Category: Reactive Dogs

The Power of Peanut Butter

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Peanut Butter

Behold! One of the most versatile dog training tools known to man. (Photo Credit: Victoria Chilinski)

What’s your favorite training tool? Dog trainers are always looking for the latest and greatest items to add to their bag of tricks. My answer can be found at any supermarket or convenience store: peanut butter!

For Agility Dogs

My passion for peanut butter began while attending agility classes with Tessie. She is a whiner, and would anxiously await her next turn on the equipment by making all sorts of strange noises. Springers are capable of making some pretty bizarre sounds and Tessie is no exception. (We call her the canine tea kettle.) A PB-stuffed Kong kept her quiet and relaxed while waiting in her crate.

Later in her agility career, I discovered that Clean Run sells refillable squeeze tubes. By filling one with peanut butter, I could keep Tessie’s focus ringside. This was something I struggled with because Tessie doesn’t enjoy tugging away from home. (Canned dog food works really well in squeeze tubes, too!)

For Reactive Dogs

My next great peanut butter discovery came while working with our puppy Finch. He is reactive towards people and other dogs. Finch strongly prefers playing with toys over eating treats, especially outdoors, which is where he sees his triggers. PB was the answer. It was valuable enough to him that he would take it while working outside. I also use crunchy peanut butter to disguise his pills — the broken pill pieces blend right in with the nut chunks!

I think that there is more to this than enjoying a tasty snack, though. My theory is that the act of licking is calming to the brain. I think it may have its roots in nursing behavior. Horses exhibit a “lick and chew” displacement behavior which is sort of like an equine calming signal. Perhaps someday someone will research this — does the use of a “lickable” treat promote calm, relaxed behavior?

Kong toys are perfect for enjoying peanut butter! (Photo by OakleyOriginals)

I have noticed other benefits, too. Other dog trainers often use peanut butter for dogs that tend to bark during group training classes. The PB basically glues the dog’s tongue to the roof of his mouth, allowing the owner a chance to reinforce quiet, polite behavior.

For that reason, I began using PB with my Reactive Recovery students. That class is the noisiest, with several dogs that will start barking at the drop of a hat (literally!). It did help to quiet the class down, but it had a wonderful side effect. The dogs made the silliest faces as they licked the peanut butter from their muzzles, and the owners began to laugh!

The tension level in the class dropped dramatically. With the laughing came more relaxed handlers. They felt more comfortable in class and progress came more quickly as a result.

Peanut butter also provides another benefit while working with reactive or fearful dogs: counter-conditioning. Typically, counter-conditioning is done by feeding the dog lots of tasty treats while being exposed to a trigger (like a person approaching). No trigger = no treats.

Using PB takes some of the work out of counter-conditioning, because it takes the dog several seconds of licking to fully consume it. The whole time this is happening, the brain is making the association between the trigger and the wonderful taste of peanut butter.

For Excited, Jumpy Dogs

In one of my Basic Dog Manners classes, I discovered another fun use for PB: teaching four-on-the-floor to a very bouncy dog. Capturing moments of calm was difficult, particularly when working on loose leash walking. But we soon found that the little dog couldn’t eat peanut butter and jump at the same time!

As she licked and licked to get the PB off the roof offer mouth, she walked calmly with all four feet on the ground. Another student remarked that the change was so significant that it was if that dog had been drugged. Never before have I so desperately wished for “before and after” video clips. It was quite remarkable.

In conclusion, now I crack open a jar of peanut butter and prepare a few plastic spoons before all of my classes! I’ll leave you with this video clip of Finch enjoying peanut butter as a five-month-old puppy. If this doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will! 🙂

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Reactive Dogs: Resources for More Information

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There are some wonderful resources available for owners of reactive dogs who want to learn more about helping their canine companions. Many of these books have training plans that can be used to rehabilitate reactive dogs. However, I strongly urge you to seek professional help from a trainer or behaviorist who uses only humane, pain-free methods of training. Any graduate of Karen Pryor Academy will meet that criteria.


Scaredy Dog! Understanding and Rehabilitating Your Reactive Dog by Ali Brown. I feel this is the most user-friendly of the three books I list here, and the one I recommend most frequently to my clients. It is short, sweet, and to-the-point, but contains a ton of valuable information and plenty of photographs, which are useful for visual learners like myself. Ali encourages the reader to approach their dog’s reactivity holistically, looking at the entire picture: not only the dog’s behavior, but also his diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and other facets of day-to-day living. Dogs don’t live in a vacuum! Every moment counts, and you need to examine your dog’s lifestyle to be sure you are making the maximum progress.

Click to Calm – Healing the Aggressive Dog by Emma Parsons. Full disclosure: Emma was my Karen Pryor Academy instructor and mentor, so I know her personally. This book is excellent, because it contains step-by-step training recipes for skills that reactive dogs need to learn. I appreciate that it also addresses the human’s behavior, because many times the owner inadvertently contributes to the dog’s reactivity through actions such as tightening the leash or changing their tone of voice. Click to Calm is primarily geared towards dogs that are reactive towards other dogs, though there is one chapter that addresses dog-to-human aggression.

Control Unleashed – Creating a Focused and Confident Dog by Leslie McDevitt. This is my personal favorite of the three books. That being said, it was written primarily for owners interested in dog sports, like agility and flyball, and as a result, I find it overwhelms some pet owners. I use a lot of the CU foundation behaviors with all dogs and puppies I work with, like “Look at That”, which encourages dogs to look at strange things to earn reinforcement, as well as mat work. I recommend CU more often to motivated owners who think they might like to try dog sports or therapy work than I do to owners of reactive dogs.


Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You by Turid Rugaas. I mentioned Turid’s book in my previous post, but I feel that the DVD is an even better choice because you get to see the behaviors as they happen, in context with other body language signals. All dog owners could benefit from watching this DVD, but reactive dog owners need to be particularly aware of calming signals so they can read their dog and prevent a reaction whenever possible. Dogwise sells the book and DVD in a combo-pack for added savings.

TACT Touch Associated Clicker Training

TACT: A Training Program for Dogs that Are Fearful or Reactive Toward People by Julie Robitaille and Emma Parsons. This program is geared toward dogs that are reactive, fearful, or aggressive toward humans, but many of the exercises are useful for dogs who have issues with other dogs, too. There is a handy workbook to go along with the DVD, too.


Reactive Champion is one of my all-time favorite blogs. The author, Crystal, has a reactive terrier mix named Maisy, and this blog eloquently details the trials and tribulations of working with a reactive dog. Her goal is for Maisy to become an obedience champion, so it also documents ways to teach obedience behaviors positively. I recommend this blog to clients who are having a tough time coping with the idea that their dog is somehow “abnormal”. Crystal has written about many topics that are of interest to reactive dog owners, including post series on medication, supplements, and seminar reviews. You can find those posts in the “Best Of” section of her blog.

Fearful Dogs has some excellent articles on working with dogs that are particularly fearful — not all reactive dogs are fearful, but those who are seem to often have the longest road to recovery. This site’s author rescued a dog from a hoarding situation and in addition to sharing her own dog’s tale, she has created some great resources for owners of fearful dogs. My particular favorite is this series of YouTube videos she created.

Doggie Drawings is artist Lili Chin’s collection of dog cartoons. This seems irrelevant, but she has created some spectacular posters and handouts on topics including “Body Language of Fear in Dogs”, “The Do’s and Don’t’s of Dog Training”, and “How Not to Greet a Dog”. She takes commissions for pet portraits and also has an etsy shop filled with fun magnets and calendars, most featuring her (once-reactive!) Boston Terrier, Boogie.

Calming Signals in Dogs: What are They?

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Lip-licking is one of the most common calming signals. (Photo Credit: Dave Lindblom)

What is a calming signal?

Calming signals are behaviors that dogs naturally exhibit when they are feeling stressed and are trying to diffuse a situation. Norwegian dog trainer and author Turid Rugaas coined the phrase “calming signals” and she has identified approximately thirty behaviors as such. These behaviors include: licking the lips, showing the whites of the eye, sniffing the ground, turning away (either just the head, or the entire body), lifting a front paw, yawning, full-body shaking (as if the dog is trying to dry herself off after a bath), and panting. These are documented in her excellent book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.

Clearly, these signals need to be taken in context. A dog that is panting on a hot summer day, or a dog sniffing a popular fire hydrant, is probably not stressed out. Look for these signs when there is a sudden change in the environment, like a person or dog approaching.

Calming signals are crucial during interactions between two or more dogs. A thorough understanding of these signs can help owners prevent altercations and keep dogs safe. Dog fights rarely, if ever, happen “out of the blue” – video analysis almost always reveals multiple calming signals given by one or both dogs prior to the incident.

Also watch for calming signals if your dog is struggling during a training exercise. Someone or something may be stressing him out to the point that he is unable to focus on you. Take note if you see multiple signs at the same time, like panting and sniffing the ground.

Why do I need to know about calming signals?

Dogs naturally use these signals to communicate not only with other dogs, but also with humans. Failure to react to this body language can increase the dog’s stress level, and that stress could result in the dog escalating his body language to the point of a snap or a bite.

“By failing to see your dog using calming signals on you, and perhaps even punish the dog for using them, you risk causing serious harm to your dog. Some may simply give up using the calming signals, including with other dogs. Others may get so desperate and frustrated that they get aggressive, nervous or stressed out as a result. Puppies and young dogs may actually go into a state of shock.” –Turid Rugaas

Calming signals in reactive dogs

It is very common for a reactive dog to offer one or more calming signals immediately prior to having a reaction. By watching for these calming signals, we can potentially diffuse the situation. By rewarding the dog for demonstrating calming signals, we are promoting appropriate behavior (such as turning away) and not giving the dog a chance to practice undesirable behavior (lunging and barking at the trigger).

Ideally, a training session would be set up in such a way that the dog would exhibit few, if any, calming signals. These behaviors are indicative of stress, and our goal is to keep training as stress-free as possible. But, life happens, and stressful things sneak into even the most well-designed training sessions.

Regardless of the training method you are using, learning about calming signals will still benefit your relationship with your dog and help you make more training progress. If you notice your dog exhibiting calming signals, take note. Alleviate some of her stress by getting your dog out of that particular situation. Try again once your dog is feeling more relaxed and comfortable.

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What is a Reactive Dog?

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Reactive Dog Behavior

One common cause for reactivity is fear. By putting on a fearsome display, the dog effectively scares his trigger away. The increased distance makes the dog feel more comfortable, and is therefore reinforcing. (Photo Credit: Leon G. – Flickr)

(This post is the first in a mini-series I will be writing about canine reactivity. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future posts!)

What is a “reactive dog?”

Simply put, “reactive dog” is shorthand for a dog who over-reacts to particular things in the environment. Most of the time, those things are other dogs or people, but sometimes we work with dogs who react to cars, bicycles, skateboards, or other objects. The thing which a dog reacts to is called a trigger.

Some dogs will react to anything resembling their trigger, but other dogs are more specific. Dogs may be particularly bothered by a specific type of stimulus, or are only bothered under certain circumstances. For example, a dog might be okay with women but react to men, or relaxed around cars but not large trucks.

We frequently get calls about dogs who react only when they are on a leash. These are dogs that go to daycare or visit the dog park and play just fine, but when restrained by a leash, they lunge, bark, and growl at other dogs. Or, they don’t care about cars when they’re playing in the yard, but go berserk if one passes them while they’re out for a walk.

Many reactive dogs are labeled as “aggressive.” However, that term does not always accurately define these dogs’ behaviors. Reactive dogs are often acting out of fear, frustration, or confusion, and generally will not harm their trigger even when given the opportunity to do so.

What is a “reaction?”

Typical reactions involve lunging at the trigger accompanied by vocalization such as barking, growling, or whining. You may also notice the dog’s hackles (the fur around the shoulders and base of the tail) rise, the whites of the eyes becoming visible, and a stiff tail.

Every dog is different and will have its own unique reaction to its triggers. I have worked with dogs who launch airborne towards their trigger while barking rapidly, accompanied by very “forward” body language. I’ve also worked with dogs who shrink towards the ground, tuck their tails between their legs, and skitter forwards and backwards while making a high-pitched, squeaky bark. More info