Many pet owners are unaware of dog body language and fail to recognize situations in which reactive dogs are rehearsing behaviors leading to increased tension and reactivity. A wonderful first step in helping your reactive dog is realizing that a stiff posture accompanied by staring towards a trigger( noisy car, dog, child etc) is a precursor to escalating reactivity. Stress and tension are accumulative, and this cycle needs to be interrupted. Your reactive dog can learn to be more secure and confident by teaching him to focus on you instead of stimuli in the environment. You, in effect, become the activity director of your dog.
Reactive dogs do poorly unless they have behavioral guidelines. These dogs really do need effective benevolent leadership, helping them to break the cycle of reactivity. In the absence of direction, dogs are dogs, and the resulting behaviors are often undesirable. Our job is to teach our dogs desirable behaviors. In terms of reactivity, begin by simply teaching your dog to focus on you. Begin practicing in a low distraction environment, by reinforcing with a tasty treat, every time your dog responds to his name, and looks at you. The more you practice this, the more attention your dog will naturally direct your way.
When all is going well, take the behavior outdoors, and begin reinforcing the response to name with more distractions around. Eventually, you will want your dog to be able to look away from a stimuli that has previously triggered a reactive response. In terms of treats, be thinking the best stuff here: real chicken, hot dogs, string cheese, to name a few. With noise reactive Doobie, my adult puppy mill rescue, I am constantly reinforcing attention as we move about the yard. Left to his own devices, Doobie constantly looks for stimuli to focus on and react to. However, his responses have improved greatly and he is now able to look away from and ignore stimuli that previously caused him to go ballistic,such as lawn mowers and delivery trucks. We continue to work on dirt bikes, which unfortunately frequent this neighborhood.
There are many many interventions for our reactive dogs, and this blog is but one drop in the bucket, so to speak. Look for more to come on this subject, when the author has more time and does not need to go out and work with her own reactive dogs. Good luck as you begin the simple step of reinforcing attention to name; this is one of the best basic foundation behaviors you can condition.
Leslie Fisher PMCT CPDT-KA