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Sarah Wilson
Award-winning Pet Expert
Teacher, Trainer & Author

Reactive Dogs: Out and About Part 1

In this pet podcast... Does your dog bark or drag you around when you go to a new place? Is he reactive to people and things when he gets excited? So it Pip! In this episode, Pip and Sarah head out to a local pre-holiday shopping center for a field trip. Come along and find out what Sarah does when Pip gets unnerved by some holiday cheer, how she handles a typical foray into a pet supply store and find out what training project she's starting. If you have any questions write her at - also, Check out Sarah's Teacher's Pet Blog!


Sarah Wilson: Hi, this is Sarah Wilson on Teachers Pet on Today we’re going to do part 1 of taking your reactive dog out and about. Many of you who have nice stable social friendly dogs will find this maybe mildly interesting. But for those of us that live with reactive dogs, and those are dogs who are highly sensitive to their environment and react to it often with barking or fear, this will be a very interesting section I hope. I am sitting here in a parking lot. It is December 22nd and it is balmy here in New Hampshire, it’s even in the 30’s, so we just had to take this lovely day and use it. I have Pip in a crate in my van and I have parked, first of all, as far away from the action as I can get. You need space to work your dog in case they start doing what you expect them to do, which is react, and also you are less likely to cause a reaction if you start them out in a quiet area. I am going to assume that my little Terrier herding dog mix is going to be reactive from the moment I take her out of the crate. I’m not going to wait to see what she’s going to do; if past is prologue, I know what she’s going to do, she’s going to look around and she’s going to start to get excited and/or stressed. So I’m going to start from the moment I get her out working her. You want to see how I do that? Then come back after our sponsors and I will show you. See you in a minute.

Sarah Wilson: Alright, here we are in this very busy pre-Christmas parking lot, and I’m going to get the dog out and see what we’ve got. So, lets see. First thing I’m going to do is grab some treats, so that if I need them I’ve got them, and I will be rewarding her like mad for looking up at me. Now we’ve been doing this enough, Pip and I, that she will look at something, the whining is she heard me open the treat bag, she heard me say her name, she’s ready to go. But we’ve done this enough that when she sees something that excites her or concerns her, she automatically looks up at me, it becomes a self queing, and I will reward that ‘cause that’s what I want her to do, to look away from it. Alright. Lots of traffic, lots of activity, perfect. Ooh, we got a seagull and some pigeons and carts and kids. This ought to be a useful little program for you. That’s a good girl. Good, very nice. Good job, there you go, nicely. Alright. Pip. Very, very nice. Alright, I’ve confirmed that I have my keys in my pocket, and we’re locked up, we have the dog, alright, good. Nicely done, good girl. Lovely, good job. So what she did was she stopped and looked at me and so that got praise. Good girl. I’m immediately going to start playing ‘catch my drift’, where I back up, good, very nice, that was terrific. Good. I do sidesteps, I do turns, everything to make sure that we’re in connection and that she’s not out at the end of the lead on point, good, very nice, that she’s not out at the end of the lead on point looking for things to bark at or be concerned about. Now what did I just praise there? I praised the fact that she was trotting next to me looking up at me having a good time. I allow her to beg in that position. Attention to me, good girl, very good, causes treats to appear and when she’s anxious she can force treats from me at this point, and that’s fine with me. Very nice, good dog. Excellent. She’s showing no concerns so we are walking toward WalMart as this case may be. Very good, very good. She also thinks that ‘good’ is a queue to look for treats so that’s fine. We’re going toward the front doors so we can go past some people. That’s a good job. Good job, good. So you can hear we have a Salvation, Pip, good, very good. She started to go ahead of me. She’s reacting to the bell. Good, very nice. So she looked and then and then looked back at me. She’s looking again, good, she looked back, she’s self queuing. And because she’s concerned about the bell, I’m going to cut a wide berth around it, good, very nice.

Sarah Wilson: Side note: Why would I move her away from the bells instead of toward the bells? If she were a different sort of dog who was curious and once she got a look at something or got close to something she identified it and calmed down, I might bring her closer, but she’s not that sort of dog, and many dogs aren’t. She’s the sort of dog who will pull forward in curiosity and then realize too late that she is too close and get overwhelmed and become frightened or react. So with her I move her away and I work her at a distance where I’m confident she can be comfortable, and as she gets comfortable again and relaxes then I can bring her closer. And for most pet people with pet dogs, work them farther away, get them back into connection, and then bring them closer. Most dogs have trouble with things for the first few minutes they’re exposed to them; first few minutes in class, first few minutes out of the car, first few minutes when the guests come over and first few minutes when exposed to something new. So if you can get them calm, often they then can deal with it much better. So for her, I’m moving her away. Lets see how it goes.

Sarah Wilson: Space is your friend with anxious or reactive dogs. Good girl. I just called her back, she went into a sit, good. Because she’s anxious about the bell, she’s now anxious about other things. She’s giving a hard look at people with bags and hats. Good, very good. Good girl. Her sleeve is slack, I am not yanking on her at all. I’m using the collar to queue the behavior I want. Good girl, very nice. And because we’ve done leash work, she responds to very light pressure on the lead. Good, very good, good girl, nicely. She’s looking at the guy with the bell, ears back, little concerned, good, very nice, but no barking, no panicking so we’ll take it. We’ll take it. Good. Now for the first time she’s pulling on the lead a little bit, so we’re going to stop and do ‘good dog’ a la ‘catch my drift’ and ask her to come back to me. And that’s typical. When your dog gets anxious about something, that anxiety doesn’t drop right away. It takes them a few minutes. So go right into the exercises that you know to help calm them down. I’m doing some left circles to remind her to stay back. Good. Ho, ho, ho.

Unknown person: Ho, ho, ho.

Sarah Wilson: That’s New Hampshire in December. It’s 30 so he’s out in a Santa hat and shorts because why not? Alright, now I’ve lost my dog, instead of trotting along looking relaxed, her ears are now back, her tail is at half mast, she’s a little bit anxious. We’re still doing left turns. I’m actually now walking toward Pet Supplies Plus. Very good.

Unknown person: Hey buddy.

Sarah Wilson: Hi, how are you?

Unknown person: Good. Hi.

Sarah Wilson: She goes, “Oh good, happy dog people.”

Unknown person: I know.

Sarah Wilson: Take care. Good girl Pip. Good, sit. That made her happy. She just greeted some nice people who came up. No jumping, no problems. Okay, went through the automatic door, no problem there, we’re now going through the raw hide section and Pip is a little bit ahead of me so I need to ask her to come back. I backed up. Good, I’m going to check and see where her head is. Pip, down. Alright, it’s not where I need it to be. She’s part way down, but she is not all the way down. So I’m going to guide her. She didn’t, good, very good. She’s not going to get any treats from me until she does it on her own. Good girl. Pip down. Good, that was great. So she’s getting a little bit, good. She got a little treat there, she did it on her own, good job. Good. I’m doing some turns in the aisle, I’m using the displays of dog food and milk bones and such to walk around, do my lefts around. Wait. Good girl, very nice, good. Lets go. Let me check in on my dog again. Pip, down. Very nice, good. Alright, so she’s back in the game, but distracted. Going to go nice and slow and let her sniff around. After all, good girl, any time she happens to look up at me she’s going to get praised. Good girl. But if she wants to sniff and check things out, that’s fine.

Sarah Wilson: Side note: Why would I allow her to sniff around? Because the first thing I did was check with her and see if she was still in connection and still listening. I got her into listening mode, and now if she wants to sniff around that’s fine with me. Most dogs are curious and she’s in a new environment. If she wants to look around, what’s wrong with that? Nothing. What she can’t do is haul me around, disregard me entirely, in any way make this difficult. She’s going to sniff on a loose lead, checking out the toys, checking out the shelving, doing whatever she’s doing, fine, now problem. I want her to explore. Often dogs feel much more confident and comfortable after they’ve had a chance to explore a little bit. But first get connection, then let her explore. If when we came in here she was disconnected, not responsive, and I simply allowed her to drag me around and look at things, then she’s likely to get herself into trouble or to build stress and start to bark or get upset. As it is, she’s going to sniff, and if she has any concerns she’s going to immediately look back at me. Perfect. That’s exactly what I want. Alright, lets go see what happens.

Sarah Wilson: She’s doing her own personal shopping. Going to look at the fish. Lots of interesting sounds and smells. Ooh, somebody’s got a Pug here, we’ll see if we can visit. Pip wait. Sit. Good. Can I say hi to your Pug? We’ve got another…

Unknown person: Oh, yeah you can.

Sarah Wilson: What a handsome boy. He says “Oh, I’m past all this, honestly other dogs.”

Unknown person: Yeah. No, he just don’t see (unintelligible)…

Unknown person: all this toys and food…

Sarah Wilson: Yeah.

Unknown person: see?

Sarah Wilson: He goes, “Hello”. Good. What a nice boy. They’re such a lovely breed, the Pugs are, such a, oh yeah, what’s up with him?

Unknown person: Pain in the neck, that’s what’s up with him.

Sarah Wilson: Oh yeah?

Unknown person: He was my daughter’s dog and…

Sarah Wilson: Oh.

Unknown person: Grammy gets him.

Sarah Wilson: Grammy gets him, well that wasn’t, then good for Grammy.

Unknown person: Not really.

Sarah Wilson: Not really?

Unknown person: I’d rather have her have him, then I can go where I want to go…

Sarah Wilson: That’s true.

Unknown person: since my other one passed away.

Sarah Wilson: I see you’re buying a present for him nonetheless.

Unknown person: Oh yeah, I’ll buy a present for him. Do you like to toys too?

Sarah Wilson: He says “Oh my goodness, yes”. Thank you.

Unknown person: You’re welcome.

Unknown person: Did you come to shop?

Sarah Wilson: He goes, “Oh yes, it’s Christmas.”

Unknown person: Yeah.

Sarah Wilson: She’d much rather have your hat apparently.

Unknown person: (Unintelligible question).

Sarah Wilson: Don’t know, little Terrier something mix, perfect.

Unknown person: Oh, he’s mixed?

Sarah Wilson: Yeah, very much. She’s says “I’m well mixed”. Good girl.

Unknown person: (Unintelligible).

Sarah Wilson: Take care. Good girl, very nice. Good girl, very good. That was excellent. Good girl. Alright, that is what I’d call a very successful visit. Met with lots of people. Good. Now what I didn’t let her do when she met the Pug is swarm all over him or upset him. That’s what will cause most other dogs you’re greeting to react is if you let your dog jump all over them or hassle them in some way. Good girl, very nice. So going past the bells this time she is trotting, very relaxed and happy and looking right up at me. It’s really helpful if you can get these behaviors in place so that you can communicate effectively with your dog. Reactive dogs really need help. They can’t help it that they react, they don’t what else to do, so you need to give them other things to do and you need to set them up for success and you need to check in with them to make sure that things aren’t overwhelming them. Well it’s about time to take a break, and then we’re starting an ongoing training exercise, and I hope you like it. I’m not sure if Pip and I can even do this, so it should be fun. Stay tuned.

Sarah Wilson: Okay, back at the car. Even though it’s warm for December, it’s cold to have a iPod in your hand for 15 minutes out in 30 degrees without a glove on ‘cause I can’t work this thing without a glove on. So what did I do to help make this a success for her? Well the very first thing I did, I did long before I drove into this parking lot, and that is I gave her foundation behaviors so that I could communicate with her when I needed to, and what’s a foundation behavior? Well for me that is any pressure on the lead, look back at me. When you see a distraction, look back at me. When in doubt, look back at me. And to understand what guiding pressures mean for sit and down so that I could help her when she gets stuck. I’m not going to correct an anxious dog harshly, I’m not going to correct most any dog harshly, but correcting an anxious dog harshly in an anxious situation doesn’t really calm them down. Think of it this way: I’m going to yell at you until you feel better, okay? Not really very effective. But if I was going to say, “Listen, I’m going to hang in there with you and we’re going to do this together until you feel better”, now that’s helpful, right? So you’re there as they’re coach and support and as their guide. That to me is a true leader. So before we ever got here, we got foundation behaviors in place. Then I parked a good distance away from all the stores so that when she hopped out of the car, I could one, assess very quickly where her head was at, two, practice behaviors to create success, and then three, as I approached busier areas I could see if and when she was getting anxious. If she had started to get anxious, disconnect, bounce, bark, otherwise carry on in that situation, I would have stayed at that distance or backed up a little bit and worked there because that would have already told me, “Sarah, I’m stuck, I’m overwhelmed”, and once your dog is overwhelmed there’s not point in taking them farther if you can avoid it. Sometimes you have to like at the vet. But here there’s no reason. If my dog had started to fall apart when she was fifty feet away from the sidewalk, I would have worked fifty feet from the sidewalk or sixty feet away from the sidewalk. The point of the trip is not to check off what you had in mind. The point of the trip with a reactive dog is to create success. So we popped her out of the car at a distance and I immediately started to play ‘catch my drift’, I did some callbacks, I did some left circles, as a way of asking her “How do you feel? How do you feel today? Are you with me? Are we doing this together or are you already lost?” And she said, “We’re doing it together.” Great. So we got closer and closer. What threw her off? The Salvation Army bells. That made her nervous. I could see she was nervous because all of a sudden instead of being connected to me, she started to disconnect, to want to move forward, to want to go toward them to see what they were, but her ears were back and her tail was lowered, so I knew she wasn’t feeling confident. In that case, I gave her more room and we practiced at the edge, and I rewarded her heavily any time she looked at me. Once we were passed it I could tell that I’d already lost her a little bit, right? She wasn’t paying as much attention as she had been before, so again, I did ‘catch my drift’, I did left circles, I did whatever I could do to get her back and she said, “Yup, yup, yup, oh sorry, all better now. Just a little nervous about the bells.” Fine. So we went in to the Pet Supply store. We greeted some people, we did a few things, I checked with her, “How you doing?”, and she reported, “A little distracted. I can’t quite respond to the basics.” So, I guided her, I insisted, and I also got a little bit casual so that she could sniff and explore, but she was never allowed to drag me, to yank on me or to be at all disrespectful of that leash. That is never okay. Once we worked around, we greeted a few people. I asked if I could greet somebody’s Pug, we had a nice time. She went up to a few people. She really enjoyed that, and that’s perfect. And then we left, and on the way out, no problems. Even past the bells, she was now accepting of them and not showing any concern. So that gives you one way of approaching getting a reactive dog out and about. You go as far as they can and not farther, you work hard to create success for them and with them, not to wait for them to react and then try to fix it after that ‘cause that’s a losing battle, and we had fun. And when you do that your dog will enjoy going out more and more, they’ll look forward to it instead of coming out of the car and going, “Oh my goodness, I don’t know where I am and my owner is always so upset in these places. They yank on me and they get harsh with me and they tell me ‘knock it off’ and they tell me to sit and they don’t sound happy”, and that, your tension tells the dog that she has every reason to be reactive and concerned because this is a dangerous place, but not this time. Pip and I had a great time. I hope you guys had a great time, and now you’re going to start the training project that Pip and I are doing together and with you over the next couple of months. Stay tuned for that.

Sarah Wilson: Now before we sign off, we’re going to start a little project here on Teacher’s Pet. It’s a training project, and I don’t know whether it’s going to take a month, four months, no idea. And here’s the project: I said in some context to a training friend of mine, Melissa Fisher who runs Puppy Home School, you can find her at, I made some comment about some trick where people would, I think I was putting it in terms of impossible tricks or challenging tricks, say retrieve a piece of string cheese. I didn’t know she took it seriously and she actually went home and trained it. It took her about 6 months for her first dog, took her less for her second, but she trained them to retrieve a naked piece of string cheese, more aptly actually trained both of her Aussie’s to give her it from the floor, and I’ve never done that. And I’ve certainly never done it with Pip. One of my challenges with Pip is she is, shall we say, food motivated. She is very, very, very food focused, which is wonderful in training ‘cause it makes her very easy to motivate. But in this situation it’s going to be a bit of a challenge. Let me give you a little sound effect version of what we’re dealing with here. Okay. Alright, get the idea? She’s really into her food. So in order to do this trick the first thing I needed to figure out is how can I get her to want to give me the string cheese without eating it. The key here is ‘without eating it’. The minute she eats this piece of string cheese, it’s going to be over. She’s going to know that that’s an option, I don’t want her to know it’s an option, so what do I do? I’m going to use a piece of wood that is the same shape and size as string cheese and I’m going to teach her to give that to me. She already knows how to pick things up and give them to me, so I’m going to start with a piece of wood. As soon as she’s really flinging that at me, and I’m going to reward her with really good things like hunks of roast beef, right. Once she’s flinging that at me I’m going to start rubbing cheese into the wood and teaching her to give that to me. I want the cheese, the smell of cheese to queue give behavior. During this time I’m going to need not to use cheese as a food reward during our training, and I promise you that I will tell you everything that goes on. My plan this week is simply to put the piece of wood on the floor, have her give it to me and reward her with really, really good stuff. So that’s what I’m going to be doing. If it goes well and she really starts chucking stuff at me, then I will rub a little bit of cheese into the wood, not enough that she can lick it out, but really rub it in good and proper, keep her really close and then reward her really well. That’s what I’m going to do, and I’ll report back. I don’t know whether this is possible or not. I may be setting myself up for public humiliation, but I don’t think so. I think that if I keep at this and I really inspire her to chuck things that smell like cheese at me, that I can get this. That’s what I’m working on. So lets see if I can get her to give me this piece of wood. Okay, here we are down in the basement. I have a small plate of roast beef next to me, little cut up bits of roast beef and Pip is unbelievable, I’m laughing because she’s bouncing around as I’m moving the roast beef, unbelievably focused on roast beef, she’s now sitting staring at me, waiting to see how possibly she can earn this. I have a little dowel in my hand about the size of a piece of naked string cheese, and lets see how we’re going to do. Alright. Give. Good girl, very good, nicely. Give. Good, very good, that was excellent. Very good. Give. Good. She dropped it and it bounced behind her. Good, good girl. And I went quiet there, because what she did was pick it up but then drop the dowel, I want her to give it to my hand. Give. Good girl. Give. She’s trying, but she’s getting excited and so she’s dropping it all over the place, and I just stay quiet until she gets it right. Give. Good, very good, that was perfect, excellent. That was really nice. Give. Good. Give. Good girl, good. Really nicely done. Good job.

Sarah Wilson: Side note: Pay attention to how I praise Pip in different situations. Here she’s already excited by the roast beef and a little outside of herself, so I’m being very calm and even. She doesn’t need me to excite her, she’s already excited. At other times, if she’s a little anxious I may be much more excited sounding because there I want to act the way I want her to act, and if I want her to be more energetic and happy, then I sound more energetic and happy. And if I want her to slow down and calm down, then I slow down and calm down. You model what you want your dog to be, and your dog will follow you there. Food for thought. Now lets get back to ‘give, good dog’ or in this case ‘give, good dog’.

Sarah Wilson: Give. I’m going to have to work hard, good girl, on my hold or else I’m going to lose that entirely. Give. But that’s minor matter, can always fix it later. Good girl. Give. Good, beautiful. Now I’m going to let her take the last couple of pieces and lick the little saucer clean, and that’s all I’m going to do. It only is a minute or two, not a big deal. She’s going to get this really quickly, so between now and next session I am going to rub some cheese into the wood and start that part of it, but that’s all I’m going to do. I’ll do a few one or two minute sessions with that and I’ll tell you where we are and what the next step is, and then we’ll move forward and see if Pip and I can do this or not.

Sarah Wilson: Last side not of the day: I’m blogging now. You can go to, Teacher’s Pet, and see my blog. Also, I just ordered a very cool small video camera and tripod so that I can show you guys some of what I’m doing, and when that’s all set up I will let you know, but my hope is to have that up and going in the next month or so. You will find out then that I do edit out some of the pauses in training because otherwise on the radio that’s a real drag. But in videotape you’ll understand, you’ll be able to see what’s going on. And also I want to be able to prove this cheese thing when we pull it off. Now I’ll be able to show you and tell you what’s going on. And lastly, you can see me in action, most often with Pip, on ComCast On Demand. If you have ComCast cable, go to their menu, go to Life and Home, scroll down to Pets and click Children or Safety and even a Couple in Cats and you’ll see me doing my thing. My husband Bryan and I are so excited about this. It’s free information that people can take whenever they need it, and we are thrilled to be able to offer it, so please try to take a look and enjoy. Until next week remember any dog can be a Teacher’s Pet. Have a wonderful New Year and I’ll talk to you guys in 2008


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