Reactivity: Week 1 – Triggers

After 6 months of trying to go it alone (with lots of help with the community, of course), we decided that we absolutely needed professional help with Knox’s reactivity.

While it hasn’t reached an absurd level of ‘kujo’, there are definitely specific triggers that we’re having a really hard time managing. At times, it felt like it’s one step forward, ten steps back. And as much as I want to throw it to the universe to make everything better, we all know the reality of this situation and how much work is left to be done. With that, we signed up for another round of classes with Shelagh at Dizine Canine: Reactive Dog – Level 1.

Reactive Dog classes are not about making your dog perfect. In fact, there should not be a single trainer that guarantees a perfect dog. Our focus should always be on constant improvement over a long period of time. We accomplish this by consistently identifying the triggers, lowering threshold, and perfecting our technique.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll mention it again and again and again: Reactivity is not aggression. Dogs don’t “just snap” regardless of how many body-language clueless people try to say so.

Our first reactive dog training class asked us to do a few things:

  • Get a solid ‘Leave It’ cue
  • Get a solid ‘Attention’ cue (in Knox’s case, “eyes”)
  • Identify your dog’s triggers
  • Identify your own triggers

Knox has pretty specific triggers, some fear based and some because he is just too excited to meet and ends up going over-threshold trying to get to it:

  • Medium to large dogs that stare hard
  • Schnauzers
  • Intact males
  • Clinking of dog tags (indicator of a dog nearby)
  • Other dogs playing/barking (excitement)
  • Dogs that are out of reach (i.e. when they’re being carried)
  • “Surprise” dogs from an elevator or around a corner
  • Bubba (fear – this dog has bitten him a few times at the dog park)

His reactivity is worse when he’s surprised or interrupted from something: if he’s sniffing the ground and a dog shows up; if the elevator door opens and a dog runs in or is standing right AT the door.

More importantly, we had to notice the non-verbal cues we’re teaching Knox that says “we see a dog”:

  • “Dog up ahead” in a nervous voice
  • Tensing the leash
  • Holding my breath OR accidentally gasping
  • Nervously and quickly grabbing high value treats
  • Only using focus cues when a trigger approaches

As we’ve been actively dealing with Knox’s reactivity for as long as we’ve had him, I’ve been able to maintain a zen (for the most part) when we see a dog or when he reacts. We had two incidents this past week that really highlighted how far we’ve all come with his reactivity, and I’m excited to see his incremental improvement as I get better at handling it. I’m lucky in that Knox has never, ever redirected his reactivity to me or any other human, and while I’m not about to cross that line, it’s good to know there are more techniques at my disposal.

Monday night
Going up in the elevator, a bichon rushes in as the door opens and shuts down the moment it sees Knox. Knox sniffs (low stress), the owner picks his dog up (super high stress), Knox gives us a ‘kujo moment’ scramble, the door closes, and we’re in for the long haul. The elevator gets stops, for what felt like forever, between floors and now we’re stuck.

I’ve now knelt down to block his view, holding his collar to keep him from lunging, and he’s immediately refocused on ‘eyes’ and trying to get food from my hands. Elevator finally moves, dog leaves, and we’re in the clear.

Tuesday morning
As we’re exiting the elevator, the fearful, under-exercised corgi tries to rush into the elevator as Knox is waiting to get out. Knox wags his tail, sniffs, the corgi bares its teeth, and Knox walks away with me, staring for more treats. He’s decidedly getting used to “surprise dogs” and, if allowed the 1 second to sniff, he’s happy to redirect his focus back on me. His reactions, seemingly are only happening when I freak out and yank on his leash.

One challenge we’re working on now is when he notices a dog that he’ll probably react to, he tends to walk faster (pulling) and to look around me when I keep pace to block his view. Emergency u-turns and quick, “MTV-style” focus cues (thanks Sophia Yin!) have been very useful.

For every negative moment, there’s always a positive to follow. We just need to be able to recognize them quickly and reward and praise.



  1. mytwopitties · January 16, 2015

    Great job! It sounds like you guys are making great progress. Those silly dogs in your building are going to make Knox bomb proof if it’s the last thing they do! 😉

    It’s funny when dogs pick out certain others they don’t like, as you pointed out Schnauzers. Zoey had a major thing against blank and/or white dogs (sorry Knox) when she was younger. My parents were never able to figure out her reactivity, she still rages once in a while:/


    • nicolb · January 19, 2015

      The Schnauzer thing is SO WEIRD. It’s the one breed that he refuses to break focus from and keeps him way over threshold the longest. I like to imagine that he was bullied severely by a roaming pack of Schnauzers as a puppy. Maybe that happened to Zoey.


  2. Pingback: Reactive Knox: 12 month check-in | #knoxdog

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