Reactivity is a complex topic in dog training. Reactive or reactivity is when a dog reacts to something in the environment or in a certain situation. In most cases, the dog may be lunging, barking, or growling. Reactivity is not a personality trait however, the dog may reactive due to fear, excitement (play), frustration (leash or barrier), or aggressive. Knowing what kind of reactivity you dog has, understanding his/her triggers, and objectively looking at body language will help determine how to help your dog.
Body language is important to be familiar with. Some signs of fear/stress can include displacement behaviors such as yawning, lip licking, sudden scratching, and sniffing. A displacement behavior for humans can be nail-biting, leg-shaking, or foot-tapping. These are compulsive behaviors to release stress and tension. For over-aroused dogs, ears may be forward with a mouth closed. Eyes will probably be intense with their body forward and tense. Pay close attention to the positioning of the tail. The tail is generally high with a possible low wag. The most common signs for a bite include those over-arousal signals long with direct eye, or even a whale eye (showing the whites of the eyes). Body freeze and may growl or show teeth.
Whether it is genetics, lack of proper socialization or traumatic events with the trigger, reactivity should be addressed in a way that will not force your dog into situations where they have to “get used to it”. Unfortunately, putting a dog in stressful situations and expecting them to “get used to it” is flooding. Flooding can be dangerous and cause more harm than good. Trainers, including Arfordable Dog Training implement programs that use counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization. These two methods usual go hand-in-hand during reactivity training.
Before we discuss how to use these training methods, let’s first look at what they mean. Counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization stem from Classical Conditioning. Conditioning is based on reflexive or automated behavior. (Pavlov’s dogs.) As handlers, you must address the emotional response towards the trigger before we can ask for incompatible behaviors (Operant Conditioning) such as “Sit” or “Watch-Me”.
• Counter-conditioning is changing a negative association to a trigger to a positive one. High value/tasty treats are used to help make this association.
• Systematic desensitization is gradually presenting a trigger or stimulus while the dog is under threshold until the dog becomes habituated to it.
• A threshold is the distance from a trigger where the dog notices it but does not feel threatened by it. Over threshold is when behavior begins to break down and emotions responses take over.
A good question commonly asked is, “will giving a treat to a stressed dog, reinforce the fear (or their behavior)?” The answer is no. My first recommendation is try to move far away enough from the trigger to bring the dog back under threshold. Not taking a treat will not allow counter-conditioning to occur. The goal in proper counter-conditioning is to not ask the dog to do anything. The handler should focus on changing the way the dog feels about the trigger. It is a subconscious process but has dramatic effects, if done properly. Timing is imperative. Your job is to provide the treat immediately after the trigger appears. Proper timing will help ensure a positive association with the trigger.
In Jean Donaldson’s* Dog Training 101 program she focuses on the 3 principles of dog training. Principle #2 is “The Dog Has to Feel Safe”. When a dog’s behavior is driven by fear, asking for a behavior will be ineffective. Emotional responses cause changes in the brain, specifically in the amygdala. When a dog begins to feel fear, the body will release the stress hormone cortisol from the amygdala and will prepare of fight or flight. When high levels of cortisol are released, the brain can become overwhelms and rational thought goes out the window.
Cognition and learning are handled by another part of the brain, (the front part) the cortex. When the dog is in a trainable state. Positive reinforcement can take place and focus on alternative or incompatible behaviors. This will allow the handler to move on to operant conditioning.
When working with a reactive dog proper care, timing, and under threshold is key. As always, consult with your veterinarian to rule out any health issues that may cause changes in behavior and consult with a positive reinforcement trainer for further questions and training.
*Jean Donaldson is an award-winning author, world-leading expert in dog training and behavior, and founded the Academy for Dog Trainers.