Rehabilitate Your Reactive Dog

When 27-year-old Jodi Carp of Royal Oak, Mich., moved in with a friend and his German shepherd, she was happy to help out by walking the big boy. Her roommate, however, told her that his dog, Guinness, tended to be overprotective of women walkers. “Just hold his leash tight when men are walking toward you on the street,” her new roommate instructed. No problem, she thought.

Following this directive, Carp pulled the leash as men walked toward them on the sidewalks of her neighborhood and Guinness summarily lunged, barked and pulled with each approach, his behavior ratcheting up a notch if another dog was in the vicinity. Over time, Jodi herself became increasingly tense on these walks and was horrified -- though not altogether surprised -- when Guinness finally went at someone with his teeth, nipping their 82-year-old neighbor’s wrist with his sharp fangs. At this point, Carp decided her dog-walking days were done. She remembers, “I felt awful about the incident, and I didn’t want to risk something even worse happening while I was out with Guinness.”

According to Sandy Case, a certified pet dog trainer and co-owner and training director of Positively Canine in Oklahoma City, Carp and her roommate simply needed some training on how to care for their reactive dog. “They were basically doing everything wrong, and with a little instruction, they could have prevented a lot of their difficulties,” says Case.

What Is a Reactive Dog?
Reactive dogs aren’t hard to spot. Outdoors, such canines will lunge at people or dogs that get too close. They usually also bark loudly, growl forebodingly and may even bite anyone foolish enough to get close. In the home, the reactive dog can appear threatening to visitors as it jumps, barks and stares. Reactive dogs tend to stress out their owners as they try to keep visitors and passersby safe from their intimidating, if loveable, best friend.

Some breeds are more prone to reactivity. Terriers tend to respond excitedly to other dogs, for example, while herding dogs, like shepherds, are innately reactive toward movement, such as joggers. Any dog, though, can become reactive if it feels its safety and security are threatened. “The majority of reactive behavior is fear-based,” explains Case. “If a dog is confident, it doesn’t need to do these things.”

Understanding the Reactive Dog
Human misunderstanding of canine social norms is responsible for a large percentage of reactive behavior. Case says, “Dogs have greeting rituals, and they don’t involve walking up to another dog. For dogs, that isn’t polite. Once we’ve got them on their leash and are dragging them toward another dog to say hello, we’re setting them up for what might be a bad reaction.”

Canine caretakers also fail to identify their dog’s own pre-reactive behaviors. “Dogs are peaceful animals,” says Case. “They don’t want conflict. When they begin to feel tense, such as when they’re around another dog, they engage in self-soothing behaviors like looking away, sniffing and yawning, to let themselves and the other dog know things are okay.”

If these initial calming behaviors fail, the dog may stare or growl. While owners tend to tense up and correct dogs for growling, they should really only take the growl as a signal that it’s time to soothe their pooch. “Growling is communication,” says Case. “Make your dog comfortable rather than punishing it for expressing itself. You can do this by simply staying calm yourself and walking it away from the situation.”

Staying calm yourself is key: Tightening the leash and tensing up is one of the most frequent mistakes made by dog companions like Carp. Explains Case: “Dogs should be confident that we will handle things for them. They react because they feel they’re out there on their own. If they see their person is confident and proactive instead of reactive, they’ll feel a lot better. Its person needs to be a good leader.”

How to Manage a Reactive Dog
If your dog is reactive, Case recommends the following five steps:

1. Buy a harness Any tightening of a leash is restrictive to a dog’s airway, which will only heighten its anxiety. A harness removes the possibility of pressure on the neck, and also helps to rebalance a dog that’s lunging forward.

2. Have a plan Knowing what you will do (e.g., turn and walk away, keeping the dog moving) when your furry friend responds to perceived threats will allow you to remain calm. Part of the plan should involve reminding yourself to relax.

3. Be familiar with the signals When dogs begin to become uncomfortable, they may lick, yawn and sniff. As they get tense, they may exhibit changes in posture, such as becoming more upright, tucking their lower body backward or stiffening up. Staring is usually the last move before a more intense reaction. If you can get your dog out of a situation before the stare, you will nip the problem in the bud.

4. Retrain your dog Walk away from the tense situation to a comfortable distance, keeping the object of the dog’s discomfort in sight. Get your dog to glance at the other dog or person before it gets to the point of staring, and then give it a treat. Soon the dog will begin checking back with you when it sees things that make it tense. 

5. Enlist help If you can’t handle the problem on your own, find a good trainer or behaviorist to work with. “A professional can observe your dog and possibly see a lot more about what it’s doing,” says Case.

With some time, effort and training, you can turn your reactive dog into a companion that any roommate would feel comfortable taking for a stroll around the block.

Top 10 Dog Behavior Problems

Individual dogs, like people, misbehave in their own unique ways. However, sometimes this is tied to breeding. Some dogs, like coonhounds, were bred to be very vocal. It’s therefore not really the dog’s fault that it has a predisposed drive to loudly howl. In fact, under the right situations, that behavior is desired.

However, surveys still show that certain behavioral problems are common among all dogs, no matter the breed. In their book Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, authors Gary Landsberg, Wayne Hunthausen and Lowell Ackerman present not just one, but two such lists based on surveys.

The first list mentions the most common problems as reported by dog owners:

1. Jumping up
2. Barking
3. Begging for food
4. Jumping on furniture
5. Digging
6. Chewing
7. Showing a fear of noises
8. Being overprotective of family
9. Being overprotective of property (tied with number 8)
10. Escaping from yard

The other list contains the most common dog behavioral problems as reported by referral practices:

1. Aggression
2. Inappropriate elimination
3. Destructive behavior
4. Excitability/unruliness
5. Barking
6. Fears and phobias
7. Excessive submission
8. Compulsive and stereotypical behaviors

The book also goes on to list the most common problems that lead to increased risk for relinquishment. The top three:

1. Aggression to pets or people
2. Barking
3. Destructive behavior

What’s missing, of course, is a list of what pet owners themselves did wrong when training and caring for their dogs. Nearly all of the above problems can be solved with good socialization and training.

Make Car Travel Easy for Your Dog

Some dogs love to go for car rides, looking out windows and sniffing new smells. And then there are other types of dogs that need to be coaxed, whining and pulling back, into the vehicle. Some experience a tummy upset when they look outside the window. Others are just the opposite. As Jack and Wendy Volhard -- authors of Dog Training for Dummies -- point out, there is a catch-22 in place. The dog forever upchucks on rides. It therefore only gets into the vehicle when it has to, and that’s usually for a vet visit. Now the pattern reinforces in your dog’s mind that cars are bad news, leading to an even worse destination.

The Volhards believe that a negative association with the car can lead to a dog’s stomach upset, so it’s not necessarily just the motion triggering the misery. They suggest that you make every effort to turn the car into something positive for your dog. Open the door with the engine turned off and ease your dog inside. Provide happy verbal reinforcement and bring along a food treat or two. Spend some time with your dog in the vehicle, showering it with positive attention and letting it know that it’s being good. Repeat this over a series of days until your dog goes into the car willingly and without fear.

The next suggestion is an easy one. Be sure to take your dog to some fun places in the car, in addition to the vet’s office. Before long, it will learn that car rides aren’t always a bad thing. If true motion sickness is the culprit, that is a time to discuss the matter with your dog’s veterinarian for possible remedies.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/AnetaPics

Do Dogs Get Revenge on Their Owners?

If your dog has gone to the bathroom on the floor while you were away from home, you’re probably wondering if it did this deliberately.

Humans are not the only animals who plot conscious revenge on others. As Stephen Beckerman, a Penn State anthropologist, points out: “Widespread in the animal kingdom is the behavior of returning injury for injury. Animals as varied and as far from us as blue-footed boobies, elephant seals, side-striped jackals and European moorhens are called punishers. They regularly respond to injuries by attacking the culprit who has injured them.”

You might think that mental injuries could be included. Your dog gets depressed because it is lonely and restless. It therefore acts out by doing something you hate.

However, this is not the case.

Although dogs have good memories, they live more in the moment. When you come home and find the mess, your body language before you even say something to your dog may reveal your anger and cause your dog to react. Your dog, however, is not necessarily waiting for some sort of mental satisfaction that it got a reaction out of you. That behavior is tied to a phenomenon known as “theory of mind,” which requires a complex ability to understand and possibly even to predict the thoughts of others.

Revenge is also more complicated than you might think. “Revenge is a desire to not just punish the culprit, but to change his mind, to make him see -- if only in his death throws -- that he was wrong,” says Beckerman. Do you think your dog is plotting and planning all of this in regard to its bowel movements? I strongly doubt it.

The more simple answer is that your dog is either stressed out or has no appropriate place to go to the bathroom without your guidance. Some owners crate their dogs during the day, but I view that as more of a last-resort solution. Try to reinforce bathroom training. If your dog is not very big, you might install some baby gates to prevent access to certain areas of your home. Dog bathroom mats can also help. They often have the look and feel of grass, but keep the waste contained for easy disposal.

If possible, you should also consider getting a dog walker, pet sitter or someone else to look in on your pet during the day. Boredom can lead to anxiety and then to bathroom issues in dogs. If your dog stays active and social, those problems are less likely to surface. Health issues could also be at work, so you might additionally schedule a veterinary visit to rule those out.

The Harmful Effects Sugar Has on Dogs

As mammals, dogs process foods in a way that is somewhat similar to the way we do. Sugar, in the form of glucose, is carried to all of the body’s cells via blood. Your dog may not directly be ingesting sweets, but glucose can come from carbohydrates since carbs consist of long chains of glucose, which breaks down quickly in the body and can raise blood sugar levels.

Colleen Paige -- author of The Good Behavior Book for Dogs: The Most Annoying Dog Behaviors ... Solved! -- believes that dogs may get a sugar high that “can cause a dog to be hyper and unfocused.” She thinks that, in many cases in which dogs appear to be ill-mannered and uncooperative, the dog’s behavior could actually have been influenced by diet.

Similar to what we experience, dogs can suffer a sugar low after the high, causing dogs to become “sleepy, lethargic, moody and irritable,” says Paige. If your dog is not eating a high-quality food with good ingredients, your pet could experience a regular daily cycle of extreme highs and lows. Over time, problems like diabetes could result, given that the body has to work harder to process excess glucose.

Paige urges owners to steer clear of dog foods with excess sugar and carbs, not to mention preservatives, artificial coloring, artificial flavorings and other “no-no” ingredients, as she calls them.