Remember Luna from last week? She actually liked people, despite her panic and potentially dangerous freak-outs. She desperately wanted to be free of feeling trapped, ample reason to repeat her reactive lunging and snapping. These aggressive displays had chased off so many “scary monsters” that they became her default reaction.
Setting Luna up for success would mean avoiding her fear triggers. Abandoning these situations would be essential because every time her arousal ramped-up the responsible neural circuits in her brain became stronger and more thickly networked. With more repetition she would react even faster and inch closer to her threshold for loss of impulse control. That could mean human injuries.
We never want a scared dog to perceive a threat. No one should ever be allowed to approach, reach for, lean over, or stare if there is any history of defensive behavior. Even her trusted leaders should invite her to come to them by sitting or squatting. She will choose to approach when she is not afraid.
If guests want to interact with a scared dog like Luna they can sit on the floor with their side turned toward her, speak quietly, and use a tasty treat to lure her to them. They’ll need to avoid sudden movements that could trigger fear.
A safe and simple method for controlling a potentially reactive dog would be to leave a 6 foot leash attached to her collar so you can step on it, pick it up, and lead her away. And, of course, a relaxed dog should be quietly reinforced at every opportunity.
Luna’s people did a great job of enabling her improvement. As she gradually learned to relax I explained how they could teach her to divert her attention from a fear trigger with a response substitution method called targeting. Immediately after touching her nose to a target stick Luna was reinforced with a click and then a tasty tid bit. With enough hundreds of repetitions a formerly reactive dog can learn to look to their leader whenever she starts feeling a bit wiggy. Come back next week for the rest of the story. (I miss Paul Harvey.)
Each week Dr. Jeff Nichol makes a short video, blog, or podcast to help bring out the best in pets. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Dr. Nichol treats behavior disorders at the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe (505-792-5131). You can post pet behavioral or physical questions at facebook.com/drjeffnichol or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.