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Understanding and Addressing Puppy Reactivity


My dog was attacked on leash when she was a puppy seven years ago. I remember how terrified she was and I too, dealing with something that was completely new to me. At the time, I didn’t realize how her reactions to seeing dogs would change because of that encounter and when she began barking and lunging at any dog we saw on walks, I remember feeling overwhelmed and worried. Why was my sweet puppy at home going crazy on leash at the sight of another dog?


Reactivity stems from deep-seated emotional responses that can come from various factors, ranging from genetics to insufficient socialization and frustration, or in the case of my puppy, negative experiences. While it was tempting to hope that her reactive behavior would simply fade away with time, I knew that the reality was more complex, that this was going to require intervention and training to overcome.


So, when reactivity presents itself in your puppy, what should you do?

Counter-conditioning is a training technique used to change a dog’s emotional response to a particular stimulus or event. Instead of reacting fearfully or aggressively to a trigger, your puppy will instead learn when they see the trigger, that something positive will happen, such as treats or praise, thereby changing their emotional response and how they react. Since reactive behaviors are often rooted in fear, anxiety, or insecurity, by using counter conditioning, your puppy anticipates the rewards when faced with a trigger.


Here are the steps on how to implement counter conditioning training for reactive puppies or adult dogs:


Before they see the trigger:


·      Remember that you are not alone in this journey. Reactivity is a common behavior incompatibility that we see in many households, and while it’s easy to feel embarrassed whenever your dog reacts, know that they are not trying to give you a hard time, they are just having a hard time.


·      Start by identifying the specific triggers that elicit reactive behavior in your puppy. These may include other dogs, unfamiliar people, loud noises, or certain environments. Some puppies may only have one that they are reactive to, and some may have multiple. Knowing what elicits that response will ensure that both you and your puppy are set up for success.


·      Have a high value food reward, such as hot dogs, to use whenever they encounter their trigger. Only use this reward in these situations and have other lower food rewards for obedience whenever the trigger is gone. You can also substitute the high value food with a toy or tug.


The trigger is present:


·      Introduce the trigger at a distance or intensity that does not provoke a reactive response from your puppy. As soon as your puppy sees the trigger, immediately offer your puppy high value treats, or engage them in a game with their favorite toy. We like to call this the hot dog party! End the game or rewards when the trigger is no longer present and go back to using lower value rewards. The goal is for your puppy to begin to associate the trigger with positive experiences and rewards.


·      Do not go too fast when working with reactivity. Monitor your puppy's reactions closely and ensure that you stay below their threshold for reactive behavior. If your puppy starts to exhibit signs of stress or discomfort, increase the distance from the trigger or reduce the intensity of the stimulus.


·      Over time gradually decrease the distance or intensity between your puppy and the trigger while continuing to offer positive reinforcement. This process, known as desensitization, helps your puppy become more comfortable and confident in the presence of previously challenging stimuli.


·      Consistency is key when it comes to counter conditioning. Practice regularly and be patient as you work with your puppy to change their emotional response to triggers.


Bonus Tip:


·      Spotify and YouTube have a lot of puppy desensitization playlists that I use for my dogs to help prevent reactions to certain noises that we may not hear often. Play a low enough volume that it does not elicit a reaction from your puppy and gradually increase the volume over time.


If you're struggling to implement counter conditioning techniques effectively or if your puppy's reactivity persists despite your efforts, don't hesitate to seek guidance from a certified dog trainer or behaviorist. They can provide personalized advice and support to help you address your puppy's specific needs.

Pictured: Mari, my eldest dog, as a puppy around the time reactive behaviors began to emerge.



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