Having a reactive dog is therefore a challenge, often the dog’s behavior severely limits our social life. I have a reactive bitch and neither a car nor a driving license, so how do I get from A to B with her? Simply avoiding transportation is not an option, after all, the time will come when we need to go to the vet, visit my parents, or be mobile for some other reason. We almost exclusively use public transport such as bus and train and over the years we have gotten a really good handle on it. So good that I would like to share it, since I’m definitely not the only one who has limited mobility and a reactive dog.
First of all, I understand reactive that the dog barks or even snaps for distance. Both behaviors that hardly meet with public understanding and sometimes lead to the fact that dog owners only travel with such a dog in the most necessary case. However, this is a shame and also counterproductive, since in an emergency we have to get from A to B as stress-free as possible.
What needs to be considered? I have set up a few rules for us that apply to public transport:
- It is my job to keep the dog under control, not to take care of others. Especially when the train or bus is very full, I cannot expect others to look after my dog. That is why I have got used to sitting down or standing with my bitch in such a way that nobody can get to my bitch and neither can my bitch get to anyone. I like two-seater seats (it depends very much on the size of the dog, my medium-sized bitch is perfect for this, if you have a larger dog, the possibilities are very limited again). I always put my dog down on the wall and sit down so that I sit in the aisle. This way I can guarantee that my dog always has enough space and that I act as a buffer between strangers and my dog. If I have to buy a ticket, I lead my dog diagonally in front of me with a hand target so that she sits between me and the machine. In this way I can ensure that no waiting person gets too close at this unfocused moment.
- Nobody is allowed to touch my bitch or my bitch to sniff anyone. Admittedly, this is sometimes very difficult to guarantee, especially since some people simply did not enjoy a good nursery and simply touch the dog without being asked. But even here it has proven useful that I stand or sit as a buffer between my dog and other people.
- I always have reward material with me. For us, these are cookies, but depending on the dog, it can also be a chew, a treat or what the dog likes otherwise and can serve as a reward in this context. It has to be something that the dog likes and that helps him. Optimally, it is something that can also act as an amplifier (amplifiers are things that, when rewarded, meet the dog’s needs). In public transport, however, this is usually an increase in distance for reactive dogs and this cannot always be guaranteed.
Now that the cornerstones for a training have been laid, the question arises how we can successfully set up the training. First of all, if we have a reactive dog, it must be adequately secured. Some public transport systems require a muzzle for dogs of a certain size anyway.
A muzzle is basically not a bad thing. If we have a reactive dog, the muzzle is actually part of the standard equipment and should also be trained carefully. If he is not and the dog thinks the muzzle is stupid, this can have a massive impact on our training with him.
Harness and leash
The leash is always mandatory in public transport. In my opinion, the leash always belongs to well-fitting harnesses, especially in reactive dogs. The risk of injury in the neck area if the dog jumps on the leash is simply too great if the dog is led on the collar. I also taught my dog the harness handle as a break signal. I also guide them in very narrow and densely populated areas by holding them by the dishes. I practiced that with her so that it is not uncomfortable for her. If we e.g. go down a flight of stairs where all the passengers want to go, then I lead them by holding them by the dishes, right behind me down the stairs. She knows that this makes her safe and I make sure that nobody gets close to her. If I have a dog for whom the crowds are fundamentally too difficult, I can also wait until most people have passed the stairs.
What gets my dog upset?
If I want to travel in public transport with my reactive dog, I have to know him well. I need to know what is driving him mad or what triggers his reactive behavior. Only then can I act early and prevent my dog from reacting. Prevention means that I manage such situations so that they do not occur. So if I know that my dog doesn’t like the fact that someone is staring at him, it is my job to prevent someone from staring at him. Either by making people aware that this bothers my dog or, what I find the more pleasant variant, by placing my dog in such a way that nobody can stare at it directly. That’s why I taught my dog to sit or lie down exactly where I lead her. It has proven very useful for us that it lies under my legs. If someone looks at her very intensely anyway, I reward my bitch permanently for being calm and staying. You have to feel the right reward frequency, depending on the dog I need a higher or lower frequency. Basically, it’s better to reward too much than not enough.
Steering the dog
In public transport, it is extremely important that I can control my dog quickly and easily, without having to drag him around. It is helpful if I teach the dog to follow my hand. I can also lure with cookies on the train, but that poses problems for me as soon as I don’t have any cookies with me. That is why a clean handtouch is really very helpful.
Basic obedience is something that I don’t like to do so much. However, basic obedience is very important in public transport. First of all, it shows other passengers that I have my dog under control. Regardless of whether you like it or not, there is still the public image of the barrack-obedient dog and if my dog does not meet this ideal, I have the problem that some people think they should now give training tips without being asked . This is of course suboptimal, especially for reactive dogs. My bitch, for example, finds it rather unpleasant when we are approached by strangers. That’s why I try to give as little target as possible. Basic obedience helps a lot, also because it makes me feel better, because otherwise my dog is out of line due to his behavior. And with reactive dogs, everything that gives us security is helpful and useful. For us, basic obedience does not mean that I constantly give them signals. It is more the case that we make fun of smaller basic obedience exercises on the platform and I thereby keep their attention with me. I make sure that I expect things from her that do not frustrate them or that would require too much impulse control. Impulse control is particularly important when it comes to strangers. But through small exercises, she learns that the train station context is quite fun.
This is something that can always be captured and rewarded with every dog. Voluntary reorientation always makes sense; if the dog looks at me on its own, I have its attention. With regard to reactive behavior in particular, it makes sense to keep an eye on your dog’s attention. Is he staring at someone? Then it is high time for me to build distance and change location. For me, the voluntary reorientation is always a sign of how responsive my bitch is. When rewarding this behavior, however, I have to make sure that I do not reward that the dog is staring at me continuously, but that he looks at other passengers and then looks at me again. She should deal with her surroundings, but always contact me. In this way she learns that it is fun to use public transport and to get feedback from me about her surroundings.
The resting target
I don’t work with it, but it helps a lot of dogs to train with them on a blanket. This blanket works as a signal that the dog should and can relax on it. It is set up at home and the dog learns independently that this target has a certain meaning. As a handy blanket, this target can simply be taken along and made available to the dog if required.
Structure of the training
Basically, all training parts are first assembled at home and then carefully with increasing distraction. When we train with a reactive dog, we always have to keep an eye on his impulse control. If we start training with such a dog, each session is difficult and the dog needs time to recharge his impulse control.
It is therefore advisable to always include a day off after a training day. So a day when nothing is done except for short rounds of piping. I pay close attention to my impulse control for my dog because it is important that she always has impulse control on public transport. For us, however, that means that on days when she has to go with me, we have no other program. Basically, training for public transport must always be built up in small steps. The rule is: Bus is always heavier than train. If my dog already has difficulties getting in, then I just practice this part first.
If my dog is already afraid of the incoming train or bus, I first practice that the bus or train is something nice. On the bus it helps if the dog lies down. If necessary, I kneel down and hold it so that it doesn’t slide around too much if we can’t find a two-seater seat. For the first bus or train ride, I should limit myself to one station. I choose the trip so that it is as empty as possible and other stimuli are reduced as much as possible. If my dog can master it, I can extend the time span and finally the frequency of use by other people.
How do I deal with setbacks?
Basically, it is important to manage everything in such a way that my dog does not have to trigger. Because every behavior shown is consolidated when it is shown. The goal would therefore be to always choose the level of difficulty so that the dog does not have to trigger.
But that is much easier said than done in public. There are always situations in which people will consciously or unconsciously fall short of our individual distance. If the dog shows reactive behavior, you should not be discouraged. Apologize to the other person, keep your dog at a distance, straighten the crown and, if possible, stand for 5 minutes in a quiet corner so that the whole training can be concluded with a positive feeling and then cancel for the session.
Please never scold or punish the dog, that will throw you back in training. If we are not good at talking to our dog right now, we’d rather walk away without comment. It would be better to be so self-reflective that we ourselves notice that we are not in a good mood today and just let the training be.
It is important that we do not hold the other person responsible for the behavior of our dog. There are simply insensitive idiots, we cannot change that. But we can improve our management. I can now judge other people quite well and generally keep a distance from strange or drunk people. Anyone who walks past us is marked. Our training now works so well that dog sitters from my dog can ride with her on public transport.
It’s not an easy path, but it’s worth it. Despite the lack of a car, we are very mobile and can ride in very busy modes of transport. It always happens that we are asked how good she is. In the meantime you can do this without being blown on by Madame 😁