When you have a reactive dog, going anywhere away from home can be challenging! It can also be a hot mess and not a lot of fun if your dog is along for that trip!
Keep in mind, that all dogs have triggers for their behavior. In other words, all dogs have certain things that will cause them to react in a negative way. For some dogs….it’s things that they see, and for others, it might be things that they hear, and then for Rugby….it’s both and everything in between!!! If you look up “reactive” in the dictionary, you’re going to see a picture of my dog!
This particular idea will work for all dogs, no matter who they are. If your dog is more friendly and outgoing you can easily adjust for that. Dogs who are reactive or overly shy will want to follow the blueprint that I’m giving you for Rugby.
So how do I do outings with Rugby? Very, very carefully!! Keep in mind, as a dog trainer, my plan is always keeping things calm and relaxed with my dog, but Rugby doesn’t always read the memos.
Anytime I take Rugby for outings, I try as best I can to plan things out so that I can minimize surprises and potential triggers. I make sure he’s wearing his Thundershirt, which really minimizes his reactivity when his environment changes. I do some simple training before we leave, just to have my leadership fresh in his mind, so that he knows I’m safe, I can be trusted, and that I’m pretty generous with tasty treats for appropriate behavior!!
I also make sure that Rugby has had some level of exercise….but not too much so that he’s overstimulated when we leave the house. I want some of the excitement knocked off, but I want him able to focus and settle when he’s out. You’ll need to know your individual dog to know how much exercise to provide, but for Rugby….it’s maybe twenty minutes, just to give you an idea.
One thing that’s always challenging is that Rugby fires up from all kinds of triggers. Most reactive dogs do. So part of the success package is keeping as much distance as I can between Rugby and the distractions. That sounds like it’s impossible, but really, it’s not as hard as you would expect. You just need a good game plan!
Sometimes, when I’m out driving, I’m scoping out potential places for outings. When Rugby is not along, I can really take my time and check out the potential for problems and think about my chances for success with him.
I have taken him on outings to shopping centers just for the purpose of “People Watching.” I generally travel with him in his crate, so once we get to a shopping center, I park way, way out…far from the door, and I get Rugby out of his crate, and put him in the front seat. I have some really tasty snacks in a bait bag with me. This is definitely a time to use high value treats, so don’t skimp on quality here.
And then we just sit together and hang out and watch what’s happening around us….safe and secure in our car. When Rugby watches someone walking to or from their car, and he’s staying calm, I give him little nibbles of his treat, and lots of happy, cheerful praise. I scratch his chest or pet his shoulders, and make sure that he knows that things are all good! On pretty days, I roll the windows down a bit, so that he’s hearing as well as seeing things.
After he’s watched from the safety of the car for a while, I get him out of the car, and just walk him around the parking lot….out in the boondocks, so he’s not encountering dogs or humans at close range. He loves the smells and exploring someplace new! Often when I’m in a good location for him, he almost struts, like he just knows he looks good!
I rarely can get him to be interested in food once we’re out of the car, but I offer it anyway. I use his interest in food to act as a barometer for his stress and anxiety level. When his stress and anxiety are low, he’s more interested in food. If he’s more spun up….he just will not eat, and shows no interest in food. The goal, of course, is to get him comfortable eating treats in a new environment, because then he’s more relaxed, and able to focus more on me than his surroundings.
After I’ve given him a bit of a stretch and opportunities to explore, I’ll put him back in the car. Sometimes….depending upon how well the outing has gone so far, I’ll move a bit closer to the door of the shopping center, and repeat the treats, praise and petting if he’s able to stay calm. There’s something about being IN the car that helps Rugby feel safe and secure. That translates to calm, relaxed behavior! Score!! I generally only get him out one time to walk around, because what I’ve found with my dog, is that he can hold it together one time, but additional times start to increase his stress, and he’s much more likely to bark and lunge and look for ways to escape.
By using this approach, I can provide some new stimulation and stretch Rugby out of his comfort zone a bit, but not so far that he falls apart and wigs out or shuts down. He loves these little outings! He really enjoys people watching, and this is a good, safe way to socialize him and give him some safe and happy fun! I generally stop at a fast food restaurant and get him an ice cream to be enjoyed once we are home….just so that he really gets a special treat on top of the fun!