Tips for working with a reactive dog. (Part 1)

November 18, 2009 at 11:11 am 2 comments

Following on from my previous blog post, I am now up to the part in Ali Brown’s book “Scaredy Dog!” where there is some immensely interesting and possibly helpful information! I am going to take notes here on this blog so that Boogie’s dad and extended family (and Boogie’s blog readers) can have access to this info. Here are some tips:


The purpose of this exercise – which is to be carried out repeatedly many many times in different locations at different times of the day for many many days – is to associate GOOD THINGS with your dog’s name. The idea is to teach Boogie that when we call his name “Boogie” this is always a positive thing.

What we do is hand-feed treats to our dog and when he is chewing on the treat we say his name. Yeah, we stuff his face with treats and while he is relishing the yumminess of the food in his mouth, we say his name over and over. We should vary the intonation of our voice… sometimes use a happy tone of voice, a sad tone, an angry tone, loud, quiet, silly… we vary the tones as much as we can so that regardless of what tone of voice we say his name with, it will always have a positive vibe.

Here is the tricky part. In order for Stuff-A-Dog to work to “build the power of our dog’s name”, we have to refrain from using his name in casual conversation when we are talking about him in his presence. We should only use his name when we are talking TO him. In fact, to make things easier for us humans, Ali Brown suggests that we either pick a “nickname” to use when feeding him treats and always use this same nickname… OR… when we are talking about him while he is present, we refer to him with a code word or say “the dog” instead. If we mistakenly say “Boogie” while not addressing him, and if Boogie turns to look at us, we should immediately smile and praise him.

Man, this one is going to be a challenge because we talk about Boogie ALL THE FRIGGIN’ TIME while he is in the same room hearing “Blah blah blah blah Boogie…. blah blah … Boogie… Blah blah blah…” This explains why Boogie rarely comes to us when we call him!!!!

“The goal of Stuff-A-Dog” is not just for you to get your dog’s attention but to classically condition your dog to come to you when he hears his name. You really want this response to be a knee-jerk response..”

We are to do this repeatedly in the house, on walks, in the car, EVERYWHERE. When we have reached 5000 Stuff-A-Dogs over a 6-8 week period (!!!) we can do fewer repetitions.


I am pleasantly surprised that she brings up this training activity because Boogie and I are already doing this! 🙂  See my blog post on Clicker Training Boogie.

Ali Brown suggests doing hand-targeting as often as possible in different locations and  we should aim for an 80% success rate. Any more than 80% means our dog will get bored.  You want to keep it mildly challenging and stimulating. If he doesn’t respond to the “Touch” (or “here”) cue, give him up to 30 seconds to figure it out. Wait.  If he still doesn’t respond, take him back to the last location where he responded.  The goal is to do this in increasingly distracting environments (eg, add TV, add music, add people etc) so that eventually when he is out on the street with “scary stuff” around him he will still respond.

“The more distracting the environment, the more exciting the praise and reward must be.” This could be a tennis ball not necessarily treats.


To reinforce our dog’s focus on US, we want our dog to pay attention to us  the moment he steps out of a car (or house), instead of pulling forward and away from us. We need to teach our dog to “Wait” at the door. Actually, Boogie is pretty good at this one; when we tell him to Sit and Stay, he does. Or most of the time I say “Heel” and he steps backwards from the door and lets me go out first. Ali Brown suggests adding a treat for reinforcement.  When we say “OK” (or “let’s go”) then this is the cue to jump out of the car or walk out of the house.

The moment that he is out of the car (or house), we say his name in a loud and happy tone. The moment he LOOKS AT US – click and treat! Then reinforce a few hand-targets and other cues.

Here’s something interesting. The next step is to put our dog BACK IN THE CAR (or house) and do some reinforcement cues again with lots of treats.

Then repeat the process. Lead our dog out of the car/house and call his name. Click and treat when he looks at us.  Do some hand-targets. However… If he doesn’t look at us within 10 seconds (this is the goal), he goes back into the car/house and we WALK AWAY from the car/house. If the dog cries or barks (which I am pretty sure that Boogie will do), wait for calm and quiet for a minimum of five seconds before going back to the car/house.

Repeat the exercise a few times and aim for a 80% success rate. This training could take weeks or months to get down pat.

“The critical aspect to this exercise is that your dog learns that the expected behavior when coming out of the car is to look at you. In this manner, there is limited opportunity for your dog to look around and find things  that are scary. It seems as if some of our reactive dogs are anxious enough to look around and find things to which to react.”

The goal is to teach our dog to stay calm and check back with us, to look at us and do what we ask.

“Even if he finds something that is nerve-wracking, he is much more likely to be able to disengage from looking at it and return his gaze to you”.


What Ali Brown refers to as the “oh shit” moment!!! OH YES, we know this one very well.

This is the moment that we can make a change. As soon as we see the person and dog, if we tense up, our dog will pick up on this. (Yes, Cesar Millan makes this point very clear. Dogs pick up on our energy).

What we need to do is ACT HAPPY THAT WE SEE THE OTHER PERSON AND DOG. We walk our dog 90 degree angle off path and keep walking and talking and praising our dog for coming with us and treating him all the way. After some distance we ask him to sit…. praise and treat him or play with him, as the other dog passes by. A few minutes after the dog passes we continue along our way.  *I have sort of been doing this with Boogie… except that I probably don’t act HAPPY very convincingly  🙂

The idea here  is to desensitize our dog to the presence of other dogs and to show him that nothing bad is happening to him. When a scary dog approaches, we are communicating to our dog that we are not going to allow that other bad dog to scare him or to get too close to him. We want our dog to internalize that it is a GOOD THING when another dog appears (treats, happy voice, praise, human is in charge etc) Of course, it could take a long time for him to learn to feel safe… after many many repeated experiences. After weeks and months.

If our dog reacts poorly (growls, lunges etc) as we walk away from the other dog, Ali Brown says to keep walking and continue to act HAPPY… keep going until our dog stops looking at the other dog. Then call his name and get his attention and click and treat profusely. Eventually our dog will TRUST us to protect him and to make decisions for him. He will learn that nothing bad is going to happen when there’s another dog around. Over time, the “safe/non-reactive” distance between our dog and the other dog will become smaller and smaller.

Bootcampers. Me & The Boogs at a "safe distance" away on the left.

(I noticed this change with Boogie at Bootcamp classes with other people and their dogs. Boogie became more tolerant of smaller distances between him and other dogs…. that is, so long as they don’t bark or look at him.)

When we eventually get to the point when Boogie is calm and shows signs of wanting to go and check out the other dog’s butt (this could be weeks or months later… we need to learn to read his body signals), and if we know that the other dog is calm and friendly, then we can allow him to “go sniff” BUT…  we should count to three and then we should call Boogie away and back to us. Small steps at a time.

Or if we see tense body language in Boogie (hackles up, hard stare) then we should call him away immediately. No butt-sniffing allowed.  It is important for our dog to feel safe near the other dog before he is allowed to move onto the next step.  And over time we will be able to read Boogie and know how he feels about the other dog to know what is the best move to make.

This is as far as I’ve got in the book. TO BE CONTINUED….

Here is a blog post that I wrote a year ago when Boogie first started lunging. In this post I wrote about some doggie interactions that started badly but turned out positively. At the time I had no understanding of what was really going on but now things are so much clearer, thanks to this book.

Entry filed under: Articles, links, Books & DVDs, Outdoors, Reads, Social stuff, Training.

On Boogie’s “Dog aggression” A typical morning walk

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