Rather it involves making some environmental changes to set the dog up for success. For example, closing the door to a room or fencing the yard are considered management solutions. Putting up a baby gate and giving the dog a Kong before visitors come over are also management techniques.

Grisha Steward in her book Behavior Adjustment Training stresses that creating a safe environment is critical to successful reactivity rehabilitation. Her goal is to employ management strategies right away to prevent trouble, and then change the dog’s response to triggers. Management solutions like baby gates and closed doors can feel restrictive, but they are immediate, effective and not necessarily permanent.

For any training plan based on reinforcement to work, the environmental stimulation that sets up dogs to fail, like exposure to loud noises or other dogs must be toned down if not eliminated. We need to set dogs up to succeed.  Steward gives the example, “Just as you might use fencing to keep a toddler out of the pool, physical barriers can help keep dogs away from situations that they aren’t yet trained to handle.”

What are some things 4-H families can do to set their dog up for success and prevent failure? Management steps to increase safety and reduce stress are essential. Unfortunately the steps are not as easy or as quick as fencing a dog in or shutting it into a room away from people. Working with a reactive dog takes time and A LOT of effort.

One of the first steps to think about is reducing visual stimulation; out of sight (and sound), out of mind.

When a dog is feeling stressed it may bark. While barking the other 4-H members and their dogs move away. A light goes off in the dog’s brain – It Worked! So, it happens again and again. The barking becomes a stronger habit with each encounter.

Think about visual stimulation any time you are out with a reactive dog. Be aware of what might trigger a reaction and what is available to reduce visibility.

Another step is to prevent accidental close encounters. This is so difficult when in a 4-H training meeting or show environment. The member wants to listen to the advisor and pays attention to what is being instructed, while at the same time, the dog does not have the member’s or advisor’s full attention. Dogs are not dumb; they know this is the opportunity to focus on something besides the training. I have seen so many situations at registration tables, where there is no focus on the dog. The dogs are in a tight/close space and dangerous encounters occur. Reactive dogs need 100 percent attention. If that cannot be given at any time, the dog should not be in that environment.

Reactive dogs are a challenge. They require so much more work than other dogs. However, they can learn that they are safe and set up for success. Preventing failure is even more critical for reactivity because reactivity is emotionally driven and can have dangerous consequences. Look at the scars on my face. This is a topic that needs much more attention in the 4-H program. I am very grateful for at least one advisor expressing concern that a 4-H needs to have policy or planned response. I also hope 4-H recognizes that reactive dogs can be managed.

Share your thoughts. What experiences have you had with reactive dogs?

“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.


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