there is a very common piece of advice given to people with reactive dogs that can often be detrimental to the dogs. it’s a piece of advice that i often gave a few years back, but discarded three or four years ago.
that piece of advice is to cue your reactive/fearful dog to “sit,” when another dog (or other trigger) crosses their path.
the idea is that you a) are redirecting the dog, giving him something else to do, something more positive than jumping, barking, lunging, etc., and b) you are teaching him a calm behavior when something scary is in the vicinity.
both sound good, right?
nope. usually not.
the tale of the alligator
think of it this way…
imagine you are walking down the street with a friend, everything is great, you are having a wonderful time, then you see a big scary alligator (not likely in california, but in louisiana or florida you never know).
anyway, what if your loved one says to you, “stop, sit, don’t move,” as the alligator is racing towards you. you are pretty sure its plan is to eat you for dinner, but your friend wants you to sit anyway.
your friend is very insistent, and even decides to hold on to you, so you cannot move. he’s nice, and offers you a chocolate bar, but right now, you are pretty sure you are about to be consumed by an alligator, so you’re not exactly in the mood for dessert.
therefore, you panic. you start flailing your arms, and fighting to break free from your friend. if that doesn’t work, your last resort is to punch your friend, so you can run away, and get to higher/safer ground.
choice-based training gives our dogs more of an option in what they want to do and i have found it to be much more effective to focus on teaching them that they do have those other options.
however, what if, when you see the alligator, your friend calmly guides you a distance away from said alligator to higher ground.
or better yet, follows you to the place you’d feel more safe. you don’t have a lot of time, so you can still see the “scary monster,” and it’s a bit freaky, but you know he cannot eat you, so you are okay (but let’s hope he doesn’t get someone else). you may even be able to take that chocolate bar if you’re high/far enough.
the first scenario is what so many well-meaning dog parents ask of their reactive dogs every day.
we expect them to sit nicely while their alligator, or “scary monster,” races towards them. and even if it’s not scary to us humans, to the dogs it’s terrifying.
trying to force them to sit like this, and expecting them to deal with their monster in this fashion can actually make their reactivity worse.
also, we often spend so much time trying to get our dog to sit as the monster quickly approaches that we are unable to practice our desensitization correctly.
which is to start giving the dog the treats the moment the dog has recognition of the “scary monster.” if we are too busy saying, “sit, sit, sit,” the opportunity is passing, and our work cannot be done. a blow-up is inevitable.
another downside is the “redirection bite,” which is when the dog is under so much pressure, trying to hold it together, but is unable to do so, then explodes. their mouth targeting whatever is closest to them. usually their handler’s leg.
as i mentioned above, i gave this advice at one time, but with my discovery of “choice based training,” (which is part of positive reinforcement training) where we give our dogs more of an option in what they want to do, i have found it to be much more effective to focus on teaching them that they do have those other options. whether learning to turn away from the other dog, look at you, or actually walk away (grisha stewart’s “behavior adjustment training”).
finding a way: a choice in the matter
so what do we do instead? well, that’s a longer blog, but here are my two favorite ways, in a nutshell:
- desensitization and counter conditioning: at the time the dog has recognition of the “scary monster,” (sight/sound/smell) move your dog to a place where they are under threshold (a place where they are “okay”) and begin feeding them amazingly fantastic treats until the “scary monster” is out of sight, and out of mind. this will help them have a more positive association with other dogs. but they must be under threshold. if they are too close, they will blow-up.
- practice “behavior adjustment training:” the art of helping your dog make different choices when they are under pressure. see grisha stewart’s “behavior adjustment training – bat for fear, frustration and aggression in dogs.”
at dbf i use both of the above techniques, toggling back and forth between the two based on the dog and the circumstances.
i never ask my reactive dog to sit. if he wants to, he can.
the choice is his.