Breakthrough Strategies to Empower your Reactive Dog’s Focus

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Breakthrough Strategies to Empower your Reactive Dog’s Focus

June 6, 2023 Uncategorised 0

Dogs who bark and lunge at other dogs are never going to stop overnight. What we need for them is a roadmap to success. Our roadmap should be dynamic and flexible, rooted in best practice. Today’s post focuses on why so many people who take up an activity with their reactive dog are astounded by their dog’s progress. Whether they take their dog mantrailing or start scentwork, +R gundog training, canicross, Hoopers, agility or obedience trials, many people see drastic changes with their dog.

On their own, these activities are not enough.

We need to do other things as well.

Foundation skills for barky dogs

One crucial thing is teaching our dog foundation skills separately. We need to make sure they know how to do vital things like disengaging or moving on. We may also need to reduce their exposure to certain things for a short period. This allows those foundation skills to set root and start to flourish. Sometimes we can just make small adjustments in their daily walks that make life a lot easier.

We also can get our dogs into the habit of letting us guide their attention a little. Many people talk about their dog’s barking and lunging being ‘triggered’. What they mean by this is that their dog sees or hears something and this causes barking and lunging. We eventually want our dogs to cope with these triggers. This will mean paying them no mind. If we want our dogs to pay no mind to their triggers, then we will have to support them at first. They’re already failing when we ask them to do it by themselves.

Teaching our dogs cues to disengage, whether that is a recall cue or a phrase like ‘leave it!’ can also help. Sometimes, they’re going to need our support with that too. And we can also help them build up their own skills in disengaging, so that they come to internalise the process.

Finally, we can begin to phase out rewards where our dogs are simply noticing odours, sounds or visual stuff and moving on relatively quickly.

In this post, we talk about the skills your dog will need to move them beyond this.

Paying mind to triggers

We already know our dogs pay too much attention to their triggers. They’re there, barking and lunging at the end of the lead and we can’t get their attention. That tells us everything we need to know!

We also know that anxious dogs pay more mind to the very stuff that makes them anxious. When you’d think they’d actually want to ignore it, they cannot. Our dogs pay more attention to potential threat, even when those things are not threatening at all. They notice things more quickly too. If we’re busy scanning the horizon for loose dogs, our reactive dogs will be one step ahead of us.

This bias towards the negative may actually be contributing to our dogs’ barking and lunging. Researchers call this a negative attentional bias. Simply put, emotionally vulnerable individuals actively seek out things that make them feel uncomfortable. Worse, those triggers are even more noticeable. Where another dog might not notice the stranger appearing over the horizon, our dogs are hypervigilant. They could win an Olympic Gold at noticing stuff that bothers them.

They also have a quicker response that lasts longer and is more intense. All those BIG feelings are not simply BIG… they are also FAST and LONG-LASTING. All the things you need in a headache tablet, and none of the things you need in a dog.

Paying mind to the positives

Anxious individuals also pay less attention to the good stuff or the neutral stuff. If their ‘noticing bad stuff’ would get them a gold medal, their ‘paying attention to good stuff’ would get them last place in a race for beginners.

Stéphane Dandeneau is a post-doctoral professor of psychology in Québec. His focus in the last twenty years has been on resilience, and, specifically, the role of attentional processes. In his 2004 paper with Mark Baldwin, they explored the bias that anxious individuals had towards a simple scientific situation: picking smiling faces out from frowning faces. They focused in on social rejection, noting that some people have trouble with their attention to negative feedback.

They set a simple task: find the smiling face among the frowning faces.

Image taken from Dandeneau & Baldwin (2004)

What they found was that anxious individuals took much longer to find the smiling face than those who were not anxious. It is a useful part of a huge pocket of research about how negative information interferes with attention, specifically for people with a whole range of disorders from social and non-social phobias to health worries and anxiety. On tests like this, it takes emotionally vulnerable individuals much longer It’s also provided a great deal of interesting ideas for therapeutic practice. As they say in their introduction, some individuals monitor for threat. When they find it, they spend longer looking at it and paying attention to it. Then they struggle to disengage.

This was not new information. Since the early 1990s, researchers had seen this attentional focus on the negative. Dandeneau and Baldwin set out to show that they could change things. Could they get people to focus less on the bad and more on the good?

Their research showed they could.

Attentional biases in dogs

But this is people, you say. Even though that sounds like exactly the problem we have with our dogs.

There are dogs, I promise!

In 2016, Somppi and colleagues did the same kind of experiment with dogs. Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of their research is that dogs make a judgement about social threat quickly, very able to make quick decisions about threatening faces. They also found that dogs had an attentional bias towards threat too, just as we do.

This makes sense. As I said in the last post, it’s healthy for us if we can identify threat. As Somppi and colleagues start by saying, being able to respond to our companions’ signals is an important skill for all social animals.

It’s perhaps not healthy if we’re actively seeking negativity out, as it perpetuates a vicious circle.

The study also found dogs paid more attention to angry dogs, but avoided looking at angry humans. This piece of research gives us such insight into canine cognition.

As you can see from these results here, there was a clear difference between how long dogs spent looking at threatening pictures of humans and dogs compared to pleasant or neutral pictures.

taken from Somppi et al. (2016)

They also suggest reasons why they think dogs may spend more time looking at other angry dogs. One reason is that dogs are simply more relevant to dogs than humans are, given the fact they are the same species. The other is that humans have probably selected for less aggressive and more submissive dogs over time in terms of how they respond to humans.

The significance of the science

Somppi and colleagues (2016) suggest that dogs have similar attentional processes to humans in several key ways. This means that they might also be susceptible to the therapeutic benefits of being trained to look for the good stuff, as Dardeneau and Baldwin (2004) suggested was useful for humans. In fact, there has been a lot of research into the benefits of training emotionally vulnerably humans to change their focus.

Reducing attention on negatives is only one part of the way in which this body of research has impacted therapy. We know this ourselves. It’s not healthy to spend time ruminating or dwelling on things we cannot change or scenarios we cannot alter.

But the second prong of therapeutic approaches is also relevant: learning to pay more attention to neutral and positive stuff.

Putting this to use with dogs

Anecdotal evidence has long since suggested that reactive dogs benefit from certain activities. People who’ve done mantrailing or scentwork with their dogs, for instance, have sometimes noted how powerful it is in reducing barking and lunging, anxiety or fearfulness. I’ve been including scentwork and scent desensitisation in my work with dog behaviour problems for many years. It has enormous benefit. In Dante Camacho’s Clicker Expo 2023 session, for instance, he used scent work with reactive dogs to great ends.

Dr Charlotte Duranton’s paper with Dr Alexandra Horowitz from 2019 gave us one powerful explanation for these anecdotal reports. Sniffing increases optimism.

However, there may be more to it than simply increasing optimism.

When we do activities with our dogs, it helps them focus on the positive. Just like attentional biases can be retrained in humans by focusing on good stuff, doing enjoyable things with our dogs also helps them build up their attentional muscles in terms of focusing on positives.

Key thoughts for work with dogs

We need two strands for reactive dogs. The first is in using negatively valenced low-intensity single-modality sensory stimuli to help the more evaluative bits of the brain down-regulate the noisy, shouty bits.

That’s a fair few science junk words!

Basically, we can separate out aspects of scary stuff for our dogs. Instead of trying to help them around moving dogs, we can start with the odour or the sound of dogs. We can then move on to static dogs, as many trainers do with stuffed lifesize animals. And then we can add a little movement. We can also combine these separate aspects too. When we use these as teaching situations to help our dog disengage, it can be really useful at bridging the gap between easy stuff and more challenging things.

We can’t expect, for example, our dogs to disengage from big hairy wolfhounds running towards them if they can’t disengage from the faint smell of a friendly labrador on a towel.

And we also know our dogs do need to process this information at low levels if we want them to cope in the world. They can’t avoid the world forever. But they won’t overcome their reactivity if we’re always trying to do it in high-intensity situations.

That’s the first strand.

Increasing positive experiences for our dogs

We also need to think about the second strand of insight this research gives us.

Our reactive dogs are probably not focusing very much on the good stuff on walks. It’s very likely they’re spending a long time scanning the environment looking for trouble.

For this reason, we need to build up their ability to concentrate on good stuff.

As we start our reactivity programmes with dogs, it can be very easy to simply focus on the negative, doing nothing more than habituation or counterconditioning around the things our dogs find icky.

But are we also giving them opportunities to build up their ability to pay attention to the good stuff?

What we know from human therapeutic models is that some humans find this really tough. It’s really easy to not only dwell on the negative but to actively seek it out. Cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness therapies and attention bias modification programmes are all based on addressing this problem.

We also know that for humans, a bit of help focusing on the good stuff doesn’t go amiss either. This is exactly what the Duranton & Horowitz study on dogs suggested.

In practice

I’m still at my early stages in chewing all this over. I think there are probably a lot of advantages in doing match-to-sample type activities, like scentwork and mantrailing. These allow our dogs to build up their stamina in concentrating on one specific thing over longer and longer periods of time. I should add that it’s probably not quite so helpful to do these if your dog is so scared of whatever they are searching for that they set off barking and lunging the moment they make visual contact.

But mantrailing in particular offers a useful way for dogs who are not big fans of people to engage with low-intensity odour in order for the big brain to say, ‘See… told you they aren’t dangerous!’ about humans. The amygdala gets a software update and the brain is functioning as it should.

I think a little-known task in obedience and some protection sports actually has huge potential for this kind of focus on the positive. We see it when we play ‘Find it!’ activities with our dogs. In ‘Find it!’, we teach a dog to locate a hidden item by scent alone.

Match-to-sample activities are a bigger challenge. You can see this here:

In olfactory match to sample activities, our dogs are given a target odour and then asked to find an item that smells the same. I do this with Lidy all the time. She loves it. I’d go as far as to say that when I taught her to do this in the shelter, she was thirsty for it. I don’t want to read too much into her interest in doing it though!

Where ‘Find it!’ can help

As you can see, this kind of activity uses a lot of brain power. The dog has to retain the odour in their working memory and then match it to a sample, including where there are decoys. I simply can’t imagine how hard this is for a dog. Lidy can find the Ace of Spades in a deck of cards.

We’re working of course with a marked card – what magician doesn’t?

I scent-mark the card. No, that sounds wrong. I put odour on the card.

Then I put it in a deck that are laid out in rows like the handkerchiefs in the video when she is behind a barrier and can’t see. I present her the odour, and she has to pick the matching card out of the deck.

This kind of activity is kind of cute-looking but it takes a lot of cognitive focus to stay on task and ignore the irrelevant scents.

When I was looking at the research about attentional bias, I pondered for a while. It’s all very well knowing this about dogs, but how can we use it therapeutically?

Then it hit me. ‘Find it!’ is exactly this. We ask our dogs to ignore the neutral and frowny faces, metaphorically speaking, and focus on finding the smiley face. It’s the scent version of Dandenau and Baldwin’s experiment to ask people to focus on the smiley face and ignore the frowny ones.

Where scent match-to-sample can help

In Dante’s video at Clicker Expo 2023, this is exactly what he was doing with his human-reactive dog. He asked the dog to find a hidden item. He also included some people in the search area. They weren’t interacting with the dog, but the dog had to keep looking for the good stuff and ignoring the stuff he hated.

That’s marvellous, I thought. It is exactly what attentional bias training does with humans who struggle with their own big feelings.


But some of the dogs I work with are not yet ready to be in a room with people, even if they’ve mastered ‘find it!’.

And other dogs are dog-reactive. Trying to do scent work in a room full of dogs would just be out of the question for those who struggle the most.

How could I build up to the kind of activities where dogs could work on attention exercises around stuff they were afraid of? How could I pair it down.

This is where match to sample came in.

Using olfactory match-to-sample with reactive dogs

When our dogs are not ready to work on an attention exercise in a room full of people or other dogs, we can reduce the complexity and challenge by using cloths just like the olfactory match to sample at Crufts.

That way, our dogs learn to keep their attention on good stuff in return for rewards, but at the same time, they’re also processing low levels of negative stuff and learning to tune it out.

This is marginally less challenging from a logistical point of view, but we can also reduce the challenge even further. Yes, we have to go and ask people if we can wipe their dogs with a clean cloth. Tedious and mildly embarrassing, of course. But for our dog-reactive dog, the benefits may well be very worth it.

We simply put a handkerchief with a lovely smell on one cloth and teach them to find it from neutral cloths first, and then from cloths with other smells on.

It may well be way past your logistical capabilities to do, but if you’re really struggling to step up your training with your reactive dog, it is certainly a thing that many dog trainers could really help you with. Just being able to go into a room that’s housed 10 puppies for the last hour in order to find a toy marked with a good smell is the simplest way to start for a dog-reactive dog. We control the environment: dogs are not going to come in. We’re also helping our dogs focus on the good stuff and learn to ignore the bad.

The role of scent activities in training

In the last post, we looked at the benefits of moving beyond rewarding every single disengagement. We started to think about planned ignoring for disengagement from the least challenging things. It can be really easy for our dogs to go back to doing whatever they were doing.

It can also be really hard for dogs who have a strong habit of scanning the world to stop doing that and learn new skills. Sure, we can keep our dogs busy, but it’d try the patience of a saint to have their dog constantly hanging around them for activities. Plus, our dogs are still relying on us when they do this.

What we need is a bridging activity.

Something we can give our dogs to do while, ideally, processing low levels of stuff they would normally react to.

Into practice

Right now I’m working with a collie who was very reactive to cars. He was actually anticipating the cars as soon as he heard them, so he was both listening out for and scanning for cars. I think it was probably mild anxiety and a lot of frustration leading to him barking and lunging, maybe even a little boredom. He was very sensitive to frustration.

We did our first scentwork activities and games in a place that smelled strongly of cars – an empty, closed car park. This was on purpose. If he couldn’t engage with an activity in a place without cars, he wouldn’t be able to when he could hear or see them.

Then we did our next session in a walled garden where he could hear traffic (and probably smell it) but he couldn’t see it. We had a few sessions in places like this to help him learn to focus when he can hear cars. We also paired up his disengagement from car sounds with a game of tuggy. I wanted to normalise the sound of cars so that he’d get to the point where he was ignoring them. We then started not to play tuggy for the most quiet car sounds, phasing it out.

I hoped that he would eventually start to ignore the car sounds in favour of doing other things.

Sure enough, that’s what happened. He was ignoring the car sound in favour of training, a few runs through a Hoopers course and other games of tuggy.

Skills for life

The remaining bit will be working on his training around cars. We’ll be starting that next.

Sarah Stremming of Cog Dog Radio and the Cognitive Canine has a programme (and webinar) called Barky-Lungey 101. In it, she does a lot more training with reactive dogs than I used to do. I’ve really changed my mind on how useful this can be for many dogs.

As you know, I’m not the biggest practitioner of training exercises. Mainly this is because I am very lazy. I like to pretend that it’s because I’m against drilling dogs (and I am) but it’s mostly because I’m far too lazy to do it. It also doesn’t seem like very much fun.

Those were all my reasons for not doing traditional heeling and sit-stay or down-stay exercises with dogs.

Now, I realise that the beauty of doing these is largely in that they keep the dog focused on a highly rewarding activity and it also builds duration. As an added bonus, they are also processing the stuff they hate at low levels, so old Pavlov hitches a ride too.

Both Dante’s approach and Sarah’s approach are successful because they involve doing good stuff with dogs that ask them to ignore the bad stuff and tune it out to some degree. That tuning out also allows them to process it, just at that crucial low intensity required for cognitive processing.

We can’t ask for more!

In essence

It’s not sufficient simply to ask or train our dogs to tune out the bad stuff. We also need to build up their skills to focus on rewarding stuff instead. Like any activity, our dogs will find this hard at first. It’s their habit to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive. Any activity that asks dogs to tune out the world and also builds their ability to focus for longer and longer periods of time has the ability to make a huge difference for our reactive dogs.

To find out more

You can find out more about Sarah Stremming’s Barky-Lungey 101 here on her podcast

She also talks about the role of desensitisation in her programmes

Read the posts so far about the roadmap to resilience:

The twelve stages of the roadmap

Teaching foundation skills separately

Changing the situation while you embed foundation skills

Adapting situations while you embed foundation skills

Teaching your dog to let you direct their attention

Cuing disengagement

Supporting unprompted disengagement

Changing your dog’s emotional perspective

Why disengagement can be more crucial than engagement

Noticing less rather than more

You can also check out the Lighten Up Teachable courses here

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