Reactive Dogs

Techniques for Over-Arousal and Reactivity

Dogs do what dogs do – they bark, chase, dig and bite – many things humans really don’t like.  Simply stopping behaviour or using punishment in an effort to suppress it is not effective, humane or fair.  

Spring is here and summer is coming.  The days are getting warmer and longer. It’s that time of year when we begin to come out of our winter hibernation and start spending more time outdoors.

At my house, that means that we need to do some refresher dog training. Left to his own devices, my dog, Jack, would love to chase and bark at the squirrels and diligently monitor the comings and goings of any neighbors he can see through our fence lines or hear in the street out front.  So, for a couple of weeks at this time of year, my dog goes into spring training!

Until now, except for quick forays into the yard and hikes in the woods, Jack has been huddled inside avoiding the rain and cold all winter.  Now there’s stuff going on and he wants to be part of it and bask in the sun and the warmth! All of us humans are also looking forward to spending more time outside.  Any of us with dogs would much prefer that time to be spent peacefully, with our 4-legged buddies joining us in yard-work, play or just relaxing on the deck in the sun.

Our yard adjoins 4 others by our fence and all of them have children in their homes.  While Jack is used to most of the neighbors, the children are now another year older and yard activities tend to change from year to year.  Sometimes, an inflatable pool goes in, or faces start popping over the fence on a new trampoline or a particular yard becomes play central for the neighborhood, regularly hosting many loud and active kids.  

In addition to our usual spring refresher training, we also have new neighbors next door. They moved in just before last Christmas, but we haven’t seen much of each other through the winter months.  Now that it’s warmer and sunnier, things will change!

Whatever the situation, I try and be as proactive as I can and begin training in the early spring while kids are still in school and before summer activities get into full swing.  

First up – Squirrels.   Squirrels are major source of irritation to Jack!  My working theory is that, in the past, the squirrels have inadvertently beaned him on the head with nuts from one of the 2 nut trees in our yard and he’s holding a grudge.  Either that or our previous dog, Quincy, passed along her own extreme dislike of squirrels and he’s just carrying on her “work”. Regardless, it’s a problem for him each spring and it’s a great way to get my training underway.

Initial squirrel training starts in the house.  Trees surround us and the entire back of our house is made up of windows too large to have window coverings, so Jack can see the squirrels from almost any position in our house - yikes! Once they first appear, he’s on constant daily alert, scanning the treetops for any squirrel activity.  Once spotted, be begins barking madly at them, running from window to window as they them jump from tree to tree.

We’ve lived in our house many years and have had many dogs – all of whom have objected to the squirrels on some level.  I have experimented with various training plans with different dogs – teaching them to stop barking, re-directing them onto other activities, teaching them to ignore the squirrels, etc.  Really it depends on the level of arousal the squirrels seemed to trigger in each dog.

Jack and our previous Doberman, Quincy, share the most extreme dislike of the squirrels – far more than any of our previous dogs. Jack is also probably the best trained dog we’ve had, so I wanted to come up with a good training plan that would challenge us both while still keeping it fun.

I decided that teaching him to have some self-control and re-direct himself onto other activities would be a good choice for our training.

As a puppy, Jack was very mouthy and very bitey.  When we first adopted him at 10 weeks old, there was absolutely no hint of the cuddly Doberman couch potato he would become in his adulthood – he was all mouth and teeth!

What followed was many, many months of re-directing puppy mouthing and biting onto toys and building his skill at games of tug.  Because of our early training, it took very little additional training to teach him a cue to “get your toy”. He also tends re-direct his attention to his toys in moments of excitement. He loves his stuffed toys and he is happy to carry them around in his mouth.

When we come home, he will often run and grab a toy to greet us with.  If we get a visitor, he will do the same thing. I love this choice he makes!  His go-to behaviour used to be charging through people’s legs as a greeting, which made for some interesting moments being as tall and as big as he is!  Instead, he has developed the ability to maintain some self-control and make thoughtful choices – Yay!

So my squirrel training plan: redirect him to more appropriate activities like his toys, help him build his self control around squirrels and hopefully make the appearance of squirrels into an environmental cue to grab a toy instead.  Fingers crossed!

Squirrel Training – Inside the House:

Important Note: any good behaviour modification plan involves management at a minimum. When I can’t be training with Jack, it’s really important to be able to block off his view of the squirrels as much as possible so he’s not practicing behaviour when I’m not available to train or re-direct him.  If this doesn’t happen, the process of changing his behaviour will take a really long time and it may not change at all.

It’s really hard to do in our house and I’m not always successful – squirrels are not cooperative beings – but we do our best to have Jack elsewhere in the house or otherwise occupied when we’re not training or able to re-direct his energy.


Initial Steps:

  1. First I want to try and get his arousal level down a little bit and begin the process of helping him feel less distressed about the squirrels:

    Doing some Nosework with him or giving Jack some challenging treat dispensing toys early or mid-morning before I think the squirrels might get going seems to do the trick.  
    I find that any mental activity just helps give him more focus and self control and helps the training to follow.

  2. During the times of day that squirrels are likely to be jumping around outside, I’m ready to go – I’ve got lots of really good treats on hand and I’m hanging out with Jack inside the house. 

  3. As soon as he spots a squirrel or even just starts scanning the treetops outside the window, I begin training. 

  4. I start working with him as soon as I can without waiting for the full behaviour of barking and racing around.  If I wait until he’s started barking and running around, he sometimes doesn’t register my marker in the first few days of training.  My goal with this is to prevent the full behaviour from actually occurring at all if I can work quickly and keep him below threshold.

I’m not always successful with this, but the more training we do the better we get as a team.  Every year the training is easier and the refresher session takes less and less time as Jack learns to generalize things from year to year.


The Training Steps:

  1. Jack alerts to a squirrel (usually he quickly swings around and stares intently);

  2. I mark that moment (sometimes with a clicker sometimes with a verbal marker) and follow with a treat;

  3. We keep doing this until either the squirrel disappears or Jack forgets the squirrel and focuses on trying to get me to pay out his roast beef even faster;

  4. If he’s temporarily forgotten the squirrel and focused on me but the squirrel  is still present, then we either play some games together or he gets a challenging treat dispenser, beef chew or raw bone to reward his efforts and to keep his attention re-directed away from the squirrels;

  5. If the squirrel is no longer present, then we simply wait for another opportunity to do more training – no squirrel means that the “roast beef rain” stops;

  6. I keep doing this training sequence until he has started to display less agitation when they appear and he quite quickly redirects his focus onto me.  Then I can begin the process of redirecting him onto his toys.


My goal is to work toward him spotting a squirrel and then redirecting his focus to me before I even have a chance to mark and treat – ideally with little or no barking and running around first.  

At this point, I can think about stopping the marking and treating and instead cue him to grab a toy and maybe engage him in a game of tug or fetch.  Initially, I may have to revert back to marking and treating from time to time when he can’t respond to his cue to grab a toy – indicating his arousal level is too high and he just isn’t able to comply.

Ultimately, with enough practice, I will be able to use less treats and he will begin to grab a toy and initiate some play without a cue from me.  This step is where we are when visitors come over, so fingers crossed that skill will be an easy transition for him even though the emotion behind the squirrel angst is far different than the joy he displays when visitors arrive!

The ultimate goal is to have him see squirrels, think about and maybe even grab a toy but if no one is home to play with, he will either busy himself with a treat dispensing toy or just go back to sleep.  We always provide him with treat dispensing toys when we’re out, and he has a basket of chew toys that are always available to him. In other words, he always has things he can busy himself with on his own when he needs or wants a re-direction.


Squirrel Training – Outside The House:

Working with Jack outside is surprisingly easier than inside the house.  I think that because he isn’t directly eye level with the squirrels he may get less worked up about them. He’s not saying, so we’ll never know for sure, but I’m grateful that the training is at least easier on some level!

Outside, I can make use of his well-trained cues like his Recall and Stop cues (see my article in the June/July 2017 issue for training the Stop cue).  By using one of his cues every time he starts running for and/or barking at the squirrels, he turns on his heel and comes back to me. Not only am I controlling his behaviour, but I’m also creating a nice squirrel association because responding to his cues gets him treats or some play.  

What tends to happen is that after a few runs at the squirrel tree, he calms down and focuses on whatever else we’ve got going on in the yard.  We often work on Nosework or Agility, play fetch or work with his flirt pole in the yard and he loves all of those activities with great intensity.  He will leave the squirrels alone fairly quickly when he has those options to pick from. Over time, we can cue him to Stop and he is content to leave the squirrels alone quickly and just nose around the yard while we do yard work, or relax on the deck.

As with the training inside the house, management is important. I need to be in the yard with Jack for the first little while in those early spring days. Depending on squirrel activity this can take anywhere from a few days or a couple of weeks before he starts to settle down and largely ignore them.  It’s the same every spring. He’s a high drive, active dog and does everything with great intensity. Because the squirrels seem to leave us alone for several months during winter, it’s like a whole new game each spring and he gives it his all!

Once he starts responding to the training and is able to be in the yard with us calmly, I no longer need to be out with him all the time.  He will still bark at the squirrels when he’s alone in the yard at times, but he will easily respond to his Recall or Stop cues and come in the house.  He gets daily hikes and lots of fun training, and rarely spends alone time in the yard. Occasionally I’ll toss out treats for him to find or give him a bone in the yard, but he would generally prefer to be where we are once his business is done and the squirrels aren’t on his radar!

I am pretty sure, however, that if we had the habit of leaving him alone in the yard for long periods of time all our careful training would disappear.  I’m not a fan of leaving dogs in yards without supervision for long periods of time. We simply cannot expect dogs to ignore their natural instincts and always “behave”.  Reasonable and fair choices need to be made by the humans in the equation! None of our previous dogs have ever wanted to be alone in the yard for very long – they would much rather be with us.


Neighbour Training.

As I mentioned above not only do we have new neighbors this year but we also have a dog who is very alert to any human activity in the yards around us once the warmth of spring and summer materializes. How dare they start doing yard work and spending time in their yards on his watch?  Jack’s breed is a guarding one and you can’t get away from genetics!

It doesn’t help that our house is taller than any of our neighbors’, which means Jack can see into everyone’s yards from our top deck.  Even worse, our back door looks directly onto our new neighbors’ back door – who thought that was a good design choice?! If we didn’t manage things, Jack would like nothing better than to just stand on our deck staring intently at our neighbors’ house waiting for someone to come out so he can bark at them.  Wouldn’t that be fun if you were our neighbor?!

Management is key here.  When we’re spending time on our deck, we have a gate that we installed that blocks the view of their house when it’s closed.  Then we can all relax on the deck. He will bark at times if people are out next door and making some noise, but he will easily stop barking if asked and quit reacting reasonably quickly if the yard noises continue.

When we let Jack out to do his business, we ensure he goes out and all the way down the stairs into the yard so he can’t just hang out staring at their back door.  Same thing when he comes back up from the yard, we let him in promptly instead of leaving him out to start the staring game.

Training Steps:

The training on the deck or in the yard is exactly the same as it is for squirrel training in the house:  Mark and treat any alert look toward the sight or sound of any neighbor activity.

People are generally less erratic than squirrels so this training tends to go pretty quickly.  Before too many sessions, Jack begins to get used to having people coming and going in their yards.

It’s not long before he is able to easily respond to a well-trained “Stop” cue or “Get Your Toy”, and it’s not much longer again before he simply ignores most activity around him during time spent outside.

To keep his training in place throughout the summer, we use scenting games and other mentally stimulating activities when we’re all in the yard.  These activities are a must for a busy young dog like Jack. Not only are you creating great associations – noisy neighbors mean better stuff for you outside – you’re also tiring out your dog in a really beneficial way which makes it easier for him to calm down and relax.

Like the squirrels, if we simply left him to his own devices, this behaviour would never go away and his frustration would build.  

I’ve certainly met many dogs where frustration has turned into aggression – being proactive is critical.  

Dogs do what dogs do – they bark, chase, dig and bite – many things humans really don’t like.  Simply stopping behaviour or using punishment in an effort to suppress it is not effective, humane or fair.  Using thoughtful training and consistency is key and it’s the only effective solution.

Management helps your dog stay under threshold, and training is the only thing that will help him understand what you would like him to do in all the circumstances that are concerning to you. I would love to hear some stories of your training struggles and the positive training solutions you’ve used to solve some problem behaviour!