Changing the dog’s emotional response.

Much of my work is helping reactive dogs. In dog training, reactivity is a negative emotional response to some sort of trigger in the environment.

Some examples of reactivity are when a dog explodes into lunging and barking, at the sight of another dog. The same scenario might also look like the reactive dog is trying to hide behind it’s human or trying to flee.

Some dogs are reactive to children. The sound and movement of children trigger the dog to react. Some dogs react while in a car when people approach. Some dogs react to things they see while riding in the car.

Some dogs react to people coming onto your property or into your home. Some dogs have fear of specific things or specific contexts.

The important thing to understand about reactivity is that it is not an obedience issue. It is an emotional issue. Observing a dog’s body language is a road map to understanding its emotional state. What is the dog telling us? Once we understand the emotional state we can make a training plan to change it. A thorough history of the dog, environmental circumstances, frequency and context of the behavior are also important considerations to changing behavior.

How does it work? Dog’s are masters of Classical Learning. They pair one event with another. They are doing this all the time. When I have been working at my computer for any length of time, my dog reads the tiny signals that I am giving out that indicate I am about to finish my work and that a walk may soon follow. You pick up your car keys or change your clothes. Dogs know what is likely to happen next. They do this 24/7.

How can we use this extraordinary ability to our advantage to change reactive behavior?

The Conditioned Reinforcer is the back-bone of modern dog training. Most trainers use the sound of a clicker for the CR. It is a simple, inexpensive tool that makes a unique sound, a sound that the dog only hears in the context of training. If we activate the clicker and then drop a yummy treat on the floor for the dog, and do that about twenty times, the sound of the click becomes a predictor of food. The sound has been “conditioned” to predict food. This is the most beautiful example of classical learning I can think of. When the dog hears the sound, think of a little cartoon bubble appearing over his head with chicken, liver and cheese in the bubble!

If the sound of the click is that powerful, what if we activated it at the instant the dog perceived a negative trigger in the environment and then fed the dog a treat? It would pair the scary trigger with something yummy and highly reinforcing to the dog. We are shifting the dog’s emotional response from a negative to a positive. Dogs are both complex and simple animals. The simple part of them is why this protocol can be so effective. It works quite beautifully.

Here is a good human analogy (use your imagination here). Pretend that you have a phobia of birds? Every time you see a bird you have a panic attack. What if every time you saw a bird a 100 dollar bill floated to the ground beside you? You would likely go looking for birds as fast as you could! The counter conditioning protocol functions on the same principal. The negative is paired with a positive and the emotional response shifts to a positive.

Clients who come to me with reactive dogs begin with my foundation training before we address the reactivity. This gives both human and and dog some skills to work with, a solid line of communication and a highly charged Conditioned Reinforcer (the clicker) that instantly predicts the arrival of steak, liver and cheese upon activation.

Once we have a base line of success in the presence of a non-reactive control dog, we can take it on the road and practice the same counter conditioning techniques in unpredictable environments.

Reactive dogs may never be reliable off-leash with other strange dogs. And that is fine. If they have a few dogs friends they play with well, that is all they need. What we really want is for dogs to be comfortable and relaxed in the presence of other dogs while on a leash. If we teach them that they are not going to approach the other dogs in the environment and more importantly, that the others dogs are not going to approach them, then they can begin to relax and enjoy all the positive perks that come along with counter conditioning. Don’t worry, be happy!

It is not quick work or easy work but it does WORK!

Copyright Noel Hoffmann Dog Training 2019