When I think about working with reactive dogs, I often think about the use of comic relief for intense moments. Essentially, I know that a door out or away from an intense or possibly intense moment is to find a distraction powerful enough to turn the dog’s attention to something else. It’s the same concept as a moment of comic relief and it serves the same purpose.
As a child of the 80’s, I grew up watching sitcoms. What I loved about sitcoms as a kid was seeing people going through hard and emotional experiences, but at the most critical moments, there would be a bit of humor to offset the drama of the hard stuff. By no means did it minimize the impact of the emotional moment, but it did make the moment a bit easier to digest. Incorporating comic relief in to my everyday interactions with other humans – making jokes when the tension is too high or finding humor in less than humorous situations – lessens the tension of the moment and serves to help us throughout our personal and professional lives. While we still experience the intense emotion of the moment, we do so in a more regulated way, allowing us to keep our true focus where it needs to be. It doesn’t ruin our day. The comedy distracts us and we move on. As dog walkers, we all know how well distractions can work and are familiar with the idea of using them to our advantage!
Let’s take a look at using distraction techniques to avoid or get out of hot moments.
Knowing your dogs – Making use of distractions to relieve a reactive dog from an intense situation relies on a full understanding of two important concepts for the dog: (1) what he is bothered by (or is reactive to) and (2) what he loves or is interested in (if the former isn’t too intense). For instance, when we work with dogs who are reactive towards other dogs, we can work to avoid running into other dogs to a certain extent, but not fully. Knowing a dog’s triggers (both the ones to be worried about and the ones that we can use to our advantage) can help immensely when negative interactions cannot be avoided.
Distraction tools – One reliable “go-to” as a distraction for dogs is treats. Most dogs like them and they are easy to have on hand. But what if the dog isn’t interested in the treats you have or is generally unmotivated by them? Indeed, sometimes the dog’s emotional state may render treats completely uninteresting. Well, it’s not as easy, but knowing the dog’s favorite motivators can help provide the right and appropriate level of distraction. One item I always carry with me is a squeaker from an old toy. I put mine in the side pocket of my treat pouch. It’s easy to access this way by just hitting the side of my pouch to squeak the squeaker. Some dogs are very tuned into the sound of crinkling. For this you can use an empty bag of chips in your pocket. Another good distraction might be simply the sound of your voice. Experiment with different pitches and volumes to see what the dog you are walking is most easily attracted to. Use of verbal praise or cues is quite effective in distracting a dog from tempting stimuli as well.
It’s all about timing – As is true with comic relief, one very important factor in implementing distractions is timing. If you are too early, the dog might be attracted to the distraction, but it might not understand why, and worse, it may become bored with the distraction before you have a chance to make use of it. If you are too late, you may unintentionally reinforce behavior (if it’s operant/ learned) or miss the chance to make a difference (if it’s classical/ emotional). So how do we determine the appropriate timing? Take note of each dog’s trigger zone (i.e. where the scary or concerning stimuli is okay as opposed to not okay) and implement the distraction right before the point that is not ok. Practice makes perfect. Use your eyes and ears to determine the dog’s body language or any vocalizations that tell you the interaction (or stimuli) is not okay. Implement your distraction before the dog shows any signs of distress and you’re sure to be on time!
Walking dogs is exciting and rewarding. You can make it even more rewarding for all involved through purposeful, well-timed distractions to set everyone up for success.