For about a year now, we have been visiting local DFW, Texas parks and reviewing them with a reactive dog in mind. Reactive dogs are some of my favorite to work with. We consider the term "reactive" to mean a dog that goes over threshold as a result of an environmental stimulus presenting itself in the dogs world. When a dog goes over their threshold they are typically not reachable or teachable. The dog will offer a variety of behaviors that are a stress response to a trigger. Behaviors can range from fixating, freezing, growling, barking, lunging, trying to escape harnesses/collars/leashes, redirecting on dogs near or their humans, rolling on the ground, fleeing and jumping. Typically pet parents will describe their dog as hard to control, scary, aggressive or a side of their dog that is not a reflection of their dog's true temperament at other times. Triggers, much like the spectrum of behaviors a dog can display, can range from squirrels, bunnies, other people, dogs, cats, trucks, strollers, bicycles, etc.
One main thing to consider when trying to help your reactive dog is the environment. Behavior is in the environment. Let me repeat that again behavior is in the environment! If you know your dog struggles with being outside, with certain stimulus then it is our responsibility to make sure we are putting them in environments they can handle, that promote healthy mindedness and that elicit behaviors that are good choices. If we continue to put our dogs in environments that are too challenging for them we are not helping, in fact we are actually helping them become more and more reactive. And no pet parent wants that. You do not HAVE to walk your dog. There are plenty of mental and physical enrichments we can employ until we have built in conditioned behaviors to help mitigate a reactive dog's stress level in response to the outside world. You would not take your human kid, who doesn't know how to swim to the deep ocean to learn to swim, so let's not put our dogs in the hardest learning environments until we have taken the time to build their and our skill set.
This leads us to our next element to consider. Skill sets. Teaching a dog basics and proper body placement for walks is building your dog's life skills. There is nothing basic about basics. Your dog comes with drives, impulses and instincts and none of that is typically conducive to the behaviors we like for our dogs to have. We tell them no pulling, no barking, no jumping, no digging, no prey drives, no biting, no to being destructive, etc, etc, etc. And while we are letting them know that "dogging" isn't acceptable we are also relying on our verbal communications and using our human language. Our dogs do not understand any of this on their own. Your reactive dog should have a very reliable repertoire of positive reinforcement basics that include but are not limited to look, leave it, let's go, sit, stay, place, touch, return, heel, wait, down, settle and toy. All of these words should be taught through luring, shaping, and conditioning bodily and visually before we are using the words aimlessly. Adding duration, distractions and distance are the next steps to teaching basics. After we add the 3 D's we then generalize behaviors to new contexts. Once your reactive dog has learned inside in all the rooms of your house, the backyard, the front yard, other family members homes, and pet friendly stores then we have built the necessary communication and behavioral foundation to put them in environments they struggle with. If you have not done this very necessary work for your reactive dog I strongly encourage you to start. It is only fair that we have invested in their mental and behavioral development before we put them in environments that they are unprepared to deal with safely and as stress free as possible.
Pattern games are another positive reinforcement technique that we can use to lessen our dog's burden about the unpredictable nature of outside triggers. Leslie McDevitt created pattern games as a framework that provides predictable, structured games the dog can work in thus normalizing potential stimuli from becoming a continued source of stress. For example, 1-2-3 treat is a way for us to have consistent behavior, give consistent verbal cues, and a consistent marker of the reinforcer, ending in us reinforcing generously and consistently. The fact that the human is offering consistent behavior helps the dog offer consistent behavior. When a reactive dog knows what to expect and has an active role in the game the sudden environmental changes can have less of an impact because the connection and rhythm keeps the dog focused, working and engaged. I highly suggest not only using positive reinforcement basics as a predictable way to effectively communicate with your dog and have your dog be able to offer conditioned behaviors in place of reactive ones, but also add pattern games to your purposeful work with your dog.
Another aspect of managing and modifying a reactive dog's behavior is alleviating pent up energy. You do not want your reactive dog to leave the house at a level 100 energy level. That sets up a situation that feeds reactivity. A comprehensive behavioral plan will take into account that your dog needs healthy energy releases all throughout the day and especially before an outing. Simple yet effective constructive energy outlets can be working for their food (in various forms), nose work, training play, basics to advanced cue sessions, tug sessions, cognitive enrichments like puzzle boxes, water play, place work or teaching a variety of tricks; just to name a few. Be sure and check out our Canine Enrichment Blog, "Canine-Enrichment Why Your Dog Shouldn't Live Without It" for more explanation and ideas. The bottom line is doing a pre-work before you take your reactive dog outside the home is only going to put his energy level at a more even keel and that alone can set you and him up for more smooth and successful redirection when challenges arise.
Now that we have discussed what reactivity means, a dog's threshold, the environment's role in behavior, handler and dog skill sets through positive reinforcement basics and pattern games, as well as cathartic energy releases, I want to lastly add that my go-to pro-tip for reactive dogs is add distance, leave it, look and lets go. This combination is by far the best sequence for keeping your dog reachable (distance), prompting them to offer a conditioned behavior and rewarding lavishly with a high value reinforcer (leave it), redirecting their physical and mental focus (look), and giving them another choice to opt out of a situation they will not thrive in (let's go). Now, let us look at our park reviews. Here you will find a list of parks we have visited in order to help you get an idea if your reactive dog would thrive or not in these settings. Please note we will be updating this blog as much as possible when we add new spaces to our list. Disclaimer: we are not responsible for any incidences, injuries, loose dogs, accidents or issues that may happen when visiting any parks on our list. Your safety and your dogs safey are your responsibility, we simply want to provide our own feedback and opinions from our visits. Always have protection and a safety plan in case of emergencies. Can't wait to visit more parks with reactive dog's in mind and to help pet parents understand why your role in being their teacher/leader/coach/parent is paramount to reducing their reactivity.
Our reactivity scale is simple and concise:
Level 1 Do not recommend for reactive dogs. Will be counter-productive and do more harm than good.
Level 2 A park or trail that is a mixture of close spaces and off trail experiences. Perfect combination for progressing from distance exposures to closer ones. The best space for dogs that are improving with their reactivity.
Level 3 A park or trail that provides space to redirect your dog away from triggers in most areas. Highly recommended!