In the world of changing behaviour in an ethical manner, things work more efficiently if the chances of things going wrong are minimised, whilst the chances of things going right are maximised.
For example, in socially-mediated reactivity (dog-to-dog/dog-to-human), it can often be so exciting for pet parents to be finally involved in the rehabilitation of their dog, putting into practice the skills they are learning, wanting to find as many opportunities as possible for their dog to use their new found skills to a certain level, outside sessions, and of course getting the most value out of the cost of therapy, that often pet parents lose sight on what is important in getting to the end goal and they could push their dogs too fast, too soon and make the process backslide.
Let's call bouts of reactivity 'blow ups' for ease of writing. The need to avoid blow ups and why should have been covered in any good commencement of therapy. So assuming that pet parents understand this, here are some things to consider, as a reminder:
1. Rehabilitation is about successfully reaching stages that are carefully controlled and orchestrated towards an end goal. The dog goes at his own pace, not the human's, but we aim to successful facilitate it.
2. Outside of therapy sessions, blow ups in real life can be hard to avoid, but avoid we must. This is imperative because all the good work done in controlled sessions is going to be undone by that one visiting dog you think or hope your dog is going to be ok with, or that one stranger's hand you think or hope your dog is going to be ok with, reaching down to him, which then results in a blow up. Blow ups set dogs back and can put you in a bad mood. If you have the knowledge to orchestrate a successful outcome in a real life situation, and you know your dog's skill level with what he can handle or enjoy, don't leave it to chance that pushing it that little bit further will be ok. Make it easier on both of you and make a judgement call and decision on what you are going do in the impending situation. Create a successful outcome! Become an expert at watching your dog's body language, use the skills you have learnt at easier levels to engineer a good learning opportunity, put into practice the skills to get out of sticky situations you have been teaching your dog, carry and use great food rewards at all times, and find in yourself lots of calmness and confidence. Act if you need to. Acting calm and confident begets calm and confident.
3. A difficult-to-hear message and one which is mentioned quite a lot in the world of modern behaviour change is this: If it goes wrong, rather than berate the dog for a situation in which he found himself out of depth, berate yourself. Clearly, new starters need to know what to do to help their dog and it's impossible to be perfect and life happens, but if you take it upon yourself to help your dog as best you know how, judge distances, make quick decisions, and your dog is responsive, you know you are on the right track and doing well. If you say to your behaviour counsellor at the start of week 2, my dog had two blow ups last week. And at the start of week 3, he had one and at the start of week 4, none, you know you are doing something right, whether that is because of avoiding situations at the moment or creating good outcomes from being on the ball. It doesn't matter which, but it's good news.
4. In between therapy sessions, if you're not sure you can control the environment or your dog is not knowledgeable or responsive enough to make a good choice and have a good learning experience, don't do it. Do something else instead that doesn't involve other dogs or people (if those are your dog's triggers). Go and do something alone with your dog, some relationship-building or self control fun stuff instead. It doesn't matter and it's all good. There is no need to rush, even though human nature wants to see improvements and quickly. One single good, strong and successful learning experience is worth so much more than four mediocre or bad ones that resulted in the dog practising the unwanted behaviour and the dog getting stressed - and you as well probably.
Throughout the process, you'll see that going slowly and being proactive in controlling and engineering real life, but at the same time, realising when too much is too much, brings about improvements in your dog, over time. So subtle and steady the changes can be, you may even begin to forget how reactive your dog could be at the start of the process and how far you both have come.
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