Auri used to freak out and drag his people to the ground when he saw the horses. But here he is calmly looking at his person while the horses are actually fighting over branches in the background (a huge distraction). They were acting like two giant, rowdy puppies, snorting and grumbling. How did Auri go from being reactive to horses to cool with them so quickly?
Auri’s family lives outside of Seattle, in a neighborhood with horses. Horses are common in many parts of Seattle. There are mixed-use trails which are used by horseback riders a lot, and whole equestrian communities in suburbia.
Auri was accustomed to the older, sedate horses that previously lived next door. Unfortunately, the family with calm horses moved. New neighbors moved in with young and active horses. When those horses . . . you know, started to “horse around,” Auri began to react to them. He barked, lunged, and acted very aggressive.
Auri is a big, 100-pound pup, so these reactive behaviors were dangerous since Auri could literally pull someone over and injure them. And there was no way to avoid seeing these horses. Everyone in the household needed to be able to handle Auri and feel safe with him.
Auri is a quick study and loved training. We taught him to do an alternative behavior: instead of growling and lunging when something exciting happens in the environment, Auri looks at his person and gets a treat. We started training the behavior indoors, then outdoors with no distractions. Then we added distractions. Horses are big distractions!
When we work with dogs who are reactive to strange dogs, we sometimes start with a stuffed dog, which can create a realistic silhouette in the distance. We actually started this way with Auri, and his progress was quick with dogs.
But there is no way to mimic a horse, and you can’t control the ones on the other side of the fence. So we started far away from the horses on the first day: 60 feet away from them. During that first session with the horses, Auri zoomed through the training and could soon stay calm and offer eye contact to his person when only 10 feet away from the active horses.
On the second day of training, the horses had gone wild, and the dog had gone calm. We didn’t know the horses would be tossing branches around when we worked that day, but Auri rocked it!
Auri’s situation demonstrates something else we come across a lot: the challenge when a new neighbor moves in next door. Maybe your old neighbors worked 9–5, were quiet and stayed inside. Your dog was cool with them. But what if your new neighbors are active? They have kids who spend a lot of time in the yard kicking around a soccer ball or playing basketball. They could have bouncy, noisy dogs that are outside a lot. Or . . . like with Auri . . . younger horses that are more active than the ones the dog was acquainted with.
Now Auri passes through a narrow driveway right next to the horse pasture every time he goes for a walk. He is no longer reactive to the horses. He happily looks at his person rather than lunging and snarling.
No aversives or corrections are necessary; there is no need to risk increased fear or aggression to change reactive behaviors.