It’s All About the Energy!

Well hello there! It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to write. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been lounging on the beach all summer long with a margarita in my hand, but that’s not quite the case. I’ve been busy spending my summer days with dogs (which in my opinion, is even better than the beach!)

Ah, but I’ve finally found a moment or two! As usual, just when I think I know as much as I can about dogs, the wonderful pups that I work with have taught me even more. And of course, my favorite thing to do is share what I’ve learned.

If you’ve got a dog and if you watch TV, then I’m sure you’ve watched an episode or two (or a lot!) of Cesar Millan’s The Dog Whisperer. And if that’s the case, you’ve heard of his famous suggestion to portray “calm, assertive energy” while working with a dog. And yes, he’s completely right. A calm, assertive energy is going to help you handle your dog better.

However, that doesn’t just apply to people. Our dogs are surrounded by other dogs. There’s the neighbor’s dog, the dog that you run into at the park, or the dog that you pass on the street. In the Andovers, they’re everywhere! But not all of them are taking Cesar Millan’s advice to stay “calm and assertive.”

This became quite clear to me when our other dog trainer, Amy, and I recently worked with a Golden Retriever named Duncan. Prior to his next training session, his mom had emailed me saying that though his training has been nothing short of astounding, he’s still very reactive around other dogs; lunging at the leash and barking if they pass another dog on their walk. The embarrassment and frustration had gone on long enough; she was ready to tackle the issue.

So next time we met up, I brought along my two dogs, Elsa and Reese. Amy stayed with Duncan and his mom, while I drove down the street to prepare my dogs to walk past them as they went for a walk. I started with my older girl, Elsa.

Now, as a side note – Elsa is perfect. Ok, I’m bias. Perhaps she’s just a well-behaved snob. See, Elsa could care less about other dogs. She’s been around them her entire life, attends daily dog walks and training sessions with me, and has more friends than I could ever imagine having. So quite frankly, a new dog means nothing to her. In addition to that, she’s extremely obedient. And for those reasons, Elsa barely blinks an eye if we walk past another dog.

So as Duncan came towards us, Elsa and I walked by. Elsa kept walking, and Duncan kept walking. And not a thing happened.

You’d think Duncan’s mom would be happy about the turn out, but she was not at all! Her dog had just made a liar of her! She had gone on and on about how bad he reacts to other dogs, and then Duncan walks right past Elsa as if it’s nothing. So I suggested a twist. I’d bring out Reese.

Now, about Reese. Reese is a social butterfly and absolutely loves to have fun. However, just like Elsa, she’s very obedient. So we could have easily walked past Duncan without a hitch. But we were there to tackle Duncan’s problem, so that’s not what we did. It doesn’t take much to get Reese to play, so play we did! She leaped and jumped and barked as I egged her on. She had a blast! And Duncan totally wanted in. So the lunging and barking began.

See, Reese wasn’t expressing the calm, assertive energy that Elsa was. Elsa was boring. But Reese was exciting and playful and quite frankly, a bit out of control at times. So Duncan reacted by pulling and barking, his go-to behavior when he walks past another dog with unstable energy. And because we were in a controlled situation, Amy was able to coach his mom on how to get Duncan to stop the bad behavior. By the end of our session, Reese was exhausted, and Duncan was comfortably walking past her distracting behavior.

So how does this relate to your dog? Well, it means you’ve got to give him some credit! I hear it all the time, “my dog is fine around most dogs, but he hates the neighbor’s dog.” That’s because that particular dog isn’t expressing the right energy and your dog is feeding off of it.

Now of course, there’s sometimes more to it than just the other dog. Many of our dogs are conditioned to react to all dogs, no matter what their energy, because we allow them to. That’s why I’ve literally taught my dogs to be snobs. (To learn how to do that, read Why My Dogs Are Snobs.) It could also simply be a matter of a lack of socialization. And you have to remember that if your dog is reacting inappropriately to another dog, it’s not just the other dog exuding the unstable energy – it’s your dog too.

I told you Elsa is a snob. However, she will make friends and play with a pup who approaches her correctly. But if there’s a dog lunging at the leash, she just turns and walks the other way. Fortunately, she’s learned to disregard such distractions, but not all dogs have. And it’s not easy, so give your dog a break. I can assure you that your neighbor’s dog who he absolutely hates is totally egging him on!

So how can you teach your dog to react better to other dogs, especially those who are not exuding the right energy?

  • Start by staying calm and assertive yourself. If you see another dog coming, don’t tense up and tighten on the leash. Your dog is going to sense your energy and get tense himself!
  • Keep treats on you. When you see another dog in the distance, start getting your pup’s attention by saying his name, and then giving him a treat. Teach him that when there are distractions, you have something that’s even better – food!
  • Avoid the problem dogs. If you see your dog’s nemesis approaching, turn around. Don’t set your dog up for failure; begin by walking past only the dogs who are exuding the right energy and work your way up to more difficult dogs.
  • Plan some play dates. Talk to some friends who have well socialized dogs and arrange for your pups to play. Start by walking as a group with your dogs on a leash, and then reward their good behavior by allowing them to play.
  • Teach your dog to be a snob. Don’t let your dog say hello and meet every dog you pass, because he’s going to begin to anticipate it and pull towards every dog. Teach him that he only says hello once in a while, and it’s only if he’s behaving well.
  • Avoid having your dog face the other dog and make eye contact. That position is confrontational to dogs. Unless the dogs are already friends, they should meet by approaching each other to the side and without much eye contact. If you allow your dog to face forward, you’re setting him up to appear threatening to the other dog.
  • Work with a dog trainer. If you can’t seem to get your dog under control no matter what you do, try getting professional help. A trainer will not only show you how to properly control your dog in those situations, but can also teach your dog how to react correctly to other dogs.
  • And most importantly – keep things positive and have fun! When your dog passes another dog without reacting, that’s a BIG deal! Let him know how happy you are by lavishing him with praise. Just as much as you want to understand your dog, you want him to understand you – so let him know that you’re most happy when he’s well behaved!