Updated: Dec 1, 2020
This is the second post in my series on reactivity in dogs.
There are many puppy raising protocols out there. Some of the most popular are Puppy
Culture and Avidog. As far as books go, I cannot recommend Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program highly enough. There is so much good information and exercises in that book, but my favorite, especially for a breed prone to reactivity, is the "Look at that" excercise, which is honestly the underpinning the whole program is built on.
I teach a couple different Reactive Rover classes per month. We focus on many different strategies including redirection exercises like "Find it", tricks, "Here/Yes", and others. In the beginning with your reactive dog likely the best you'll manage is to distract them. Once you are able to successfully achieve that, then you can begin to help change the underlying emotions behind your dog's reactivity.
Most reactivity programs don't work to change the conditioned emotional response in a dog. There is BAT (behavior adjustment therapy) which can be quite successful, but most owners have little patience for it and it typically isn't used to prevent reactivity from never developing in the first place. "Look at that" (very similar to Patricia McConnell's auto-watch) is designed to do just that.
Puppies (and dogs, but puppies even more so) are naturally interested in their environment. As I've discussed elsewhere, guard dogs are often insecure and prone to over-reacting if they are not taught to be discerning. Thus, when you have an insecure, environmentally aware puppy they tend to react by barking or their hackles go up or growl or lunge or pull. Their conditioned response to environmental stimuli (people, dogs, fast moving objects) will quickly become fearful. It is our job as handlers to make that response a confident, controlled one instead.
"Look at that" (LAT) - like many other techniques - depends heavily on marker training. I find a clicker most helpful. Briefly, a clicker is a sound that you use to mark the exact moment your dog does something desirable. It should always be paired with food (or other highly motivating reward). You condition your dog to expect food whenever they hear that sounds and it should become almost a shortcut in their brain, so they turn back to you for food whenever they hear the sound. You can use verbal markers as well "Yes!", "Good!", "Oui!", "Si!" but I find my timing and consistency is not a good as with a clicker. However, if I don't have a clicker, I will still use them.
How can this marker training can be used with reactivity? The exact instant my dog looks at a potential trigger, I mark that moment, which should cause my dog's head to whip back towards me for a treat. This breaks up the usual "Lock" phase of reactivity, so your dog can't work themselves up. A key phrase about that explanation: potential trigger means, I will often click even in situations where the dog might not react. This is especially useful for puppies. The very first thing I teach with my pups is marker training. The very next is "Look at that". Sit and down can be learned whenever, how to focus in the face of distractions is a behavior best taught young.
When Ami was about four months old, she went through a brutal fear period (a topic to be addressed in a different post). Despite the fact that she hadn't minded people or dogs previously, she was suddenly barking or growling at every little thing and was clearly uncomfortable to the point that at times she seemed terrified. I had worked LATextremely heavily with her the first two months I'd had her, so when she entered that fear period I started using LAT for everyone. The trashcans have been put out on the street corner? LAT. A person is walking 300 yards away? LAT. A dog pops around the corner? Emergency U-turn and then LAT. Three days later, Ami emerged from the briefest, most intense fear completely back to her normal, confident, happy self.
This exercise can seriously be a life saver for dogs. If you want more information, I highly recommend checking out Leslie McDevitt's books.