When I first adopted Maverick, my Labrador Retriever puppy, I started to bring him to work with me for lots of reasons. One of those reasons was so that he could learn certain valuable lessons:

  1. Dogs will bark at you.
  2. You can stay safe.

These lessons are extremely important in this day and age when leash reactivity is an epidemic. I have a couple of theories as to why leash reactivity is spreading like wildfire in the United States, which I won’t cover here today, but one of the factors, in my opinion, is that nice pups like Maverick don’t know what to do to stay safe when a dog barks at them. When they don’t know what to do they may get neurochemically aroused (think fight or flight — adrenaline pumping) and they bark back or pull on the leash. If this happens enough — arousal with no way out — the sight of another dog, or another color or breed of dog, can elicit that emotional response.

This is called classical conditioning. This is the same type of conditioning that is at play when you see a jar of pickles and start salivating. At least that is what I do when I see a jar of pickles.

The first step is to teach the puppy that when you have the leash or are even present, you will protect him. I used to tell Peanut, my Rottie who was fearfully aggressive toward people and dogs, that I would throw my body down in front of her before I let someone pet her or let a dog approach her, and I meant it. She was scared, I knew it, and it was my job to protect her. By putting her in situations that she wasn’t prepared to handle without any coping skills, she would only learn that I was not trustworthy and would act without any forethought as to how she should conduct herself.

Peanut, as is the case with most fearful dogs, was a really poor decision maker. So, I wanted her to look to me for her guidance. She did trust me and the tools that I had taught her. When I was with her, she was always under good control.

That leads me to step two. Teaching the pup how to stay safe. Peanut learned to trust “leave it” and “watch” as her safety cues. Maverick is learning those lessons now. It will take many months before he really trusts in those cues, especially because he is under the impression that all dogs and people love him. His drive to get near them no matter what they are doing is fairly strong. He has to learn to respond to the “leave it” and “watch” cues no matter what is going on.

I am seeing a little bit of headway lately. We are in a Puppy Play and Learn class at Lucky Dog Sports Club. In this class, the dogs are allowed to play with each other and then we practice control techniques like attention, name recognition, and down stays to interrupt play. Generally, once Maverick is playing, it is a challenge to get him to respond to his name. Recently, when a dog growled at him and corrected him, he turned to me and made eye contact. I saw a light go off in his head! When I am in trouble, try to make eye contact with my mom!! I called his name and he came in to me to get a treat.

Step three can only take place when your pup trusts in you and in the behaviors that you have taught him. If your pup doesn’t trust in those cues and they are not very well conditioned, you run the risk of sensitizing your pup and causing him to be reactive. If you have already lost your pup’s trust, you have to earn that back first before going on to step three.

Now, I am not implying that you should expose your dog to aggressive dogs and hope for the best. For example, if Maverick and I are walking in the neighborhood and there is a dog behind the fence barking, we stop and work on our safety behaviors. We stay across the road on the sideway and work until Maverick’s arousal level is low, then we proceed on.

If I continue to promise him safety, reward his safety behaviors, and make responsible choices for exposure, I will eventually have a dog who can be calm regardless of who is barking at him.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: lurrii Davydov / via Shutterstock