Handling Reactivity in the Car
LOTS of dogs bark in the car at pedestrians, motor bikes, cyclists and other dogs – in fact this is one of the most common complaints from dog owners - even dogs that are extremely well-socialised and pleasant on walks, can do a good Tasmanian Devil impersonation in the car!
Dogs may bark due to excitement, frustration or even defensiveness. Most dogs go in the car on their way to walks and are usually very excited by the whole activity, so are more aroused than usual. Dogs can also feel frustrated when they see a person or dog that they would ordinarily like to approach and investigate, but they can’t because of being trapped inside the car. This frustration at not being able to engage in normal behaviour or get to an anticipated reward (interaction with the person or dog) can tip over into “anger” and an explosion of reactivity. Other dogs regard the car as an extension of their home and may bark to warn people or dogs off in the same way that they would on the other side of the fence at home.
So how can we improve matters and reduce reactivity in this scenario? As most of you know, I have two Rottweilers. Rottweilers were selected as “guardian” type dogs and so the inclination to keep strangers away from their “domain” is usually very strong. Generally, if you put a Rottweiler on one side of a fence, they will put on such a good show that no one in their right mind will try to come near that property! While my dogs are extremely well-socialised (as soon as we let anyone in the gate, they want to be best friends with them), they are no exception when it comes to roaring, throwing themselves at the fence and generally looking pretty terrifying when someone passes by. This enthusiasm for doing the job they were bred to do does tend to extend to being in the car and coupled with the excitement of walks, things can get rather out of hand. This is how I dealt with this problem and made car trips pleasant once again:
1. Every time I saw that I was about to drive past a person, dog or whatever might induce an explosion of barking (from now on called “a trigger”), I would throw a handful of treats into the back seat. The key here is to dispense the food WELL BEFORE you pass the trigger and to ensure that there is enough to last until the trigger is far enough behind you to elicit no response. To do this you have to have a good supply of treats readily available and easily accessible. At this stage, this was not much more than a distraction, but it avoided the response that I did not want, so was the first step in the right direction.
2. Once I had the mechanics of the process sorted out to prevent the unwanted response, I started working on trying to make things a little more sophisticated and actually conditioning a different response than barking and losing the plot. As soon as I spotted a trigger, I would start chatting in a happy voice: “There’s a person, good dogs!” or “Look at that dog! You’re such clever dogs!” while I reached for the treats and got ready to toss them into the back seat. It wasn’t so much what I said, but the happy, jolly tone of voice that I wanted Rosie and Cruz to associate with the sight of a trigger and to become the predictor of treats.
3. Using the “jolly routine” became associated with the food coming next and started to give me the opportunity to delay the arrival of the treats a little. Over time, I was able to chat to the dogs the whole way through passing someone (if it happened unexpectedly) before actually delivering the food. We have gotten to a point where they will happily sit and wait while we pass the trigger - with me chatting to them and telling them how absolutely marvellous they are – and I can just give them one treat each at the end of the process. What started out as a counter-conditioning process (associating passing someone with happy voice and lots of treats instead of defensive or frustrated feelings) has now I suppose developed into an operantly trained behaviour: chatting sweetly is a cue to wait quietly for a food reward. This really has worked extremely well and I no longer have to brace myself for an explosion when seeing a trigger! The worst we get is a bit of happy squeaking from Cruz, whose enthusiasm for wanting to love everyone does tend to brim over on occasion!
While this process did take time and consistency (many weeks of NEVER neglecting the protocol), it really was not a hassle and has achieved results I am very happy with. After all, if the dogs are with me in the car it means that I am either going for a walk or to training, so I always have treats with me anyway (yes, I ALWAYS take treats on EVERY walk to reinforce behaviour that I like – dogs NEVER stop learning), so making them accessible in the car is really not hard to do. We do now tend to have a fair amount of drool spontaneously occurring at the sight of people and dogs, but that actually is just evidence that conditioning has taken place, so it is a good thing! What’s a bit of drool when the pay-off is a quiet and peaceful car trip!?