If your greyhound is barking, growling and/or lunging at every dog he/she sees on her walks, don’t worry and you are not alone.
Our modern lifestyle has created a lot of unwanted behaviours in our dogs from anxiety to reactivity towards other dogs. Today’s dogs live in urban environments and are confined to small houses and apartments with tiny or no gardens to roam in. They are often home alone for a full work day and have penned up a lot of energy when it’s time for walkies. Once outside (whether that is on walks or in a confined garden), our dogs are hit with so much noise, smells and sights that they can be completely overwhelmed. Our footpaths and parks are shared with cyclists, prams, skateboards, joggers and of course other dogs. It’s a lot to take in! Add to the mix a lack of training and unrealistic expectations and we have a very unhappy and reactive greyhound.
So where do you start if your greyhound is reactive on walks?
First of all, we need to understand why our greyhound is behaving in this way. Most greyhounds have never seen other dog breeds before coming into our care. They live and race among other greyhounds and are generally happy to be around other greyhounds, but if they see a Labrador or Bull Terrier, they have no idea what to do. While a curious and confident greyhound will walk up to another dog to investigate, a scared or timid greyhound is likely to bark, growl and lunge to keep the scary dog away from him/her. Another greyhound could have been attacked previously and now the memory of the attack is causing him/her to mistrust other dogs. Aversive training, i.e. punishing a dog every time he/she growls or barks at another dog also leads to reactivity (or a dog who is too scared to react and has shut down).
Once we understand why our greyhound is behaving in a certain way, we can help him/her. And it completely changes our mindset. We understand that our greyhound is not giving us a hard time, he/she IS having a hard time.
The following advice is not intended to replace getting help from a professional, positive rewards based trainer. You should always ask for help and there is no shame in it.
- When walking your reactive greyhound and you encounter other dogs, stay within a distance he/she is comfortable with. Some dogs can walk past another dog in a calm manner if you change to the other side of the road, other greyhounds require more space.
- Reinforce your dog every time he is aware of another dog, e.g. he looks at another dog and remains calm. Reinforcement with food is best for most greyhounds but also toys and cuddles are great ways to reinforce good behaviour.
- It’s also a good idea to practice a u-turn with your greyhound should you need to get away from another dog.
- Avoid off leash areas. Never allow an off leash dog to approach your greyhound on lead.
- Find quiet streets and parks where your greyhound can watch other dogs from a distance without being forced to interact with them.
- Let your greyhound sniff. Sniffing lowers his heart rate and has a relaxing and calming effect on your dog.
- Allow your greyhound to take you for a walk and let him/her decide where to go.
- Get off the phone and focus on your dog and his body language. Take him away from situations, people and dogs he is not comfortable around. Watch out for stiff body language, licking lips and other signs of nervousness and stress.
- Always bring treats! Or bring his/her breakfast or dinner and feed it to him/her on your walk. You can play games such as a little treasure hunt on a grassy spot where you scatter the food for your dog to find. You also use the food to reinforce the behaviours you like, e.g. your dog walks nicely next to you or looks up to you when he/she is not sure about something.
- Play with your dog on walks. You can walk at different speeds, walk zig zag or ask for a ‘drop’ or ‘sit’ (you obviously have to teach this first at home) after running at full speed. Ask your dog to jump over objects you encounter on your walk, put two paws up on a set of stairs or any other raised object, etc. Be creative and make your daily walk along the urban streets your playground. It teaches your dog to pay attention to you instead of the environment, makes him/her super tired and it’s lots of fun. Remember that you are your dog’s best friend and friends have fun together, not stressful walks.
- If you have friends with dogs who are friendly and calm, it’s a good idea to meet up for a walk. Start walking both dogs next to each other and keep within the distance that your greyhound is comfortable with. You can slowly decrease the distance between the dogs if they are both comfortable. Some greyhounds will need a few attempts before they are calm (we call it ‘under threshold’) and please don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t seem like a good idea the first time around.
- While physical exercise is important, mental stimulation is equally important for a reactive dog. It calms him/her down and improves his confident when he/she learns new games and tricks. Ditching the food bowl is a good start, i.e. hide your greyhound’s food in a couple of cardboard boxes from your recycling rubbish. My dogs love their breakfast served in toilet paper rolls hidden in cereal boxes for example. Another option is to hide his food in a rolled up towel. You can also scatter his food in the garden for him/her to go on a treasure hunt. Remember that the more he/she sniffs, the more his/her heart rates is lowered and stress reduced.
Dogs require specific environments to thrive in and we need to be honestly assessing these requirements before committing to a dog, greyhound or other breed.