Reactivity Returns

I somewhat re-visited the past today, in that I went with my youngest (pictured above) to a walk I used to do many moons ago with my first GSD Titon, and now eldest GSD Skye. This was the first proper walk we’ve done, since we went into lockdown. Alongside Hunter’s previous reactivity, I went well prepared.

I selectively chose this walk for two reasons. Firstly, I had a strong inclination it would be relatively quiet, and secondly because I’m writing my fourth GSD book, so I wanted to dig into my memories of the how things once were with Titon and the places we used to visit.

With my route chosen, treats to hand and the boy harnessed up, we set off to the destination. I opted for parking at the far end of the track, down a little side road, as I knew further down we would meet more people heading the other way on the trail from the car park, and potentially if the pub was doing anything.

This side road has a little pull in, to park on, and is a stones throw away from the disused part of the track itself. As we crossed the main road, almost immediately I had a flashback to the very first time Titon lunged and nearly caught hold of an approaching dogs nose. This was my first ever experience of an on lead, reactive dog.

Prior to lockdown I’d been working for many months with Hunter on his reactivity, and his story is in my 3 Steps to Silence book, so I won’t revisit this now, but the long and short of it was our progressive training was put on hold due to lockdown and the limited distractions around to work with. So, I was expecting some sort of barking if we came across something.

Our first potential trigger for the barking, was the cows. Hunter used to have a serious issue with cows and I used to have to turn around as it wasn’t possible to pass, irregardless of what the cows were doing or where they were situated. I wasn’t too concerned with this as I was confident Hunter was now okay with them, and as we walked down the long track to the main trail, Hunter was seemingly oblivious to their presence.

We passed with no issues, and continued on the walk. We met picnic-ers (is that a word?) cyclists, children and of course the big one, other dogs. As you can see from the track, I was aware in choosing this walk that the distance to ‘escape’ and stay under threshold was limited. We haven’t really worked on passing dogs head on yet, and the track got narrower than in the photo the further down we went.

For each distraction we encountered, I actually felt myself sinking a little bit. He’d received a lot of what Titon used to from other people. Shocked looks, movements away from him, the occasional awww but not often, and he wasn’t doing anything wrong here. I heard a muttering of words from a couple as we passed, and you’d be even more surprised to hear I held my tongue too! Another point of progress, I’m not as reactive as I once was either 😉

Anyway, I digress.

Our first dog approaching was an elderly golden labrador, with an elderly couple attached. Steady looking, plodding along behind, owners looking more concerned than the dog was. It didn’t even look at Hunter.

I switched Hunter onto my left side and carried on as normal as possible. And although we had a grumble, we passed with no major issues. Then a hundred yards or so later came two terriers, and I was pleased I had more space to work in because I could see these two were going to be trouble. Thats not me being terrier-ist, I could see their body language and I didn’t like it.

We moved towards the edge of the track and into the grass as far as we could, where I scattered some biscuits down for Hunter to search out, and he did. He’d seen the dogs too so this was a tick in the A-OK box. Unfortunately as one of the owners said hello to me, the terriers lunged and barked which took Hunter by surprise and was just too intrusive for him to deal with.

This barking then happened with the final dog we saw, and I was expecting it after the previous two passes. This dog was a hard staring, and then bouncy Boxer, on a flexi lead, and I couldn’t at all fault Hunter really. He kicked off and was not tolerating it.

I’m okay with what happened today, and I imagine this would be confusing to a lot of people. I mean why in gods name would I be happy and at peace with his reactivity returning? Especially after all of the hard work I’ve put into getting him more confident and calm.

Theres a few reasons really and here’s what they are.

  • We haven’t been out properly in almost three months, or more …I’ve seriously lost count of what week we’re on.
  • He’s a GSD, so he’s at an automatic disadvantage to other dogs, just because of the way he looks.
  • His distance reactions were much closer than before. I could have reached out and touched the other dog, we were that close. And we haven’t worked on this in months, so the fact he’d managed to cope and stay quiet at 20ft, 10ft, 8ft, 6ft and then boom, that was an improvement.
  • He recovered quickly after each bark instead of melting down and being unable to cope with anything else. At one time, that bark towards a dog would have then escalated to barking at the next person, or sheep, or cyclist. He would pace around, pant heavily, not take food or interact with me. He was too worried.
  • The other dogs displayed body language and reactions that Hunter didn’t feel comfortable with. If the other two dogs would have ignored him like the first labrador did, I doubt we would have had anything more than a grumble. Maybe a lunge out but not a full on explosion. Other dogs play a huge part in your dogs reactions.

Things could have been better, but like I say things could have been a lot worse. If you’re dealing with reactivity and have a dog that goes absolutely potty coo-koo on the lead every time they see a distraction, that’s not a great place to be in. For you or your dog.

After Hunters reactions we carried on, he did look back at the dogs but from this orientation point he then thought about his next choice and opted for checking in with me instead of anything else. Then we’d do something fun like searching for his favourite food, taking a minute and doing some settle work (so mum can take handsome Hunter photos) and that stress or worry wasn’t the end of our connection and his listening skills. Which I’m tremendously proud of him for.

As we move forward with Hunter, I won’t want to be having those experiences for too long and for too often so my next plan of action is simple. He’s now having a couple of days off, maybe a few more who knows. Then I will select another destination to go and try. I’ll probably choose a different weekday and go somewhere with more distance I can work in if required but I have to start exposing him to things bit by bit, and week by week.

When you’ve got a barking dog and if you follow my content regularly, you will hear me talking about prevention and how distance away from things can be your best friend. This certainly has its place in the training, but sooner or later exposure and reducing the distance is the next step. It’s worrying, its concerning and it can be confusing not being sure how your dog is going to react, trust me I’ve been there.

But if you don’t do it, and don’t have your plan of action in place, then how are you ever going to progress further? You can’t hide away in the shadows for ever…

I’ll do another blog after our next ‘adventure’ so you can hear more about how it went.

Which reminds me, if you are starting to see an increase in your dogs barking, perhaps more so as we leave lockdown and the distractions that haven’t been around for weeks on end are now starting to reappear. Then I’d recommend you go and check out my barking dog books, main one would be 3 Steps to Silence but the other two (‘You’d be barking mad not to!’ and ‘Cope with crisis’) are just as good and useful for barkers.

Click here to grab your copy

Until next time my friend,
Claire & Hunter … Crrrrr out

Comments on Reactivity Returns

  1. Sonya Watson says:

    Thanks Claire! It’s great to read about your experiences and how you deal with them so I can implement your strategies into my training

  2. Jan perryman says:

    Once again…. you could have been describing my walks with Toby. Yes the barking is less but his search for people and dogs to bomb off too continues….I’m stripping everything back…. loose lead walking…. me trying not to tense up when I see another dog and so communicate to Toby with a tightened grip….. work continues…..

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