Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Reactivity, whether fear or frustration based, can be a difficult issue to work through completely. The training itself typically is not complex. However, identifying all the factors affecting the dog's behavior can be tricky, and this information is crucial to staging proper training scenarios. The list below is not exhaustive, but here are some common reasons why training fails when addressing reactivity issues.
Serious trauma that cannot be fully overcome. This could be a traumatic event the dog experienced as an adult, a formative experience as a young puppy, or something that happened during a fear period. Just as in people, not all trauma can be fully overcome. There can be limits to what we may accomplish through behavior modification.
On-going intense exposure to the scary thing. Some dogs live in environments where the intensity of exposure to certain stimuli, such as dogs, people, or kids playing, cannot be reduced. This is common with apartment complexes and busy neighborhoods. This can also occur if owners practice their training on walks and at parks, but they bring their dog into a busy vet clinic waiting room filled with barking dogs. Ask your veterinarian's front desk if they will text you when they are ready for your dog to go into an exam room. This would give you the ability to wait in your car with your dog and avoid stressful experiences that could potentially set him back.
Inappropriate training scenarios. Is the pet parent only practicing in the neighborhood where strangers and dogs appear to be walking straight towards the reactive dog? Does going to the park send your dog into a fight/flight/freeze response? Are you frequently too close to the triggers, causing your dog to react by lunging/barking/whining? Some dogs need to work in simpler environments first that are better controlled.
Failure to identify and isolate specifically what the dog is reacting to. It is usually not only the presence of a strange person, dog, scooter, etc. There are particular details that may be particularly stressful to the dog. Rapid movements? Eye contact? Direct approaches? Barking/Noises? Size/age/gender of individuals, etc. Isolate these and gradually add them into training scenarios in ways that are achievable for the dog. Otherwise, you risk overwhelming the dog and achieving less success during training.
Using toys or play instead of food. We want to keep dogs calm during this training. High arousal can lead to reactive responses. Toys and play raise arousal, so it is better to use food.
Forgetting to bring high value rewards/Inconsistency. Dogs need to be rewarded every time when encountering the triggering stimuli and/or when offering the desired behavior. Never put a dog in a situation to encounter the stimulus without high value rewards on hand. Mark every time he notices the stimulus, and reward every time.
Using food rewards that are too low in value (not worth it to the dog). Whatever reward we give to a dog has to be worth them experiencing the presence of the scary thing. In the case of my training, the food reward has to be worth them taking their eyes off of the scary thing and turning away from it to look toward the owner. Who wants to turn their back on something that they perceive to be a threat? Conversely, a frustrated dog who wants to get to a dog walking by may see all the value as lying in reaching the other dog. Have some type of food reward on you that can match that level of value.
Using the high value rewards for things other than this training. High value rewards can become less exciting if the dog gets them all the time. They are not as special if they are common. Maintain the value of high value rewards by using them only for this training.
Expecting too much too quickly. It can take 10,000 repetitions of a behavior for a new neural pathway to form in humans. This does not happen overnight. Don't stop training and rewarding too quickly. All of these rewards are an investment in the future behavior you would like to see your dog perform.
Using aversives, whether intentionally or inadvertently. I occasionally use head halters, such as the Gentle Leader, with very large strong dogs who could end up pulling their small pet parent to the ground if they were to bolt. If a dog is lunging at stimuli, they could be receiving a correction through the turning of the head and the pressure the head collar applies to the top of the muzzle which are all part of the halter's design. I do not put dogs in head halters if they routinely lunge since this could result in injury to the dog when their head is turned to the side. Similarly, a prong collar could be giving a painful correction every time they lunge toward stimuli and the collar tightens and pinches the skin. A dog may pair this pain/discomfort with the presence of the triggering stimuli. The pain and discomfort will likely also raise the dog's arousal level.
The problematic stimuli are more extensive than what you identified. Is it possible that the dog is also reacting to other things in the environment (trigger stacking)? These can be difficult to identify. I like to see where the dog's eyes go and observe his body language responses to what is going on around us as we train. If he frequently is focusing on things other than the triggering stimulus when it is at a distance than would normally bother him then there are likely other things that are stressing him in that environment. Try working in a sterile environment with only the problematic stimulus that you identified. Is the dog reacting anywhere near the same level as when in normal training environments? If not, there may be issues with other stimuli in the environment (e.g. traffic noises, kids playing, bicycles, etc).
Could other issues be contributing to the reactive behavior? Genetics can play a strong role in reactive behavior, and training is not going to completely un-do this behavior if it has a strong genetic component, unfortunately. We need to have realistic expectations on what behavior modification may accomplish in each individual case. Dogs can also be more reactive if they do not feel well. A veterinarian should also be consulted if any other issues are suspected, such as pain, allergies, other health conditions, etc. If you are not making the progress you expected, an appointment with a veterinarian may help determine if there are any medical issues at play that could be affecting your dog's moods and behavior. A veterinarian knowledgeable in psychopharmacology can also determine whether your dog could benefit from behavior medications. These may help your dog be more receptive to new experiences and learning. It is difficult to effectively learn if the learner is too stressed.
If you are plateauing in your training, sit down with a certified behavior consultant to figure out why. This will help you get a reasonable prognosis for your dog's behavior modification, identify why training is not progressing, and create a plan.
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