Yesterday I went to another German Shepherd who greeted me like a long-lost friend – the lively twenty-two month-old Gordon. Such a change from the many fearful Shepherds I so often meet. Gordon lives with Lulu, a very attractive older Pointer mix.
The problem is that Gordon is reactive on lead to other dogs. He is absolutely fine with dogs when he’s off lead, if perhaps a little excitable, but becomes very stressed the nearer they get to other dogs when he’s restrained.
The couple have worked hard on training their dogs. In the training environment Gordon’s reactivity to dogs can be controlled. These solutions, however, are hard to translate into the real world when out on walks and where dogs may appear unpredictably or the environment doesn’t give them the flexibility. So, despite their hard work and effort, the problem continues.
Reactivity on lead, along with coming when called, can be as much about a dog’s relationship with the human holding the lead or wanting him to come when called as it is about actual training. A lot of trust is involved. If the human has the dog, effectively, captive on the end of a leash then he/she must be trusted when they encounter a potential hazard like another dog, and he/she must be sufficiently motivating to hold their dog’s attention.
The dog needs to feel he has choice too. Formal training seldom allows choice. Walking on a longish loose lead without any feeling of restriction gives the dog more feeling of choice. If the dog signals that he needs more distance from the other dog, then that, too, is his choice and the human should comply. The more trusting he gets, the nearer to the other dog he will get before he reacts. That reaction point is his threshold, and that is where the best work happens.
It’s not always as easy as it sounds because of life’s unpredictability and because the dog himself can be in a different mental state from day-to-day, depending upon stress levels affected by a build-up of totally different things. We can but chip away at it, building up trust and confidence, teaching the dog coping strategies.
Where also most conventional training falls short is that there are things that need addressing in the home, things that, when put in place, will help build this relationship of trust.
If a dog is rushing off to the fence to bark at passing dogs and people, then he is practising the very skills they don’t want. Away-from-home training won’t be dealing with that. The humans in the family can show their dogs, in a way they understand, that they are responsible for people coming to the house, and when they bark at perceived danger they can reinforce their roles as protectors – the training environment won’t deal with that either. Most subtle communication issues can’t be spotted away from the home either, particularly as they may involve all the family members.
If people work on getting their dogs’ full attention at home, away from distractions, then there is a much better chance they will keep their attention on walks when faced with other dogs. If their dogs are taught to come instantly when called in the home environment, without hesitation, there is a much higher chance that recall work out in the fields will be successful.
Gordon’s family is really switched on, and it will happen, I’m sure.