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Hi there!

Mid-April I adopted a Catahoula-Pit mix from my local animal shelter. We believe he's about two years old. He was super playful, loving, and sweet with everyone at the adoption center. After a few weeks of having him I noticed he was being very reactive towards other people and animals on our walks (I live in an apartment complex with plenty of other dog owners and a few cats as well). To be fair - I didn’t put him in a cage at night until a month after I adopted him, so I think he became very attached. I try to make sure he has plenty of time away from me nowadays, however given his behavior it’s very hard to socialize him.

His typical behavior when seeing another dog, cat, person and even vehicles can range from lunging, barking, growling, or being hyper vigilant. He’s made some good progress - for example, he wouldn’t even pay attention to people or cars for a while. He would look at them and carry on with his business. However we have many occasions with off leash dogs that run up to him, causing him and I to panic (I would freak out much more in the past, however I’ve realized the repercussions of this do much more harm than good, therefore I’ve been trying my best to stay more calm in the past months). This seems to keep him very reactive for the next couple days when we walk, almost resetting the progress we’ve made. I understand progress is not linear, nevertheless it’s still very frustrating.

He will not eat treats when we go outside and whenever he’s hypervigilant - on the edge of being reactive - he won’t look at me or pay attention to any commands. He’s usually very food oriented inside my home. I’m in the process of muzzle training and having him get used to company while he’s in his cage (feeding him treats when they’re speaking or walking around to associate yummy things with scary triggers, hopefully to get him comfortable with company). He’s doing fantastic with that. It’s our walks I can’t seem to get down.

Three things I’d like to note. 1) He seems to have a bad tummy from time to time, and he is significantly more reactive when he has to go number two. Funny enough, I can gauge if he has to go number two by his reactivity. 2) It is VERY clear he has been abused in the past. The most obvious example is whenever he has an accident (whether it’s number two or vomit due to his bad tummy) he scours low to the ground and flinches if you raise your hand to him, even if it’s to reassure him. There are other small examples of his possible exposure to abuse, but his accidents are the most clear. 3) I have a cat as well. He used to stalk her in the house, but as time went on and I corrected/rewarded him accordingly - they sometimes play. He still tries to "stalk" her, but for the most part he either listens to my commands or respects her boundaries when she hisses. However, whenever we're outside and he sees a cat - he COMPLETELY flips.

Nevertheless, I’m currently at a loss how to correct his reactive behavior outside. If he doesn’t react to my commands, pets, or treats - I’m not sure how to continue forward with his training. My goal is to get him socialized enough so that I can move into a student apartment next fall.

If anyone has advice, I’d love to hear it.

Thank you so much.
 

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There are a few things I want to pick up on in your post.

First, his refusal to eat treats is very telling. A highly stressed animal won't, it's all related to the fight or flight stress response that you may have heard of - keeping empty is more efficient for fleeing or dealing with something ”dangerous”.

You also said he seems worse after other dogs have run up to him. Again, that tells us he is stressed. There is something called trigger stacking, where the dog doesn't have time to calm down from one stressful event triggering their anxiety before a second one happens. So if you can imagine a bathtub, with buckets of water being poured into it with every stressful event - it fills faster than the water can drain out until it spills over the edge in a meltdown. That's what happens in trigger stacking as the stress hormone cortisol keeps getting topped up without the chance to drain down. So an event that your dog might be ok with on a normal day might cause a reaction if it comes close after another one.

The sort of reactivity you describe often means your dog is trying to frighten off the other dog/cat/person. His body language is saying 'I'm loud and big and scary, don't come close to me if you know what's good for you'. And almost always the other dog (etc) will retreat, or be taken away by his owner, so your dog's behaviour becomes reinforced. It worked, so he knows he can do it again.

This sort of behaviour often happens when your dog is on lead, which means that he has found himself closer to the scary thing than he would have chosen if he had been able to.

He will have an invisible radius of space around him where he feels secure. It's called flight distance, anything within that space triggers his fight or flight stress response mentioned above. Find out what that distance is and keep him far enough away from other dogs/cats/people that he is aware of them, but relaxed. Your goal is to teach him that he doesn't need to react; not to stop a reaction in progress. You said you want to have him socialised but in fact the socialisation window closes at about 19 weeks of age. Achieving a dog that is just dog (etc) neutral would be a good outcome.

Reward him for being calm with something fabulous, like frankfurter sausage or a very special toy. The aim of this is to change your dog’s emotional response to the stressful thing by repeatedly pairing it with something good. In time, your dog will learn that scary things mean sausages appear and this creates something called a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER). This is what you are doing in your home, but just be careful he is still relaxed, you don't want him to be conflicted - wanting the treat but having to endure the proximity of scary people to get them.

This website explains it in more detail - Care for Reactive Dogs

Gradually, over weeks and months rather than days, you can work on reducing the distance. This may mean you have to be selective where you walk - choose places with good visibility so you can give other dogs etc a wide berth, or where you can turn and walk away easily. But - remember the trigger stacking and that if your dog has already had a stressful episode, the stress hormone cortisol can stay in the body for some time. Studies in dogs are inconclusive but it may be several days. The distance he was comfortable with on one day might be too close on another day. So the safe distance can change, watch his body language.

Alongside that you could train a 'watch me'. As your dog looks at you, mark and reward the behaviour. Ask for longer periods of watching. Then if a dog/cat/person approaches, after you have worked on the distance issue, you can get your dog to focus on you and not the other thing. BUT - some dogs find this scary as they cannot see the thing they are anxious about so you need to judge your dog. And importantly, don't ask your dog to watch you if it is another dog that is reactive. Your dog should never be in a situation where he could be at risk while he is complying with something you have asked him to do.

Trainers describe behaviour like this with reference to the three Ds. Distance, as above but also be aware of Duration - your dog might be tolerant for 10 seconds, but not 15; and Distraction - how distracting the stimulus is, a calm dog might not trigger any reaction at a given distance but a bouncy one might.

In addition, the conformation (shape) or even colour of some dogs can trigger a reaction. Very broad fronted dogs (such as mastiffs or bulldogs) create the impression of 'facing up' just because of their shape, which can be intimidating even if their temperament is perfect. And black dogs are thought to have facial body language that is harder to read. Some dogs will be more reactive to un-neutered males, or particular breeds for no apparent reason. Similarly, people who are fat, tall, bearded, wearing hats and so on might be more scary than people who are not. Learn what triggers reactions in your dog so that you can give him the extra support he needs.

Regarding the cat, dogs are rubbish at generalising. So just because he is learning to be gentle with your cat doesn't mean he will be gentle with any other cat. So the distance here will again be your friend.

Hope that helps, please ask if you have any questions.
 

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Hi. Welcome to the forum.

After a few weeks of having him I noticed he was being very reactive towards other people and animals on our walks (I live in an apartment complex with plenty of other dog owners and a few cats as well). To be fair - I didn’t put him in a cage at night until a month after I adopted him, so I think he became very attached.
His reactivity has nothing to do with you not crating him for the first month, and everything to do with him settling in and starting to believe this is his forever home - those first few weeks are the so-called "Honeymoon period". He doesn't know you, doesn't know what to expect, so appears to be well behaved. After a few weeks, he starts to get used to you, and what to expect and so starts to show his "true colours". That this just so happened to be the time you introduced the crate is coincidence.

. I try to make sure he has plenty of time away from me nowadays, however given his behavior it’s very hard to socialize him.
It is a good idea to feature in some time away from him so he gets used to being on his own, but not to help with reactivity. He's not likely to be protecting you - more likely just so overwhelmed by his environment he reacts to everything.

However we have many occasions with off leash dogs that run up to him, causing him and I to panic (I would freak out much more in the past, however I’ve realized the repercussions of this do much more harm than good, therefore I’ve been trying my best to stay more calm in the past months). This seems to keep him very reactive for the next couple days when we walk, almost resetting the progress we’ve made. I understand progress is not linear, nevertheless it’s still very frustrating.
Yes, it takes a few days to a week for the stress hormone Cortisol to dissipate. Think of him as a slowly draining bathtub - every dog that runs over to him is another bucket of water added to the bath. Soon, there's more "water" being added to the "bath" than is draining away, and it overflows - this is the trigger stacking Joanne was talking about.

He will not eat treats when we go outside and whenever he’s hypervigilant - on the edge of being reactive - he won’t look at me or pay attention to any commands
Think of the last time you received devastating news. A close friend, a relative, a beloved pet passing away, for example. I'd lay odds that you couldn't eat either.

It's the same for him. He's too stressed to eat.

ground and flinches if you raise your hand to him, even if it’s to reassure him
Hands coming towards heads is usually quite intimidating. It is certainly possible that he's been punished for accidents, but he could just be hand shy. Try to approach from below instead.

. 3) I have a cat as well. He used to stalk her in the house, but as time went on and I corrected/rewarded him accordingly - they sometimes play. He still tries to "stalk" her, but for the most part he either listens to my commands or respects her boundaries when she hisses. However, whenever we're outside and he sees a cat - he COMPLETELY flips
Your cat is family. Every other cat is fair game. He doesn't generalise well, if at all. Your cat is out of bounds - to a degree. But the neighbourhood cats are potential prey.

@JoanneF has already give you excellent advice, so I won't repeat what she's said. Perhaps carry an umbrella or a walking cane and wave it around if another dog looks like it might be about to approach -, the thought of their dog getting whacked might just galvanise other owners to recall/collect their dogs. ;)
 
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