Teach Your Dog to Chill Out
This is my interpretation of how to use a seemingly simple but very powerful technique for training reactive/aggressive dogs to remain calm in the presence of unfamiliar people or other dogs. Our initial training goal is that whenever your dog spots one of his arousal triggers and hears you say “Chill Out” or "Check It Out" or some other phrase of your choosing (or you can click if clicker training), he will immediately orient back to you for a treat, instead of continuing to stare at his trigger and become aroused. By interrupting the arousal sequence, you will be preventing your dog from practicing the behavior you are trying to change, as you teach him a new way of responding. The end results are that he will learn self-control, to follow your lead, and to stay more relaxed around his triggers (the things that “trigger” his arousal). Here’s how to make it work:
Set your dog up to succeed
1) Your dog should be hungry and you should use great treats (cooked chicken or beef), appealing enough to tempt your dog, even in the presence of arousing distractions!
2) Go to places where you can safely control your dog and keep him calm- Choose settings where you can position yourself far enough from other people and dogs that your dog is able to remain calm and will not become too overwhelmed, aroused, or stressed to eat his treats. This can be as simple as keeping your dog beside you inside of your car, where you can determine how close or far to park from the action, such as people going in and out of a pet store or dog park with their dogs. As your dog improves, you can lower the windows and eventually get him out of the car. Quiet parks and other places with outdoor seating may be used when your dog can handle the closer exposure.
3) Act the moment your dog spots a trigger. Timing is crucial! You must observe your dog and the exact moment when he spots a trigger, click or use a consistent verbal cue like “Chill Pill” or “Check It Out” and feed him BEFORE he has a chance to become aroused. Remember the training adage that “you get what you reinforce,” so always aim to work under your dog’s “arousal threshold,” so that you are rewarding your dog’s calm behavior. Initially you may have to hold the food right up to his mouth to get his attention, but after a few repeats your dog should start to turn to you for his treat as soon as he hears the click or your verbal cue. Right now your dog looks at people or other animals because he may be wary and suspicious, worried and fearful, or even just interested and excited. Giving the dog treats (positive reinforcement) just for looking at his triggers, allows him to act on his natural tendency to check out the environment, while preventing reactive responses and conditioning the dog to associate the sight of people, other dogs, etc. with good things! Eventually this conditioning will produce a more relaxed attitude. In addition, by encouraging your dog to orient and look back to you when he spots a trigger, you are training him to pay attention to you and accept direction from you, even in the presence of arousing distractions!
4) Schedule Regular Outings- Rather than letting your reactive dog spend day after day not leaving your own home and yard, ideally try to get her out every day. You don’t have to stay out for long periods of time, 10-15 minutes is sufficient. What is important is routine frequent exposure to strangers, dogs, etc. (whatever your dog’s arousal triggers may be) under circumstances where your dog is able to remain calm and be rewarded for calmness. Regular practice is essential when you are building new attitudes and habits! Also, like any other routine, think in terms of lifetime habits- as your dog improves you will still need to at least occasionally to carry treats with you on walks/outings to periodically reinforce the new behavior.
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