I work with a lot of reactive dogs and their humans in Portland, Oregon, which, while dog-friendly in many ways, is also a challenging place for dogs to live. They encounter other dogs on sidewalks, in parks, and on hiking trails. Our dogs must also contend with the human-side of their environment: bikes, skateboards, scooters, buses, and cars, all whipping by, often noisily. To help dogs and their humans move safely through the world, I suggest several management strategies.
One of my key strategies involves using the environment to avoid triggers. People with reactive dogs can duck behind parked cars (if it’s safe), cross to the other side of the street (again, if it’s safe), hide behind hedges or rosemary bushes, head the other direction, or duck down another street. In Portland a food cart could also be an impromptu barrier to keep your dog from seeing one of her triggers and going over threshold. Once in your hiding spot, you can scatter treats for your dog to find as the trigger goes by or you could play an easy training game. When the coast is clear, you move on.
I also encourage my clients to advocate for their dogs. If you see someone approaching you and your dog, ask them to stop or to wait for you to take another route. When an off leash dog rushes toward your leashed dog, tell that dog’s human to call them back. In some cases their human's voice will stop the other dog from barreling toward you. If it doesn’t, you can grab a handful of treats from your treat pouch, hold them up so the other dog sees them, and then toss them over the dog’s head. If your dog doesn’t like to be petted, let people know and if necessary remove your dog from the situation.
As I mentioned in the first post of this month, knowing your dog’s thresholds is central to knowing when and how to manage any situation. Get in the habit of watching your dog’s body language on walks--she may sense someone coming before you do and her body will show it. Her ears may prick forward, her tail base may rise along with the fur along her back. When you see signals like these, redirect your dog's attention to you, change directions, or find another way to get away from a potential trigger.
Finally, sometimes management fails. So knowing how to help your dog settle down is important, too. Your first priority is getting your dog to a safe, quiet space. Then, if the coast is clear, you can drop a handful of treats into the grass and let him forage. You could also walk your dog over to something you know will be filled with amazing scents like a pole, a tree, a downed branch, or even a fire hydrant. Or you could play a quick game of find it down the sidewalk. All of these tactics will help your dog shake off the stress and refocus so you can resume your walk.
What management strategies do you use to help your dog feel safe and stay under threshold?