Q. Does putting a reactive dog in a room with other reactive dogs only trigger more reactivity? Wouldn't they feed off of each others' energy, insecurity, etc.? I realize the group size is kept small for this reason but wouldn't a reactive dog benefit more by being around non-reactive, 'polite' dogs? (Hard to manage, as most owners aren't clamoring to share a classroom with reactive dogs.) We've considered enrolling in Reactive Dog classes before and decided against it worried that our dog would leave the class with more issues than he came in with. But then we aren't always made to feel welcome at "regular" classes where we may be asked to move off to the side, away from the group. It's a tough spot to be in and I think many reactive dog owners end up doing more management than training because of it. So, while I think a class specifically for reactive dogs would be a more accepting, less judgmental place for the dog owner, isn't it even more stressful and possibly counter-productive for the dog?
A. That is a great question & I am glad that you asked, because other people probably have the same questions. Here is my thought process on this...
The reality is, most of the dogs one would be around at any given time at any given place are NOT what we would call "balanced." They are often socially impolite and with owners who 1) have no idea that their dog is rude, and 2) don't know how to handle it even if they do acknowledge their dog's poor social skills. Remember too that reactive doesn't equal aggressive; it is just that: reactive.
You are certainly correct in that the challenge is greater for reactive dogs to behave in the presence of other reactive dogs as opposed to... Spark Plug, and dogs like that. Dogs are SO sensitive to energy - I have really learned that & put it into practice in the last year more than ever in my life - but the good news because of that, is that if I can get the handlers to switch their energies, and "train" the PEOPLE to be able to get to a more peaceful place in the presence of triggers that once made them anxious/nervous/frustrated, that is really the only way to reliably change their dogs' behavior... Someone can do all the training & leash-handling & obedience they want, but you can't fake your energy (demeanor, presence, attitude, pick your word) with a dog.
Part of the reason to have a class specifically for reactive dogs is yes, so that you are in good company, and my goal is to be able to help people become more effective handlers & able to be peaceful & calm when they need to be BY being able to relax because you are in the presence of people who understand.
There is also the obvious reason that having a reactive dog (barking, lunging, scaring people, that kind of thing) in a basic or a puppy class isn't fair to the other attendees because it takes the trainer's focus away from them because you (as a trainer) always have to have one eye on the dog that might lunge if that other dog wanders too close, etc. etc.
Also, obedience is going to be huge focus in Reactive Dog Class, and realistically, a person does NOT have good obedience on their dog if they can't control it. Just because a dog "knows" sit/down/stay/come/heel does not mean they have good obedience skills, because if you HAD good obedience skills on a dog, you'd be able to tell that dog to down, and you wouldn't have any lunging in the first place. I'm not addressing you in particular here; I'm talking about dogs/handlers in general. Being able to control a reactive dog around a pack of peaceful, quiet trained dogs is nice and all, and I'm NOT saying it's not a good start or it's not helpful, but that isn't the reality. It's like just because your puppy can "sit" in your living room with no distractions doesn't mean they have a trained "sit." Good obedience on a dog means that dog follows the commands when you give them no matter what (realistically) is going on around them. Reactive Dog Class provides that challenge.
I guess that is the short version of the answer I have to your very intelligent questions.. Thank you again for asking.. very good questions and I am sure you aren't the only one with them...