As most of you know, we saw a veterinary behaviorist this year for some of the reactivity issues we have had with the boys.
I wasn't blown away with most of what was recommended - it was mostly the standard NILIF advice that I'm sure she doles out to every patient she has. While that's good advice for any dog owner, I was hoping for some suggestions a little more customized to us.
But there was one thing we talked about that, the more opportunities I have to use it, the more grateful I am to her for explaining it to us. I'd heard this from another behaviorist as well, but didn't really put much effort into it until this summer.
"Happy talk" involves becoming very animated, cheerful and happy whenever your dog is becoming reactive. It requires some pretty good acting on the part of the Happy Talker, because your natural tendency is to start freaking out and yelling "NO! NO! NO!"
The latter is actually the very worst thing you can do, because your dog will assume that, because you are freaking out as well, there is indeed something to be worried about. It validates his reactivity.
I have actually had the occasion twice this week to use Happy Talk:
I was at the club with Angus and one of our members came in with his dog. His dog seems to have the same problem the boys (especially Simon) have sometimes: Reactivity to seeing another dog when on leash. We have worked VERY hard at counter-conditioning this, and Angus is almost completely cured. He doesn't react to other dogs, even those who are confrontational, when they are on leash passing him at a distance of several feet.
However, this was a bit different in that he was not engaged in a walk at the time, and both dogs happened to find themselves completely squared off to one another. The other dog started growling at Angus and, wanting to take no chances, I started Happy Talk. I could only see Angus from the back, but I could see that he was tense and on alert (which could have been part of what caused the other dog to start growling in the first place).
I gave it my best sing-songy voice: "Angus, what are you doing, silly! It's no big deal! Don't be a goofball!" etc.
I could see Angus' shoulders and neck relax a little, and the other dog stopped growling. The effect was almost immediate for both dogs.
The second time was this morning, and was quite a bit more scary for me. I was lying on the living room floor and I thought I saw something black and white over the backyard fence. I thought maybe it was the neighbor's new Malamute puppy, but wondered for a second how it was that I could see him on the ground over the fence at that angle. I didn't think they were that much uphill from us. But oh well, whatever...and I didn't think any more about it.
A few minutes later I heard Angus barking in the bedroom, and assumed it was a dog walking by. We've been working on this as well, and I actually have it to the point that I can say "Nooooo..." in a very bored voice from another room and stop it on cue. Tried this, and it didn't work. In fact, the barking became more frantic. Uh oh, something's not right about this - so I got up to investigate.
Simon was upset by now too and we made it to the bedroom at about the same time, to see that a CAT! was perched on top of the fence, two feet from the bedroom window. Oh. My. Gosh.
If I just had one dog this would not be a huge deal. But I have two reactive dogs, and the recipe for a couple of their fights has been "Add stimulus which is frustrating to both and put it just out of reach. Mix well, bake for a few seconds. Redirected aggression. Serves two." To make matters worse, we were all now in a very confined space between our bed and the window.
Time for some very good acting. "Hey, Angus, you silly! It's just a cat, you goofy boy! Stop being such a goob! Ha ha ha!" Angus was mohawked from top to tail, and both dogs were at red level frustration.
Happy talk bought me a few precious moments. As soon as I started, it seemed to interrupt Angus' train of thought briefly. His mohawk went down visibly, and he stopped barking for a few seconds. It has an effect almost like he is thinking, "Um...huh? This is...fun? Really? Um...OK?"
While it didn't stop the train in its tracks, it did give me a few seconds to start closing blinds and herd them away from each other until everyone calmed down a little bit.
As I said, if it had just been one of them I would have left the blinds open and maybe gone and gotten some treats and Happy-Talked and treated until the cat on the fence really WAS fun.
Anyway...just wanted to share what I think is a really good method for reducing anxiety in reactive dogs. Hope someone gets a chance to use it and finds it helpful!
Wonderful suggestion, Connie. Our trainer suggested the same sort of thing for dogs with storm anxiety. Sounds like you're doing a great job with your boys. Here's to continued success.
Bayou Bay's Jeb's Trouble Too, RN, CGC
I use that same sort of chatter with Abbey when I know she is anxious or tenative about a situation or place. She can lock up on all fours in a heartbeat. She really isn't scared, just tenative. The happy chatter and banter in my voice just seems to calm her and she will move forward. I am glad it is working for you too with your guys. Anything to keep everyone calm and relaxed has my vote. Thanks for posting the suggestion. I am sure others can benefit from it too.
Love JL. Justlabradors.com!!!
A variation that I recommend to my clients is to sing. Sometimes you are too tense to effectively happy talk - but singing "happy birthday to you" or "you are my sunshine" does the trick in relaxing you both
@You are my sunshine. My grandmother used to sing that to me when I was a little girl. One of my earliest memories. I can't hear it without thinking of her. That's a good idea to sing a happy song.
This makes a lot of sense. Dogs are so good at picking up on our feelings. Fooling them with happy talk and body language that goes with it seems like a good way to effect a calming response.
I am going to try that technique when suitable. I tried it yesterday to get my dog inside when he was barking outside in the yard. Worked quite well.
Hunter & Chrome
Gracie's recall is terrible...she is never off leash. Well a few days ago..she slipped her collar while we were in the front yard, there was an elderly man next door and I was scared to death that she was going to barrel him over....so i sat on the ground and started happy talk. She was surprised to see me laying on the ground, talking so happily that she ran back over to me. Happy talk works well in a lot of situations
That was really quick thinking Lisa!
"Happy Talk" sends Flynn running in the opposite direction. He thinks it is absurd.
I use the mundane drone monotone approach, telling him to come get cookies. Like I couldn't care less about him.
ALWAYS gets his immediate attention and cooperation.
Seamus and Flynn