One of the most difficult practical aspects of working with reactive or aggressive dogs is creating practice scenarios where the client’s dog can be exposed to his triggers in a controlled fashion. Owners often assume we can meet at the dog park, because that is where the dog is having the problem. One of the most basic tenets of our work is that we want to teach the dog to succeed at an acceptable behavior, so dropping him into a situation that may cause him to scream, lunge or bite because of elements outside our control is not good training!
One great way to work is to bring along a “stimulus dog,” sometimes referred to as the “assistant dog” or “decoy.” This is a dog who an assisting handler can walk closer or further from our client’s dog, at a very specific distance. This allows us to influence the client’s dog’s behavior while the assistant dog is close enough to be noticed, but far enough away that the client’s dog can keep his cool and make good choices. This sounds great, but in pragmatic terms, this service is very difficult to provide.
First, where are we going to get a stimulus dog? Many dogs are ill-suited for this work. The client’s dog may bark, growl, stare or lunge, and many dogs we might want to use as stimulus dogs will be threatened or uncomfortable. They may bark or lunge right back, which could trigger the client dog. Or they may hold themselves together but get more and more stressed. Acting as the stimulus dog is very hard work for the dog *and* her handler. We look for a non-reactive dog who has appropriate body language and a resilient temperament; we also need her handler to be someone who can read her dog well and follow split-second directions from the trainer about when to get closer or further away, turn around, stop, and so on. This work takes a great deal of concentration since the handler’s attention must be on the whole time to prevent a lapse that could trigger an outburst by the client’s dog, or could fail to reinforce a really desirable decision by the client’s dog.
Even if we know such a dog and handler team, we must find out if they are available. Of course, most people have work and family obligations and cannot just drop everything to come along for a two hour appointment across town. Further, while someone and her dog may be happy to do this once every month or two, it is tiring and stressful — sometimes, especially for the dog, excessively stressful — to do it more often. Yet we may see multiple clients each *day* who will benefit from this element of the training session.
Why don’t we use our own dogs for this work? Well, we often do. But again, the problem of burnout is significant. Also, not all trainers are lucky enough to live with dogs who are suited for this work. In fact, trainers quite often become the owners of problem dogs themselves, dogs who really are *not* suited for this work; it would be abusive to subject them to it. Another problem is that it is really difficult to handle the assistant dog at the same time one is trying to watch the client’s dog and instruct the client how to observe his dog and respond to his dog’s behavior. We just don’t have enough eyes to do this effectively in most cases.
Of course, we have developed ways of working around some of these practical issues. We may use tethers instead of live humans holding a leash. We may give the client standing instructions about how to respond to their dog’s behavior. We may be able to recruit a handler for our own dog. We might use a stuffed dog for initial sessions in some cases. We may be able to work with dogs on the street in some cases. I teach a class for leash-reactive dogs and these dogs work as the stimulus dogs for each other; this takes careful matching of working pairs, but has generally been successful!
The bottom line is that the two or three hours we spend with the client is not the only cost and effort we expend in helping the client. In addition to time reviewing the intake notes, researching pertinent issues, peer-reviewing tough cases with colleagues, driving to and from, packing supplies, writing reports, and so on… there is also a cost in stress and strain on our dogs, our friends, and our friends’ dogs. On occasion I have had to make a choice: My client’s dog really needs this exposure, and my dog really needs a break. I have gone both ways with this and it can be painful whichever I choose! It is usually worth it to see a client’s dog succeed and learn to make better choices when faced with the strange dog, but sometimes I also have to protect my stimulus dog and that might require some creative problem-solving.
Most clients seem really aware of how hard this work can be for our canine assistants, and that is always a relief for me.