Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Taking Classes with the Reactive Dog

So Gatsby and I started a new class tonight. Pre-novice Obedience. We also have agility on Mondays. The Obedience class is the first time we've really advanced a level. Skillwise, he's clearly out of the beginner class, which is targeted to the typical out of control adolescent dog who hasn't had a day of training in his life. I've taken that class five times at different locations, I am ready to move on.

Gatsby is... well, himself. Honestly we were barely a part of class, in many cases we opt out of exercises or drastically lower the criteria so he has a chance to succeed. I feel ridiculous. He's one of maybe two other dogs on a flat collar and he gets way more treats that the rest of the dogs combined. And I still don't have even most of his attention. When I do, he's brilliant. We had maybe three really excellent moments tonight, and he has beautiful finishes to both sides. But he's constantly worried about the other dogs and had more than a few reactive outbursts. Heeling is impossible, we're either too close to a dog or he can see a dog approaching or a dog moving away.

Here is what I do to get through a class.

1. Your personal bubble needs to be bigger than everyone else's.
Pretend everyone else in the room is covered in Parvo. If you are in a class to learn skills (vs. a behavior class), your goal is not to push your dog's threshold higher. It is to practice skills. Talk to the instructor and other class members. Let them know you and your dog need more space. Try to be aware of how other people are moving. It can be very hard to split your attention between your dog (who takes more focused attention that most other dogs will need from their handlers), the exercise, and the other teams, so try to stay off the probable path.

2. Keep distraction to a minimum. 
This can be hard because most classes that I have attended have push proofing way too fast. For "normal" dogs they can get by with this, particularly traditionally trained dogs. However, it's really a case of being a lumper, not a splitter. It's also an outcome of the class environment: there's only so much time and so much to cover.

3. Work Ahead
Many classes give handouts at the end of the class. Depending on who is sponsoring the class, they may already have next week's handouts available. Being prepared ahead of time allows you to be proactive and more confident in the handling of your dog. Which leads into the final point...

4. Be Proactive
This is what being the owner of a reactive dog is all about. Watch your dog, predict what might set him off, and avoid it. Remember that your allegiance is to your dog first of all. I am very good at this, but often come off as abrasive or a nervous idiot. Probably an abrasive nervous idiot. Know your goals for the class. For me and Gatsby, I want to start preparing myself for the Novice Obedience ring. I want to learn how to handle. I want Gatsby to start learning to ignore distractions, not react-remember-return. And I want him to start being comfortable while under threshold.

Now, I know all of these. But it's hard putting them into practice. It's hard to manage him while not being obnoxious to the other teams. A lot of the things I do to bring Gatsby back involve lots of high, fast movement like fist touches or running backward.

I'm also concerned I'm starting to use food as a bribe instead of a reward. During the explanation of the next exercise, the dogs are expected to just sit and wait. This isn't really a problem for normal dogs. But Gatsby is, you know, crazy. I'm trying to reward calm sitting behavior, but he'll growl and then escalate his vocalizations if I'm not treating at a rate he finds appropriate. I don't want to reward that, but I also don't want to be the ass in the class.

So I don't know. Maybe I'll drop back down to Beginner. But that isn't really going to solve the problem, he really needs to be in a class of bombproof dogs that won't react to him reacting. I love being in a training class, but the way that most are structured are just not compatible with the dog I have. I really need to work with someone who knows reactivity and who knows getting reactive dogs to trial, and who knows getting reactive dogs to trial with positive methods. I basically need to train with myself from 20 years in the future. I assume by then I'll be a world class dog trainer specializing in getting reactive dogs competition ready.


  1. Very nice post! Let me know if you find any good resources for getting reactive dogs ready to trial. Or a time machine. ;)

  2. Hi Reagan! I always follow your posts to the Training Levels group, but never thought to look for a blog. I am so excited you have one!

    This topic could not be better for me. I recently found a program that is all positive based and Magnus is in their puppy class. Now I have to decide what to do with my reactive girl, Maizey. She is not extremely reactive, but I have been too scared to do a class with her that may do more damage. Now I have too many options! (I know a terrible problem to have!)LOL

    Your suggestions here are spot on for what I need. I wish I had the future you to train with too! At least I have the experience of people like you and Crystal, from Reactive Champion, to draw on. I really appreciate it!