If you haven’t read Part I or Part II, please do so before proceeding. Part III, our final part of our Reactivity in Dogs blog series, provides specific tools that I have used to help reduce or manage my dog’s reactivity. Your mileage may vary.
Many of Polo’s behaviors can be managed by training with kibble. For example, if we’re in the car and he sees someone through the window, he will bark and lunge at the windows. To keep him calm and quiet in the car, I trained him to jump down into the footwell of the car for pieces of food. You can practice this in the car while parked in the garage, and when you try it while moving, it is safest to have a friend in the car to toss the food for you. Be creative about solutions to this problem and understand that you’re trying to keep your dog from becoming triggered or flooded, where learning and training are unlikely to be effective. If your dog is not food motivated, this kind of training is more challenging but still possible.
Similarly, if you are concerned that your dog may bite while at the vet, if he/she is trained to wear a muzzle, your veterinary team will feel much more comfortable and will be less likely to use restraint techniques that may trigger your dog. I purchased a basket muzzle for this purpose. So far, Polo is happy to eat kibble out of his basket muzzle like a small bowl, but we haven’t gotten as far as buckling it behind his ears. Click here for more information about muzzle training and different styles of muzzles.
Your dog’s triggers may be completely different than mine, but given some creativity and work, it’s likely you can also manage some of the issues with positive-based training.
To Reduce Anxiety
Polo has tried a variety of medications to relieve his anxiety. Without medications, he will alert bark in the home all day long – at noises neighbors make, barking dogs, anything he hears or sees. Talk to your veterinarian – there are a variety of options available, only some of which are listed below.
2. Barriers for Visual Stimuli
Polo’s ideal home would be in the country where he doesn’t have to see foot and bike traffic daily. But since we live on a busy street in Minneapolis, we had to adapt our property to better meet his needs. Though our yard is fenced, he’s still able to see through it well. So, we added a black mesh fabric, doubled, to help decrease visual stimuli while he’s in the yard.
If, like Polo, your dog likes to hover around windows and alert bark at people walking by, opaque window film is much better than leaving your blinds and curtains closed all the time.
One more thing we’ve tried, with mixed results, is a ThunderCap. This funny contraption is a mesh cap that goes over Polo’s head and attaches to his collar. (Heads up – this product won’t work with a harness.) I’ll admit I could do more positive training with this cap. Without such training, Polo still leaves it on his face, but if you leave him alone, he will pull it off with his front feet. While wearing it, however, he doesn’t bark at people walking by, even right in front of our fence. It diminishes his vision just enough that they don’t bother him.
3. Use That Nose!
Reactive dogs benefit from smelling their surroundings. Similar to how deep breathing and mindfulness are helpful to humans; sniffing helps them connect with their environment and better regulate their mood. For that reason, we often feed Polo via a puzzle toy. He enjoys working out how to remove the food, and his nose never stops sniffing! If your dog has never played with puzzle toys before, start with an easy one and work up to harder ones as he/she becomes more adept.
Have you ever heard the phrase “a tired dog is a good dog”? This is true, however, for a reactive dog, not just any exercise will suffice. If you take your dog on a thirty-minute walk, of which he spends several minutes barking, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that he may come back from that walk more anxious and upset than when he left. For this reason, focus on doing a brief “sniff walk” instead. Sniff walks are 5-10 minute walks that are carefully timed to take place when and where other people and dogs aren’t outside, or to otherwise be trigger-free if your dog’s triggers are different. Be creative! You may need to walk your dog earlier or later than most people do. I’ve been known to walk Polo in industrial parks because, on evenings and weekends, they’re completely deserted! If your local cemetery allows dogs, that can also be a good option. You can gradually make sniff walks longer if your dog is responding well.
Another good option for trigger-free exercise is Sniffspot. Sniffspot is an online service like Airbnb.com but to rent backyards! You can filter by how large the property is, whether it’s fully fenced or not, and whether dogs or people are visible from the property. You can rent for as short as 30 minutes or up to several hours. We’ve loved this service to allow Polo to have the run of a large property, off-leash, and not get overstimulated!
Pheromones can also help calm your dog’s anxiety. Most of these products mimic the calming pheromone that a mother dog emits while nursing her puppies, and there are a variety available. I use a pheromone diffuser offered by Thundershirt because I trust their products.
4. Say What?
White noise (like a fan) helps drown out background noise of people/things happening outside, and before we got Polo’s medications figured out, white noise saved us. We ran the vent fan on our stovetop, or played a white noise simulator on our phones.
Another great audio option is Through A Dog’s Ear. This classical music has been clinically proven to relax dogs, and it’s pretty great for humans, too! Though you have to pay for CDs, you can try some tracks for free on YouTube. There is also a Spotify premium channel.
5. Give ‘Em A Hug!
I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard of Thundershirts, but just in case, they’re similar to swaddling an infant and apply gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety. Polo wears one most of the day.
Similarly, Polo enjoys being carried in a sling and will calm down if he’s agitated. Obviously, this isn’t a great option for owners of large dogs, and some small dogs may not enjoy it either.
I hope you’ve found an idea or two in this blog series to help your dog’s reactivity! Again, I encourage you to seek the help of a veterinary professional. Reactivity is challenging and draining to face alone, and you don’t have to.