“My dog barks and lunges when he sees other dogs. He is really friendly with them when I let him interact off leash. What should I do?”
It sounds like you have a reactive dog. Reactivity is a way trainers describe dogs that over react to a trigger; such as another dog, people, cars, sounds or anything else that causes your dog to react.
Owning a reactive dog comes with special challenges and frustrations. Walking a reactive dog can often feel like a chore instead of an enjoyable experience. Reactive dog owners may find themselves experiencing a flurry of emotion ranging from embarrassment to frustration.
What owners of reactive dogs need to remember is when a dog is being reactive, the dog is also experiencing a flurry of emotion.
When a dog barks and lunges those behaviors are symptoms of an emotional response. If you change the emotion the behavior will fix itself.
I know, that sounds way too simple, but it’s possible through counterconditioning. Counterconditioning changes the way a dog feels about a trigger through positive association. Counterconditioning alone will definitely reduce the intensity and frequency of these types of behaviors, but alone they will not fully solve them.
Many dogs haven’t been taught how to control their behavior and they behave in the way that feels most natural to them.
Another common trait most reactive dog share is a lack of doggy impulse control. Dogs are motivated by what feels most rewarding, so if chasing a squirrel yields a rush of positive emotion then that’s what they will dog. Impulse control is what gives the dog the ability to hold a sit stay when a squirrel comes by or maintain a heel when passing another dog. Dogs aren’t born with impulse control and it must be taught gradually. To learn how to teach your dog impulse control: click here
When to train and when to manage, understanding thresholds.
Reactive dogs have what trainers often refer to as a threshold which is when a dog’s behavior changes due to a trigger. Unlike the threshold of your front door, an emotional or behavior threshold doesn’t stay in the same place; it can change from minute to minute and from one situation to the next. Training classes help owners to recognize when the threshold changes. When dog’s are over thresh hold they are no longer in a place where they can learn and that becomes a time to manage instead of train. It is a good idea to train behind thresh hold or before your dog reacts. To get a better understanding of thresholds: https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/16_4/features/across-a-threshold_20726-1.html
It is best for a reactive dog to get a little bit of training either in a private session at a facility or in a in home setting prior to attending a group class. These private classes help owners to understand when their dog is struggling with a emotional response and teach owners how to help their dogs through it. Just bringing a reactive dog to a group class without having these skills is guaranteed to be frustrating for the student. They’re not going to be able to pay attention to what the trainer is saying over their dog’s reactive behavior. It’s also going to be stressful and frustrating for the dog.