Teaching a Dog Reactive German Shepherd Control and Focus

By: David Codr

Published Date: July 2, 2016

Charlie (German Shepherd)

Charlie is a four-year-old German Shepherd female who lives in Omaha. Her guardians scheduled a dog obedience training session with me to stop her habit of getting over excited when people come to the door. They also wanted me to put a stop to her occasional habit of barking and lunging at dogs when on walks.

As I mentioned in the video below, Charlie’s guardian had been watching the videos on my website and applying various techniques including the door answering ritual.

Charlie cracked me up a little bit with her vocalizing a protest of not being allowed to investigate the new visitor. However by controlling the situation, her guardian can help the dog learn to adopt more of a follower’s mindset and not get over excited when guests come to the door.

I had noticed that Charlie was doing quite a bit of scratching herself during the introductory video. When I inquired about this the guardian mentioned that the dog had a lot of allergies and it was something they were working on with their vet to get under control. In the course of that discussion I learned that the guardians had a house cleaner who brought in her own vacuum.

One of the things that Charlie is allergic to is the dander of other dogs. I recommended that the guardians ask their housekeeper to start using their own vacuum as using a vacuum from the house with another dog can easily transfer that animal’s dander into Charlie’s home setting.

One of Charlie’s guardians arrived to the session a few minutes after I did which gave us a great opportunity to practice claiming the door using the new tips that I had given her guardian.

It was great to see how quickly Charlie and her guardian picked up the new techniques. It helped that the guardian was already using much of the technique after watching my videos. I suggested that they practice this new door answering technique with other members of the family. By calling or texting one another when they were a few moments away, they can give the human in the home a heads up which allows them to be fully prepared and ready to deal with the dog’s actions.

One of the primary issues that Charlie’s guardian wanted to address in our session was her reactivity to other dogs while out on a walk. We often refer to this problem as Leash Aggression.

I spent a few minutes going over a technique that I learned from Karen London (CAAB) called The Watch.

In the above video as well as the two below, I cover some aspects of the Watch technique that I got out of the book that Karen London coauthored. If you have a dog who is dog aggressive or reactive while on the leash, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of Feisty Fido. Not only is it easy to read, the techniques covered are extraordinarily effective.

Just like any other skill, dogs get better at reactivity or aggression the more they practice it. That’s why when you have a dog who has as reactive is Charlie is, avoiding other dogs is advisable until you establish new techniques or exercises to help them adopt a new behavior. You want to practice and master a technique in your home without the presence of any other dogs. Once the dog he has become familiar with the technique in a calm and quiet setting, then Charlie’s guardians will be ready to take the next steps; increasing distractions in the house, then out on walks without other dogs around and then moving to a park where they can encounter dogs, but at a great distance.

I spent a couple of minutes explaining how to conduct the Watch exercise in the presence of other dogs in the video below.

The watch technique is a very effective method of redirecting your dog and teaching it to focus on you and ignore it surroundings. However in the course of learning and developing this technique, Charlie and her handler are almost certainly going to run across dogs they didn’t see coming.

One of the things Karen recommends in her book is to come up with an alternate plan to utilize while practicing the watch technique itself. I detail that Plan B in the video below.

The watch exercise takes time and practice but is not very difficult. The idea is to continue practicing with your dog every day and build up it’s skill set with this technique. With enough practice, it becomes almost automatic for a dog to sit and look up at it’s human anytime it sees an approaching dog rather than reacting to it.

Another great method to get a dog to stop focusing or reacting to dogs that it sees is to practice an exercise called the Reverse Sit.

We moved into the basement to give ourselves a little bit more room so that I could demonstrate this technique and then coach the guardians through it themselves.

Treat delivery speed, deliberate movements and keeping the dog in line in front of the human are very important components to the reverse sit exercise. Just like the watch, it’s not difficult but is going to take time and practice before the dog learns to sit and look at it’s guardians on command.

Charlie’s guardian had arranged for a neighbor to be available with her puppy so that I could see Charlie’s reaction when another dog was nearby. This was a great opportunity to go over some basic leash training. This category of dog training is something many people take for granted but is very important when you have a powerful dog.

At first Charlie was mildly interested in the puppy, but as we got closer the intensity of her reaction increased. I didn’t sense aggression from her during this encounter, almost more of a excited frustration combination. That’s not to say that she can’t transition into aggression which is why its great that the guardians reached out for an in home training session when they did.

I spent a couple of minutes using various techniques to help Charlie settle down and then eventually got the dogs together. Because I wanted to avoid Charlie’s “territory” we used a neighbors backyard to give the dogs and opportunity to play and run around once they had gotten a chance to meet each other civilly.

The play date went off without a hitch until Charlie’s guardian inquired as to whether she may be reactive if the guardian were to pet the other dog. It’s a good thing the guardian mentioned this as Charlie did show some reactivity in a protective manner when she started to pet the other dog.

Earlier in the session I had suggested number of rules for Charlie’s guardians to incorporate. I also went over a positive reinforcement technique that I like to call Petting with a purpose. Both of these will help Charlie start to identify as being more of a follower if the guardians get into a habit of enforcing the new rules immediately and only petting the dog when she does something for them first.

For many of my clients, adjusting the dog’s mindset into a followers position stops or eliminates their possessive or protective behaviors. Because Charlie was able to play with the other dog without incident until the guardian started to pet the other dog, I’m optimistic that that will be the case here. If not,  I asked Charlie’s guardians to follow up with me so that we could set up an additional session to focus on eliminating any possessive or protective instinct the dog is engaging in on her own.

By the end of the session, Charlie was showing more respect for people’s personal space, was following her guardian’s commands and corrections a little bit quicker and seemed pretty calm.

It’s going to be very important for the members of the family to practice the watch and reverse sit exercises every day until the dog is proficient in them. Because both of these exercises are very simple and you should only practice each one for a couple minutes at a time, it’s just going to take some orchestration and organization by the guardians to find a few minutes every day to work on them with her. But since they are dedicated to eliminating these problems and both techniques are so easy, Im very optimistic that Charlie’s days of dog reactivity will quickly come to an end.

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This post was written by: David Codr