Diminishing Reactive Dog Behavior through Mental and Physical Exercise using FitPAWS® Canine Exercise Equipment.
Its about saving relationships and often lives. As trainers we often see what was going to be a wonderful lifetime relationship begin to fail. We have seen the mental anguish families experience when the family dog cannot be walked near other dogs or cars or bicycles . We have seen the family become “midnight walkers” to simply avoid those confrontations that both frighten and embarrass them. The reality is that far too many dogs are bounced from shelter to homes and back because of this overreaction to external stimuli.
We are all too familiar with the term “over threshold” and when we do have the opportunity to work with these dogs the classic Counter Conditioning methods often serve us well. Yet we have always wondered if there was a better way , another step we might take to perhaps shorten the time involved in resolving these reactivity issues. Was there a step we could include that would strengthen the new behaviors we were teaching? We have found such a step, and the results are positive and beyond our expectations.
Some months ago we found FitPAWS Conditioning equipment. I first read an advertisement in the APDT Chronicle of the Dog, and found it interesting enough to go to the web site and look at the equipment. We were soon to offer a Rally class focusing on competition and happened to see the FitPAWS Rally X Course and it seemed to us to be the perfect way to add some sizzle to this class! We had little experience with conditioning, many years ago as an AKC Licensed Professional Handler I conditioned dogs with road work and tossing a ball exercise yet here was equipment made for the purpose and we jumped in.
As we gained knowledge and experience it became clear that a FitPAWS exercise routine along with our Rally class offered both physical and mental challenges to our clients and their dogs. And we could see our clients having a wonderful time, they tell us its the most fun class they have ever taken! At first we had some concerns about the time it would take to train the equipment however we quickly learned that the target training we taught ( using FitPAWS targeting discs) made for an easy transition. We also noted that the dogs loved using the equipment!
As we used the FitPAWS equipment we observed a remarkable shift in dogs confidence which we attribute to body awareness, physical conditioning and the strengthened relationship between dog and handler. Learning experiences do this, after all creating a space where dogs learn is the essence of positive reinforcement training.
Given that reactive behavior is often rooted in insecurity we began to think about incorporating certain pieces of FitPAWS equipment to enhance traditional Counter Conditioning methods. To determine if our theory was on track we chose a very reactive GSD we were working with. This dog reached threshold in seconds and to gain control we first fitted him with a NewTrix head harness which allows positive reinforcement training to be utilized with ease. Once we had safe and responsible control we began the traditional counter conditioning methods. We determined the trigger distance to be about 40 yards and began with basic clicker training and focus exercises rewarding Buddy each time he gave full attention to his owner.
Working 20-30 minutes per session we were able to bring Buddy closer to our reactor dog and in a week the threshold distance was now down to about 20 yards We then introduced the FitPAWS Canine Gym Agility kit. Set up as cavaletti with the distance between cones determined by Buddies shoulder height we trained on this set up for a few sessions with the reactor dog 20 yards away. We then added the FitPAWS hurdle set for a new challenge and in addition brought in a FitPAWS Large Balance disc and FitBone. We use cavaletti a lot in gait training and conditioning for Rally and Agility and these tools create what we call walking focus. In just a few sessions we could see a new confidence and stronger relationship between Buddy and his owner and soon we introduced a reactor dog we noticed the classic relaxation signs at Buddy’s mouth, as well as his posture ; he had a job and that was on his mind not another dog.
Following this protocol we began each session with Buddy working on the cavaletti as we brought another dog closer and closer. There was some softened reactivity in the beginning however as we worked on the equipment that reactivity diminished to the point where Buddy could be comfortable following another dog without lunging or showing anything but interest signs. Progress was being made and those who have worked with reactive dogs know that progress is all too often reported in inches.
About the Author
Bob Pierce CKO began training dogs 50 years ago as a Viet Nam era Air Force Dog Handler/Instructor. For 21 years Bob and his wife Kay owned Keen Kennels a 100 run boarding/training facility in Ft.Lauderdale Florida. Holding an AKC Professional Handlers License at one time Bob was showing at over 100 AKC shows per year and has Judged sweepstakes at AKC shows. Bob served as National President of American Boarding Kennels Association for 5 years, helping develop the first facilities accreditation program in the US. Bob and Kay own Canine Companions Dog Training LLC in Buffalo Wyoming. The Pierces specialize in positive reinforcement training and have served as 4H Dog Project leaders for 14 years. The Pierces teach obedience, rally, agility, showmanship and conformation classes using positive reinforcement training techniques. Bob and Kay are also AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluators and Professional members of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.