Unexpected events can throw our training plans for a loop. Here’s some ways to deal with the unexpected.

For those of us who live with reactive dogs, the simple act of taking a neighborhood walk might actually be a nerve-wracking event. Picture it: You’ve got your treat pouch all filled up with high-value treats. Poop bags accessible. Phone in your pocket. Your dog or dogs have their walking equipment on, which might include harnesses, head halters, and muzzles. Management Plan: Check! You’re ready to dart behind parked cars and into alleyways should you encounter any triggers. Behavior modification and training plan: Ready! You’re going to work through triggers at the distance your dog can handle, where they can notice their triggers but remain relatively calm. You’re ready to click and treat every time they look, cue their u-turn, ask for their favorite tricks, and fall back on management if you need to do so. You are as ready as you can be. 

And then……


Your brilliant plan and all your careful preparation fall apart because, well, life happens, and sometimes that means there is a scenario you didn’t plan for – and couldn’t plan for. It happens to all of us. Someone drops a leash, and their dog comes charging towards your dog. You round a corner, and someone is jogging towards you and has zero dog etiquette and no awareness that your muzzled dog might be scared if they come too close. A trash can gets knocked over, school gets out and children come running, a fire engine goes by with sirens blaring. You’re ready to train and you’re ready to manage. But you’re not ready for these random surprises to get in your way. What’s a dog owner to do? 

Surprises are always going to be harder for our dogs and harder for us. Here’s some tools you can tuck in your toolbox for the next time you and your dog are faced with the unexpected: 

1. Take a breath: When I took a women’s self-defense class at the University of Oregon (hats off to Nadia Telsey of Breaking Free), I gained an amazing piece of advice I’ve never forgotten. In the case of defending yourself in a dangerous situation, the first thing to do is take a big breath. Then you are able to remember what you know and handle the scenario in front of you. When you’re nervous, you may hold your breath, and you won’t be able to access all your skills and knowledge. The same is true of surprises when out with our dogs. If the unexpected happens, take a breath first. 

2. Practice ahead of time: Making a plan ahead of time and then practicing it, with and without your dog, will help you drill a motor pattern so you can fall back on muscle memory should things go awry. Practice loosening the leash, cueing a u-turn and running away, and spraying your citronella can at an imaginary off-leash dog. Drill stepping in front of your dog and tossing treats towards an imaginary dog too. What are you going to say to a person who comes out of nowhere and tries to pet your pup? Deciding on your reply ahead of time will help you rattle it off quickly and confidently in the moment. 

3. Wait – What are you going to say?! What is that response you’re going to use with people who may not understand your dog needs space? Remember, you don’t have to please others. If someone wants to pet your dog or have their dog meet yours on leash, you are never obligated to go along with their plan. Feel free to use one of these replies:

“Not today, we’re in a hurry.”

“No thanks, we’re in training.”

“My trainer told me not to, so I’ll pass.”

“My dog is sick. We’re heading to the vet.”

“No. Thanks for asking.” 

4. Are surprises detrimental to training? It’s true that in an ideal world, we would control all parameters and keep our dogs under threshold as much as possible until they’re ready for the next step. In case you didn’t know, spoiler alert: We’re not living in an ideal world. So we have to do our best with what we’ve got to work with, including helping our dogs deal with situations they may not be ready for. But just because your dog barks and lunges or becomes scared, that doesn’t mean you’ve undone all those times you were able to help them remain under threshold. Stuff happens. We all have emotions. One bad walk does not negate all your wonderful training efforts. 

5. What calms you? Dog training and behavior modification is not just about your dog, fyi. It’s about you and your dog as a team. So have a plan to help yourself recover when things don’t go as planned. Pour a glass of wine. Take a bubble bath. Head out to the gym or a movie and take a break from your dog. Self-care is paramount when you have a reactive dog. 

6. Want the CliffsNotes version? Here you go:

If an off-leash dog comes charging or a person is too close: 

-Toss treats at the oncoming dog to stop them or toss treats away to help your dog get moving.

-Loosen the leash: Your dog may pick up on leash tension so try not to add this to what’s already happening.

-Speak in a calm, matter of fact voice-to your dog, to the other dog, to the person. You are clear and      confident. 

-Speed walk: Sometimes your dog will follow you if you just get moving. So don’t stop to see what happens even if someone is trying to talk to you. 

-Treat magnet: If your dog needs help, try a treat magnet to the nose. Grab a handful of treats, press them to your dog’s face, and feed until you’re out of the situation. You’re not training at this point, so just help them get out of Dodge. 

-Above all else, deal with your dog first. If someone comes towards you, call your dog and move away. Then speak to the person after you have distance. You and your dog’s safety is the most important thing. 

Did you get this far? Well then we have a SURPRISE for you: If you’re a new client, click here to redeem $10.00 off your Behavior Consultation, using coupon code Surprise:

Returning clients, we’ll honor this $10.00 off a session for you too! Just let us know. 

See? Not ALL surprises are bad!  

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