re·ac·tive (rē-ăk′tĭv) adj. 1. Tending to be responsive or to react to a stimulus.
Webster offers us a rather banal definition of “Reactive” but anyone who has had the experience of walking a reactive Cairn through a minefield of stimulus knows there is nothing trivial about it. A barking, lunging, out of control Terrier is unpleasant, embarrassing, and sometimes even painful if that first lunge catches you off guard, but the good news is that all of this reactivity can be brought under control. Really! You just need to understand what sets off your dog and make the commitment to take the time to consistently work with him to develop better patterns and behaviors.
Below you will find links to several helpful posts, including “Look at Me!” and “Teaching Your Cairn to Relax”, but first read this explanation of employing “Get out of Dodge!” to help re-program your reactive dog, and then watch the video at the end which demonstrates this method.
Try to Avoid the Reactive Threshold
When you are walking a reactive dog, you should teach him a calm and steady "get out of Dodge" move that you will be able to use as soon as you see a possible problem. Avoid getting too close to potential trouble. Turn and walk in a different direction, rewarding your dog for playing this "new game". You can just say, "This way!" and give a treat when he turns with you, so it really is a "game" to him. You just always have to be thinking ahead and anticipating possible trouble and escape routes. Like playing Chess!
You might end up walking around in crazy circles, depending on what obstacles you encounter, but if you can keep the experience positive, you and your dog will come home happy, having had a positive experience, and that is what you want.
After you have successfully taught him this new “game”, you can point out the person or dog coming your way and then immediately turn with a chipper "This way!" with your treat ready in hand, and he will hopefully look at the potential trigger and choose to stick with you for the treat. Praise him to the hilt if he chooses to follow you, even if he barks a little or wines. If he follows you for the treat, “Good boy!” and keep going.
With a reactive dog, it is best to understand his triggers and try to keep his level of excitement down, below the “crazy” threshold. “Get out of Dodge” can be very effective, as long as you remain calm and sure in your approach.
Over the Reactive Threshold
If you have missed the sign of potential danger and your dog has reacted badly, turn and walk briskly in a different direction, shortening and lifting up on the lead, as needed, to raise his front paws slightly off the ground as you move. This assumes you have a secure harness on, so that lifting does not hurt the dog. I use a Puppia Sport Vest Harness with double “D” rings and it is great. Lifting slightly is a simple move to take away a bit of his power and assert your Alpha power in a way he can “hear” without putting yourself at risk, i.e., you are not trying to touch or restrain the dog. Think of how a mother dog deals with an unruly pup, gently lifting him up by his scruff, and you’ll understand how your dog “hears” this message. Don’t say anything until he has stopped barking. He wouldn’t hear you anyway. Just keep moving.
When he quiets down, stop and ask for a sit. Give him a treat. Expect him to be “sharky”, so offer the treat in your palm, not your fingers. Walk a short distance, stop, ask for a sit, and offer another treat. Do this several more times, looking for the “sharkiness” to subside the more commands you give him. Hopefully you will be able to avoid any other triggers long enough to get home, and once you are safely home, make sure you ask for a sit or whatever you might normally do and get him settled back into the mode of responding to you.
In my experience, if my dog has crossed the excitement threshold, he doesn’t fully relax until he has had a good long nap, maybe overnight, so I am extra careful to avoid any triggers as I know there will be an immediate, escalated reaction and I really don’t want that to happen. My reactive Cairn is really food motivated, so I have had good results, making him work a bit extra for treats, turned away from whatever set him off.
There is no instant fix for reactivity, and maybe not even an actual cure, but if you can develop good daily patterns and really learn to read your dog well, you will be able to avoid problems or quickly mitigate any reactivity before it gets out of control by redirecting his attention and rewarding him with treats and/or praise.
Walking a Reactive Dog Video
Look at Me!
Teaching Your Cairn to Relax