Thursday, June 24, 2021
Reactive Rover Addresses Pooches at the End of Their Leash
Victoria Gasser, a certified behaviorist and trainer, worked for a large animal shelter in Philadelphia before coming to Mountain Humane in June 2019. PHOTO: Mountain Humane
Monday, April 26, 2021


Carol Brown watched as her black and white pandemic pup crawled underneath the curtain to take a gander at a fake Siberian husky named Cornelius that animal behaviorist Victoria Gasser was parading around the Barn at Mountain Humane.

The dog looked wide eyed, then beat a hasty retreat behind the curtain that had been set up in one corner of the room.

Bit by bit Brown coaxed him to come out from around the curtain, then walk up to the fake dog, all the while giving him bits of chicken.

Carol Brown allows her dog to check out the Cornelius, the fake Siberian husky.

“He’s learned to sit and stand but I want to work him around other dogs,” she said. “When he learns that looking at me gets a piece of chicken or steak, he’d much rather do that than lunge after the other dogs.”

Brown was taking part in a Reactive Rover class offered by Gasser every week at Mountain Humane.

The class is aimed at helping dogs that have leash reactivity, meaning that when they’re on a leash they overreact, often lunging, barking even growling at other dogs or people.

“It’s embarrassing and concerning for owners because their perfectly lovely dog looks crazy at the end at leash,” said Gasser. “Typically, they’re showing aggression not because they want to fight but because they feel threatened or insecure. They think they’re trapped on the leash and to them a good defense is a strong offense. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad dog. They’re just struggling to cope with the situation, maybe throwing a temper tantrum like a two-year-old.”

Kathy Boylston, a volunteer with Mountain Humane works with shelter resident Piper, a mixed breed who has a passion for tennis balls but can be overly concerned about meeting passersby.

Giving a dog something yummy every time they see a dog makes them associate other dogs with good things, Gasser added.

“It releases dopamine in their brains, rewires their brains. They go from ‘I see a dog and I’m scared’ to ‘I like seeing other dogs because I always get good stuff,’ ” she said. “It’s easy to establish new neural pathways. It just takes a lot of repetition. They know when they hear the word, ‘Yes,’ or a clicker, they’re going to turn around and get a treat. Eventually, they’ll look at a dog and instantly turn to you.”

Gasser got her start in animal training as a youngster, training her own family’s pets replicating what she saw on TV. She got a Bachelor’s degree in animal behavior, training and enrichment at Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania, then a Master’s degree in applied Animal Behavior and Welfare at Newcastle University in England.

“Everyone brought a dog to class once a week; some brought sheep, doves, pigs, chickens,” she said. “We’d tell chickens to look at different pictures and pick out the ones that had something wrong with the image. If you can train a chicken, you can train a dog.”

Carol Brown’s dog was a little skittish at the beginning of the class but was totally focused on Carol—and her treats—by the end of the 45-minute session.

While studying, Gasser learned that many of the methods she learned as a youngster, such as pinning a dog to the ground during leash correction, weren’t the most effective.

“I saw my own dog change for the better when I changed my methods,” she said. “Animals learn through association, just like humans. They learn what works, what gets them what they need to survive, including food, water and shelter. And they’re continually thinking: What can I do to get more of that? That’s what drives any behavior.”

In the past, people thought animals didn’t have the same feelings as humans. But now we know they have a lot of similar emotions being able to feel fear, anger, joy, even grief, Gasser added.

Gasser teaches basic training, advanced training and Reactive Rover classes at Mountain Humane. She’s hopeful of adding more classes in the future, including a recall workshop to get dogs to come when called and avoidance training for rattlesnakes using methods that don’t scare dogs.

If you see a dog on a leash, don’t let your dog run up to it without asking permission for your dog to say “Hello,” said Virginia Gasser as Pete and Freddie work their way through distractions.

“It’s fun to teach dogs tricks. But what’s really nice is helping them overcome behavior problems. I love coaxing a fearful dog to come out of its shell,” she said.

Students in the Reactive Rover classes are asked to take a virtual orientation first—usually on the first Monday of the month.  (May’s, however, will be at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 16. Dog owners and their dogs go through onsite classes every Wednesday after that.

Gasser goes over the science behind why a dog might be reactive, exploring what’s going on in their brains. And she offers viewers basic techniques to practice so, when they come to class, they know how to keep their dog under control, setting them up to be successful.

Students can attend as many classes as they like. Some need a few; others need six or more.

Classes are limited to four dog owners and dogs at a time with each given a curtain the dog can hide behind until it’s ready to venture out.

Gasser starts by bringing out the fake Siberian husky named Cornelius.

“They think it’s real,” she said. “We use it to test the dog. If the dog is comfortable with a fake dog, we start working with real dogs at a nice far distance. We never take it to the next level until the dog is comfortable. We expose the dog to another dog that’s sitting, then moving. Then we repeat both at a closer distance and have them come towards one another so the owners can practice calling their dogs away.

“We’re just giving owners a safe controlled environment to practice with because out in the real world  you never know when an off-leash dog is going to come running up.”

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