Reactivity and Barrier Frustration

Preparing to work with a reactive dog in the shelter? Read our full blog post on the subject.

This is a training plan for dogs exhibiting reactivity and barrier frustration behaviors. This plan is behavior modification specific and should be used in addition to the Advanced Training Plan for Shelter Dogs.

  • Choose the path of least resistance. Moving through the shelter is like walking the gauntlet for a reactive dog. Use the route that has the fewest number of triggers to minimize stress and arousal.
  • Ask the dog to orient to you before moving by her trigger (dogs, humans, or novel objects).
  • Reinforce focus constantly until you are out of range of the trouble spot. Use high-value food rewards to help build a positive association with the trigger and to condition the dog to check in with you rather than reacting.
  • Familiarize yourself with the term “threshold. This is the place at which the dog can still make good choices and where they can still learn new behavior. It means your dog is not too stressed to learn but not so far removed from the stimulus that she lacks the opportunity to learn. “Under threshold” means the situation may be challenging but remains a good experience that builds confidence, reduces stress, and reinforces a positive association.
  • Pay attention to and reinforce Calming Signals. “Calming Signals” are actions dogs use to diffuse tension or avoid conflict: yawning, licking, turning away, sniffing the ground, play bow, freezing, sitting, walking in a curve, etc. We can reinforce this body language to promote behavior we want. Watch for these signals, use them to create successful interactions, and reward the dog for making socially appropriate choices. Example: Dog walks in a curve and sniffs the ground while returning to their kennel instead of engaging with other barking dogs. Rather than pulling the dog towards their kennel, reinforce their socially appropriate choice.
  • Modify situations as necessary. If you notice an increase in stress behavior or calming signals, notice what might be causing it and modify the situation as appropriate. Example: Another dog/handler team joins you on a walk. Your dog, who is fearful of other dogs, starts yawning or lip licking. Call your dog away in a cheerful voice and increase distance between yourself and the other pair.

Reactivity

Respect what the reactive dog is seeing. S/he is not wrong.” — Suzanne Clothier

Some reactivity is normal dog reaction misclassified as problem behavior. The dog who is responding appropriately to another dog’s or human’s rudeness is not a dog who is in the wrong.

If the dog’s response seems out of proportion for the stimulus, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valid experience for that dog. For most reactive dogs, their reactions occur only if they see the other dog/person as a threat. It is their lack of social skills that means they sometimes misread other dogs/people or respond too quickly without sufficient avoidance behaviors. However, dismissing what the dog is seeing does nothing to help the dog. We must respect what they perceive if we are to identify triggers and give them the skills they need to better handle themselves.

Techniques for helping reactive dogs

You will likely see the following methods as part of individual dog training plans:

BAT: Behavior Adjustment Training

This is particularly effective for anxious or fearful dogs and is a technique you’ll learn in our group classes. Dogs learn socially appropriate behavior to replace the reaction by using functional rewards based on the dog’s own needs. We love that it relies on the dog making choices and genuinely learning replacement behaviors and social skills, rather than being heavily managed by the handler.

Parallel Work

Parallel work engages the dog in activities that she enjoys at a safe distance from the stimulus and, just like with BAT, working to decrease that threshold while allowing the dog to choose appropriate behaviors and build social skills. It can be anything from training games, scent work, TTouch or other relaxation activities, a formal group class, or even just a group walk or hike. In fact, we incorporate group hikes and walks with our reactive dogs regularly because they can be such a positive learning experience in a fun, low-pressure context.

LAT: Look at That!

This is one that works well for all subsets of reactivity from the fearful dog to the squirrel or bike chaser. The dog is rewarded for looking at the stimulus and then back at you. It’s not just the activity, but the philosophy behind it that we really appreciate. Like the above two activities, the dog is fully aware of the stimulus and learns to make a positive choice while building a positive association with the stimulus. Watch this video for a demo.

Barrier Frustration

For the purpose of this handout, we use “barrier frustration” to refer to dogs whose reactivity and stress behaviors are largely specific to their kennel. This can mean barking, lunging, and even biting at the kennel door, or showing behaviors like spinning, gate climbing, or wall climbing/jumping. We need to give these dogs an outlet for their stress and an appropriate way to redirect their frustration when people/other dogs pass by their kennel.

All dogs exhibiting barrier frustration should follow the I Love My Kennel Protocol. Gate games as described in the Basic Training Plan are one excellent way to curb this behavior, as is taking the time to work on a solid kennel routine.

It is also necessary to work on this behavior from inside the kennel with the dog to break the habit and de-escalate frustration by:

  • Talking in a casual, upbeat voice, giving the dog tasty treats, and/or engaging in fun activities as other people or dogs pass by the kennel.
  • Teach the dog to redirect that behavior onto a toy by giving them a toy to hold and praising them as they do so each time people/dogs pass by.
  • Working the Relaxation Protocol inside the kennel.
  • Ensuring that barrier frustrated dogs have access to varied enrichment toys inside their kennels at all time.
  • Focusing on quality downtime with the dog to help them relax inside their kennel.