On force free methods and reactive behaviour
Updated: Oct 10, 2018
I first wrote this for my dog's Facebook page in May 2018 but wanted to share it here too.
When my dog’s reactive behaviour started escalating, I knew a large component of it was due to fear and pain, and so doing anything to add to his fear and pain seemed wrong, but one question kept on being asked of me that I found difficult to answer. it seemed impossible to find a straightforward explanation that I could relate to either online or in books. That question was "how will your dog learn that his behaviour is not acceptable?" Occasionally others told me as a slightly bullying statement - "you have to tell your dog that is not acceptable behaviour". At points, I doubted myself, turning the question over in my mind and wondering if I should be using some form of force to "snap him out of it"
After lots of work and help from various sources, my dog is now on the verge of being “normal”. Yes, he is sensitive and yes, I will always have to manage his stress levels, but we now enjoy our walks in parks and footpaths that 12 months ago, seemed out of bounds to us. I have become better at reading his body language and if I see him starting to worry about something, we can move further away to a distance where he feels comfortable. Often, after watching at a distance, he will then approach for a closer look. He does not have to be forced to face his fears at close range to overcome them, nor does he have to perform massive feats of self-control by sitting, lying down or performing tricks in the presence of scary things - he can watch them from a safe distance for him and see that the kids on scooters and that lady with the funny hat and the big fluffy dogs are not so bad after all.
He has progressed so much that I have recently started allowing off lead greetings with appropriate dogs and he has even instigated normal, healthy play with dogs he has never met before – 18 months ago, he was pinning dogs and barking in their faces and I had resigned myself to having a dog that would never be off lead around others again.
Since his behaviour has improved, I had forgotten about that comment that bothered me so much, but came across it again a few days ago when someone on a forum had asked for advice for her sensitive young dog. She was criticised for not wanting to use force to on her dog and the “unacceptable behaviour” phrase came up again. Suddenly things clicked in my head and I had a realisation that my dog does not need to react anymore or be told what acceptable behaviour is because using force free training has not just suppressed the behaviour, it has changed his opinion of dogs. He is no longer scared of them, he knows he has the choice to move away if needed. So, he no longer feels the need to protect himself by putting on a big display.
My dog never enjoyed reacting, I don’t think he ever made a conscious decision to behave in that way, his barking and lunging was a mix of fear, anxiety, and possibly some frustration and anger thrown in too (who knows exactly what is going through their dog’s mind?). He did not get up in the morning thinking “I’m going to try and instigate a fight with every dog I see today” He felt constantly on edge and scared, he felt he had to defend himself whenever he left the safety of the house. He was already suffering so much conflict, why would adding more conflict through physical corrections make things better? Of course, it was not a quick fix and he is not the perfect dog, I am not the perfect owner, but we are both happy and making progress and I like to think that we are doing okay together..