Monday, January 21, 2013

Agility for Reactive Dogs...

...and their spectacularly coordinated humans. (Uh, that would not be us, by the way.)

It's been a while since we've talked about the goings-on in Bella's life. But we are back and ready to talk about one of the most exciting and helpful activities we've undertaken in all our time with Bella.

October 12, 2011.

A day that changed Bella's life. The day we attended her first "Agility for Reactive Dogs" class at the "Dogs' Learning Center" located right here in our own hometown.

Having a forward-thinking, innovative training center not more than a few miles away from our house has been an incredible boon in our life with Bella.

Having access to a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) and Faculty Instructor with years of experience in agility as well as reactive dogs has been an absolute god-send.

Having two left-feet has been... Well, okay, yeah, that, not so much.

A note that came from our soon-to-be trainer, Carolyn, about our first class should have sent red flags a-fluttering and Robot arms a-flailing ("Danger Will Robinson!"):

Class will be run as a reactive class. Bring a mat for relaxed downs. We will gate/sheet as needed, use distance, etc.

Dogs should be on a head collar or front clip harness and another piece of equipment such as a martingale collar. With 2 leads or a lead clipped to both.

Bring lots! of small treats, clickers, mats, water/bowl.

Feels a little like this.
So just in case you didn't catch that, that's one dog, two leashes, a clicker and treats.

And we're going to take all of that and try to teach our reactive, scared-y dog to manage all the obstacles around an agility course while other reactive dogs try to behave themselves nearby?

Alright-y then.

In the year+ that we have been doing this, I am proud to say Bella has only sent me into face-plant territory once. We have, however, knocked over jump poles, gotten tangled in the weaves and tripped over each other with fair frequency.

And by "we", I mean me. The dog is fine, it's her owner who can't walk in a straight line.

(As for the other half of the human equation, let's just say that while Jan is considerably more coordinated than I, that's hardly setting a high bar.)

Reactive dog class basics.

Let's talk about some of the very most fundamental basics of reactive dog classes. I'm going to assume most of my readers have never attended a reactive dogs class or an agility class so please don't be offended if you already know all about this stuff.

A prerequisite for the "Agility for Reactive Dogs" class is that everyone must have attended a beginner class for reactive dog handling. We had and while we found out later that much of what we thought we learned in that beginner class was not quite right, it left us familiar at least with the terminology, the setting and how to enter and exit the building.

And the very first thing you learn in a beginner reactive dogs class is that reactive dogs class begins before you're even in the class. Because it's not like you can just go strolling into the building like you have a normal dog or something.

Negotiating the parking lot.

Nervously watching another dog on the dog walk.
Bella still has issues when she sees dogs while she's in the car, so we always park as far from the entrance to the building as possible. This is in an attempt to keep her "under threshold" as she watches people and pets come and go.

But basically there is no point at which Bella is not in full-blown panic mode about other dogs while she is in the car so we try to get her out of it as soon as possible when we arrive. If she's out of the car, her reactivity is less and she has something else distracting to do (sniff, pee, sniff, pee, sniff, pee and sniff some more...)

But the deal is - from the moment we arrive in the parking lot until we're driving home after class, every time Bella sees a dog and doesn't react like a snarling lunatic, she gets a treat.

Getting in the building.

Yup, there's a process for that. We wait outside while the class before us ends and the owners get their reactive dogs back in their cars and then we are called in. One dog at a time.

Again, class is already in session even when you're just entering the building. See a dog? Click, treat. Walking nicely? Click, treat. Go ballistic? Divert and distract. (We'll explain that in subsequent posts.)

Getting settled.

With reactive dogs, we use mats/towels to give the dog a place to associate as their home base, their "safe space". So while we're getting settled and stuff unpacked, Bella is asked to 'go to her mat' and is rewarded for sitting quietly. Lots of clicks and treats. If she can relax to the point of resting on one hip, she gets lots and lots of treats.

The atmosphere in the room is one of calm. Everyone speaks just loudly enough to be heard. And we all try very hard to get in and the dogs settled as quickly as possible without appearing rushed or getting the dogs too excited.

What's in it for me?

Not all dogs in a reactive dogs class have the same level of fear or a fear of the same things. Bella's pervasive fear of everything "unknown" meant we had to first get her to associate going to class as a good thing before we could ever address her fear of other dogs or the agility obstacles.

In the earliest days of class, we just stuffed Bella full of treats throughout the entire class. As long as she wasn't wigging out, she got treats. But to turn fear into enthusiasm, those had to be some mighty tasty treats.

In fact, the treats have to be something that the dog values more than she fears 'the big scary'.

We've tried everything from hot dogs to chicken to cheese and just about every training treat on the market. We've finally settled on Red Barn Naturals food roll that we chop into pea-sized pieces. They're soft and moist, which we find means they don't get stuck in Bella's throat quite as much as dry treats, and they're slightly less slimy than some of the other food logs we have tried.

(We do have another trick up our sleeve of an even more highly valued treat but we didn't need/learn about that until later in the course... Stick with me, we'll get there.)

With so much good food and all the attention she could ever desire, Bella was sold on class after the very first night. That she got to learn and jump was just a bonus. In fact, as time went on we had to work to calm her down, she was so excited to be going to class. Good grief. "If it's not one thing, it's another..."

So that's the (very) basics of the reactive dog part of our class. I'll talk more about the agility part of class next time.

I really struggled to write this post because I can come at the subject of this class from so many different angles - the reactive dog, the fearful dog, clicker training, agility training or even the role medication has played. If there's any aspect of it you'd like to hear more about, don't hesitate to let me know in the comments.

Understanding that I'm not a trainer and addressing fearful, reactive or aggressive dogs is way above my pay grade, I will share with you what we've learned and offer lots of Bella stories along the way. This class has probably been the most influential activity we have pursued for Bella's mental health and the rewards have been absolutely inspiring. I hope you'll find our journey interesting as well.


  1. I feel very lucky to not have had to work through this sort of problem with any of my dogs...I admire the way you're working with Bella 

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. This is really informative! I started agility with Cooper, who is not fond of other dogs on leash, but it isn't a class specifically for reactive dogs. Reading your class description, I wish it were!! I'd love to know more about how the dogs are managed during the class. Do you all work at the same time? Do the dogs stay on their mats the whole time? What's the plan if your pup aggresses? I look forward to reading more about your class!!

  3. This was really helpful to me. I've always wanted to do agility with Kelly because she is an agile jumper and would enjoy the challenges. But she is not good with most other dogs, hackles raised and barking, so I figured we could never do it. When we're on a walk and see another dog, we usually change our course. Instead of avoiding, maybe I should bring clicker and treats and work on it the way you describe. I'm impressed that you have classes for reactive dogs there, I haven't seen any like that around here. Thank you!

  4. I'm very envious of this class. I wish I could have done something like it with Shadow. 

    But I can relate to all the management. Sometimes when we took her to basic obedience, we'd get out of the car, see another dog, get back in the car. Wait for the entry way to clear just to find someone else coming out. What a fracas!

    It's great that you and Jan are doing this together with Bella. It does take a team to keep everything organized. 

    Of course, a pint of Guinness, while not helpful for coordination, might make the whole experience more fun (loved the poster!).

    I'm learning a lot from your posts about the different things you've tried with Bella. Thank you for working so hard to share this information.

  5. Peggy--some trainers recommend walking away as a reward for a dog being calm at a distance. So your "avoidance" is a technique some trainers recommend.

    That said, I found clicking and treating my last dog Shadow for being calm at a distance did build up her tolerance for other dogs and made walks easier over time.

  6. I don't have a reactive dog, but I still found this very interesting.  Some day I may adopt one that is, and it is good to know the kinds of things that are out there to help.  And I SO admire all that you do for Bella.  And had to chuckle at your lack of coordination comments, as I can picture myself doing the exact same things!  :)

  7. How wonderful that you have this great class so close by! It can be hard to find the right sort of place even for not so scared pups. I am very glad that it has helped Bella so much and I am very excited to find out more about all of her adventures there :)

  8. It's wonderful that you've found a class for reactive dogs that is so close to your home. I'm interested to know about every aspect of what you've learned in the class. I think a mini-series is in order! I want to know it all.

  9. Very interesting!  I took Callie (not fond of other dogs...ya, ya, I know, lives with six!) to a beginner agility class and she did okay.  A class like you have would be really good for her.  I am looking forward to reading more about it.

  10. I didn't mean to attach a picture...I was trying to make it our picture.  Got it figured out now.

  11. It sounds like a very well run class. How awesome that you have something like that near home. I swear, we live in a bubble here on LI. Not many positive trainers, and the few I've found only offer agility or basic obedience.

    I never like navigating parking lots while trying to train my dogs. Too many people let their dogs (or kids!) run up to you. Disaster.

  12. Thanks, Maggie, we definitely have plans to cover most of your questions.

    I can telll you that we do some work as a group as well as some individual work. It's pretty organic and we adjust to the needs of the dogs/dynamics of the class. Carolyn is very good at figuring out new ways to work with what we need, not just sticking to script. (We really are incredibly lucky.)

  13. Hi Peggy, thanks for your comment.

    I think the approach one uses depends on the dog, the situation and what you are hoping to accomplish. In our case, we're really just trying to get Bella to a place where she can survive a visit to the vet without causing wwIII in the waiting room. In that situation, 'leaving' isn't an option so we're trying to teach her that being in another dog's presence is okay. (I was going to say good but I don't expect miracles. ;)

    Pamela is right in noting that 'leaving' is a perfectly acceptable reward in itself for certain situations so your instict is spot on. But if you want to try and reduce distance at which Kelly goes ballistic, you can certainly try clicking and treating her while she's calm and not reacting. As soon as she starts to react, that's the point to turn back. (Stop treating her at that point, and just turn her away.) Once she's calm again, then you can treat her again.

    I'm going to try to cover some of this but I really don't have all the answers. Maybe what I really need to do is gather up some of these questions and interview my trainer. Hmm. I think I'm going to have to follow up on that. Thanks for the idea. ;)

  14. It is kind of stressful and exhausting taking a wacko dog places, isn't it? It's comforting to learn that there are so many others who have been through this craziness.

    Glad you appreciated the poster. I knew there had to be something out there that spoke to the less-coordinated among us. ;)

  15. Thanks for your comment, Jan. I do hope people can find some value in our experience be it now or if they ever find themselves in a similar position at some time in the future.

    (And thanks for the commiseration. Yeah, I'm beyond uncoordinated. But I figure if I can do this stuff with Bella, pretty much anybody can. ;)

  16. It's been a fantastic experience for us. I don't know why but we seem to have a wealth of positive training options, not to mention holistic medical options, around here. I'm just so happy we do.

    I've learned to be very defensive (?), protective (?) of Bella in social situations. Fear is one thing to deal with but once aggression became part of our reality, all bets were off. No one is allowed to approach her without going through me first. :/

  17. I can't imagine that I would be able to do the agility myself ( I have 2 left feet), but am glad that you are sticking with it for Bella's sake. We could use a reactive dog class around here as we have discovered that Sherry has issues.

  18. Roo you guys have so much more to think about when going to class - I don't think my human could ever cope. She can barely look after me, nevermind a scaredy doggie *waggy tail* I'm glad Bella is enjoying her classes though, she deserves to have lots of fun.

  19. I love this post! Very informative and funny! We have a lot of work ahead of us with Frodo on a leash.  We took him to Petco for the experience, ugh, at least it wasn't too embarrassing. He just loves everything, people, dogs, toys, bits of whatever on the floor.... He almost took out a display rack.  And I was wondering why Aram and Ryan were keeping their distance from me. :) Next time I'll be prepared- lots of treats and the clicker.

  20. LOL Well, if he's just rambunctious on a leash, you should check out either a head halter like the gentle leader or a body harness like the ez walker. They offer very gentle control.