A couple of years ago, my life changed in some ways, so I really began to look into agility with my border collie, Domino. That is how I found Low Country Dog Agility club. I signed up for the Intro to Agility and loved it, but I also saw a new side to Domino. This new “attitude” of his was something I was totally unprepared for. I knew nothing about this type of reactive behavior. I didn’t understand how the stress of the class/competitive situation affected him and was left with few ideas as to how I should handle it. I received lots of comments, ideas, and suggestions, but the break through for me was the fact that I had to gain knowledge and change with my dog. This was something, I found hard to accept as my dog’s behavior in previous obedience classes or out and about town were very normal and passive.
My first mistake was I kept putting Domino into situations that we as a team could not handle. I had to identify the trigger point and determine what “set him off.” I kept a better watch and started to note what situations made Domino react. It is not easy to determine and even harder to avoid trigger points if you don’t know what they are. Domino’s barking and lunging was his reaction to some as-yet unknown trigger point. Some dogs react by nudging or biting/nipping the handler or just turning away. Domino's barking and lunging became a bad habit that, just like smoking or nail biting, turned into a hard-to-break behavior. Dogs often exhibit these to get their handler's attention. As a handler, it fails the dog to not respond to his trigger points and subsequent behavior, and find an effective way to deal with the stress and change the behavior.
My first and probably best suggestion for addressing a negative reaction to a trigger: Step away, take a break, and stop exposing the dog to the situations he can’t deal with until you are able to identify the “trigger point.” Once the trigger is identified, then it has to be addressed. In our case, classes and being around such a variety of dogs and their different behaviors were Domino's triggers.
Second suggestion: consult an expert who deals with reactive behaviors. These individuals are neutral observers and offer great advice and specific techniques for you and your dog to work out better responses to the trigger situation. I found there is a huge difference between individuals who are training obedience skills and individuals who are modifying behavior. Although, both are great in their respective fields, I have found the two approach dogs’ behavior with a little different insight as to the character of dogs.
Finally, I have learned that mankind has created breeds of dogs that are very focused on their environment. Border Collies tend to fall into this category, along with most herding and working type breeds. But with that being said, any dog can be reactive and as an owner/handler we must address the situation with each dog individually and not make a generalization that any dog who exhibits an over the top behavior is labeled aggressive. Aggression is too broad of a term. Likewise, not every dog should be labeled reactive. Look at your dog, define the situation where the behavior happened, and then work with the dog to avoid the situation again by addressing the behavior before the reaction turns into a bad habit. Also remember, like with any bad habit, even though the behavior may become repressed or not as prevalent, one must continue to work with your dog daily and continually to ensure the behavior doesn't reemerge.
Many of you have probably read about the yellow ribbon idea regarding dogs: A yellow ribbon on a leash serves as an indicator that this dog needs some space. It could mean the dog is reactive, has health issues, is fearful, or in-training. I suggest this idea and hope everyone learns to respect dogs with yellow ribbons. Unfortunately, it is not something well known outside of the dog world, so help spread the word.
Sue Tetanich and Domino