Penny is an eight-year-old mini schnauzer. She was adopted from the Thurston County Animal Shelter after having been found in a grocery store parking lot.
When I met her, I was surprised by her calm demeanor in spite of the chaotic shelter environment around her. While all the other dogs were yowling and yelping in their pens, Penny was cool and collected, smiling and looking around with a curious glint in her rag doll eyes. Not a peep…not even a whisper of what would come next.
I don’t know how long it took me to realize that Penny had pulled the wool over my eyes completely. She wasn’t that calm, collected dog I’d fallen in love with at the shelter.
Penny was a highly reactive dog, capable of waking everyone within a mile with her high-pitched, murderous shriek.
I noticed it when we tried taking her on walks and were literally glared at by passersby, who assumed those yelps and shrieks could only come from a dog who was being shocked, kicked, or otherwise abused.
Her main trigger was other dogs.
If she so much as heard the jingle-jangle of a dog tag, she’d lose all control of herself and begin her panicked, shrieking yelps.
If she glimpsed another dog, she’d charge at it full-force while commencing with her ‘War Cries of Schnau.’
We tried many things. I tried becoming the alpha. I tried relying on her Gentle Leader to discourage her reactivity. (We still use a Gentle Leader, but not to enforce calmness.)
Over time, we gave up walking her during the day because we always seemed to run into another dog-human duo on our outings, and I didn’t want to reinforce her absolutely insane behavior.
How Counter Conditioning Saved Our Walks
After trying various training approaches, Penny showed me that she responded most favorably to positive reinforcement training. Specifically, clicker training.
She learned tricks like targeting my pointer finger and learning to lay on a tiny doormat, all by listening for the quick pop of the handheld clicker that taught her when she was doing the correct behavior.
But her over-the-top reactivity kept us from making any strides with using positive reinforcement in her interaction with other dogs.
That is, until I heard about this one trick that I like to call Treat Party.
We’ve had groundbreaking success with this method, and it’s made it possible to finally take Penny out into the world without worrying about running into other dogs.
Here’s how it works:
Make sure you have plenty of training treats on you. I like to use Zuke’s Mini Training Treats; they’re tiny and you can use a plenty without overfilling your pup’s belly. I pack a couple handfuls in my training pouch before we head out the door.
Now — walk your dog.
If you spot another dog, keep your distance. But as soon as your dog spots the other dog, drop some treats on the ground in front of your dog.
You see, you’re trying to keep your dog calm and under its threshold — that dreaded level of reactivity that makes it impossible to get your dog to focus or do anything other than flip out.
So every time your pup spots another dog, keep your distance but drop treats every time she sneaks a peek. Here’s how Patricia McConnell explains this method:
Easiest by far for a novice owner, because it requires linking the appearance of another dog with food. Dog looks at other dog, food falls from the sky (or falls on the ground, or a toy is presented. I use this sometimes to get dogs started, especially if they are super reactive.
— Dog-Dog Reactivity – Treatment Summary by Patricia McConnell
If you keep reinforcing this positive connection, something amazing will start to happen. Instead of going from zero to a hundred in terms of reactivity, your dog will start taking a second to pause when it sees another dog.
And instead of lunging and going completely berserk, she’ll instead turn her head and look right into your eyes wondering where her Treat Party is.
Penny’s Progress Report
Penny’s had huge success with this method of counter conditioning. We’ve been doing this now for about 3 months, and we’ve only had a couple slip-ups where she’s shrieked her Schnauzer shriek.
We’re back to walking her in the daylight, and don’t have to avoid entire blocks for fear of passing a fenced-in dog and setting her off. We still keep our distance, but she’s becoming more reliable at ignoring other dogs in favor of a treat or two.
I almost went into panic mode a few weeks ago when we ended up in a small town on a holiday weekend, and took Penny and her brother out on the town with us. On top of there being heavy foot traffic, there were at least 2-3 dogs on each block that we walked.
I was shocked and impressed when Penny made it through without a single terrible reaction. She lunged non-aggressively a couple of times, but there was no vocalization and she quickly snapped herself out of it and went on walking without even a backward glance at the passing dog.
Now I’d love to hear from you. How is your dog-reactive dog progressing in his/her training regimen? What methods are you using to train away this behavior?