From Troubled around Triggers to Calm with Your Reactive Dog

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

From Troubled around Triggers to Calm with Your Reactive Dog

May 30, 2023 Uncategorised 0

Although our reactive dogs may seem to be triggered by everything on walks, when we work through the Resilience Roadmap, we can reduce the stress they feel. Triggers are simply the things in the world that set our dogs off barking and lunging.

There are twelve foundational principles of the roadmap.

Train the skills you need separately and make sure they are truly embedded. We can’t over-estimate the importance of this step. Giving our dogs the skills they need to disengage, to walk away, to walk on or to wait it out is crucial.

Take a break from your regular barkfest as you work on these skills. We cannot keep immersing our dogs in difficult situations if we expect them to progress.

Make small changes and adapt your walks to reduce the impact of triggers. Sometimes, it can be really hard to avoid tricky situations. Small changes can make all the difference.

Build ‘Busy Work’ skills to keep your dog occupied. Rather than having a dog losing their cool, we can help them by keeping their focus on us.

Help your dog disengage from triggers by teaching them a cue to move away. This will help them when they need more support.

You can also help them by supporting their own fledgling disengagement and making it worth their while to move on from their troubles.

The tensions of paying attention to trouble

We’re all hoping for a dog who can just take in the things that get them hot under the collar and simply move away. Wouldn’t it be ace if they could simply take a look, shrug it off and move on?


As we know, anxious dogs spend more time paying attention to potential threats. They notice unusual or unknown things more quickly than other dogs. They also fail to pay attention to neutral or positive things. It’s almost like they are disregarding the good stuff and favouring the bad.

You’ll know this if you ever spent five minutes trying to offer your dog food instead of barking at some approaching dog in the distance. What researchers have shown is our daily, lived experience.

Paying too much mind to things that bother us is actually not a healthy behaviour. This attentional bias towards negative stuff actually causes us to feel worse. It’s a vicious circle.

It’s also a circle that affects our dogs.

It actually makes them worse to pay so much attention to the icky stuff that they don’t like.

In turn, that emotional vulnerability also puts them on the lookout for trouble. Paying all that attention to the negative stuff also makes our dogs more impulsive. It makes them pay less attention to their own bodies and gives them less capacity to turn the volume down on their behaviour. Paying so much mind to life’s bothers also depletes their ability to control themselves and walk on by.

In short, it does our dogs no favours to continue practising reactive behaviour when they’re anxious.

Moving beyond threat detection

Our reactive dogs are like intuitive little threat detectors. They’re not passively biding their time like the smoke detector in your home, they are actively seeking out potential threat.

They’re also misperceiving things that are harmless as threatening. Instead of seeing the world as mostly benevolent, or at least neutral, our littlest threat detectors are busy barking at stone crosses, snowmen and stray plastic bags that catch their eye.

In the past, we talked about this as being an ‘amygdala hijack’. What people meant by this was that the brain’s threat detector, the amygdala, ran around shouting its mouth off so the rest of the brain couldn’t go about calming things down again. The amygdala has done a great job. It’s got us through millions of years of natural selection. Without it, we’d all be long since dead.

Even so, Nature is not about sensitive threat detectors. If we’re too sensitive, we can’t function. We’d all stay at home, petrified to move. If the amgydala was too sensitive, we’d all be long since dead for other reasons… Our ancestors would have starved or failed to reproduce.

The pre-frontal cortex and other more sophisticated structures are able to down-regulate the amygdala so we can function optimally.

But they can’t do that if our amygdala is always running around shouting its siren-like mouth off. When the world is too high intensity, disengagement is the best strategy. It lets us cool ourselves down emotionally.

From cued and uncued disengagement

This is why it can really help if we can help our dogs learn that they can disengage. Just like a therapist helps us disengage from worry or rumination, we can help our dogs learn these crucial skills too.

At first, we start this through teaching our dog to disengage when we ask. Sometimes, that might be a ‘let’s go!’ cue or even a ‘leave it!’ cue.

But we don’t want to spend our lives telling our dogs what to do. I am simply too lazy to micromanage my dog like this! Plus, if I do, I’m not really equipping her with the skills she needs to regulate her own emotions. She is relying on me rather than learning resilience.

We’ve already looked at how we can build up our dog’s ability to move away from things. As you learned in the last post, we can also include things in our teaching sessions that help them process scary stuff at low intensity. For instance, we can separate out the senses and focus on olfaction, giving them something that smells vaguely of the things they struggle with. Where we give our dogs the choice to investigate, they may choose to avoid these odours. Unfortunately, that is not always very helpful because it doesn’t allow the pre-frontal cortex to do its very useful job of down-regulating the amygdala.

It’s like the pre-frontal cortex just runs a software upgrade by the amygdala.

But that only happens when the amygdala isn’t up to much. If it’s in red alert mode, that patch won’t work.

When our dogs learn that they can disengage before their threat alert kicks in, it’s perhaps the most powerful learning of all for our reactive dogs.

Beyond rewards

At first, we are rewarding our dogs because disengagement is hard. If it were easy, our dogs would be doing it already! Controlling what they pay attention to is hard, especially if they are often anxious.

We are teaching them a new skill: you can move away from scary stuff instead of barking and lunging.

A high rate of reward every time they disengage is great for embedding skills, but many owners get stuck here. How do we move on?

Rewarding every time our dogs disengage is called a continuous rate of reinforcement. What that means is that for each time they disengage, we give them a reward.

Continuous rates of reinforcement are great for building skills, but do not help us in the long run. It’s firstly very hard for us to sustain, and secondly not much like life.

Besides, we do want to get to a point where our dogs disengage of their own volition and don’t need a reward. When we reward every time, we can actually create another problem that I’ll explore another time: we can actually make things more relevant to the dog.

What happens is the dog learns that we are rewarding disengagement, but they also realise they have to engage first. Sometimes – and not often, admittedly – they get to the point where they are noticing things in order to simply disengage and be rewarded. In psychology, we would say that the rewards are making certain things in the world more noticeable.

The goalposts change for us at this point. We’re now moving from wanting them to disengage to wanting them to start ignoring things. They can’t do that if we’re keeping it relevant by giving them a reward every time they notice things.

An example

My old dog Flika arrived with me aged 14. She had a chronic car-chasing habit that I needed to tame. When she disengaged, I rewarded her. All good! She noticed the cars and then came racing back to me for a treat. Whoo! That’s a whole lot better than barking at the end of the lead and almost giving herself a heart attack. It also meant I could let her off lead without worrying about the occasional car. The cars became a recall cue. The moment she saw one, she’d locate me and come racing back to me.

That’s fine – I have no problem with feeding an old dog a treat every time she sees a car. The one or two times I ran out of treats, she was already back with me. No harm, no foul. I petted her instead and we had a game.

But… my other dog Heston did not have a car-chasing habit. He was oblivious to cars in our seven years before Flika. He paid them zero mind at all unless they were actually too close and dangerous. Perfect example of how the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex should operate: respond when there is a severe threat, but please don’t bother noticing if not.

He picked up on Flika’s training and he started noticing the cars and coming back for a treat. Now he was actively noticing cars he’d previously been ignoring.

Rewards have a habit of making things salient. They make them noticeable.

So what’s the problem?

It’s clearly not a problem at all if you see scary things so infrequently that it doesn’t matter if your dog notices them or not.

It doesn’t help our dogs learn to pay no attention to things though. To disengage, you need to engage.

To move beyond this, we need to get to the point where our dogs increasingly ignore triggers completely. This is our first step on the road towards habituation.

Habituation is just the term for being so used to things that they don’t stand out anymore. I’m so used to my neighbour’s dog barking that I don’t notice it; I’m so used to my quiet, lovely laptop that when the fan kicks in, I notice it. And I’m so used to my noisy fridge that I don’t notice it anymore unless I deliberately choose to pay it attention. As I stop and think, there are many sounds I simply wasn’t paying attention to: birds tweeting, a dog barking, Lidy breathing, the fridge humming, pigeons cooing.

Reward me for noticing them, and I’ll be consciously listening out for them.

So that’s the ideal that we can work towards: habituation rather than sensitisation.

Instead of noticing other dogs or strangers approaching every single time and reacting immediately with all the big feelings, instead of being sensitive to the world, we can help our dogs move towards being used to the world.

Moving to habituation

The first step as we move towards habituation is to begin phasing out rewards.

We need to be careful as we do this though, so that our dog doesn’t simply go back to barking and lunging. Therefore, we need to take a gentle, phased approach.

This is a lot easier if you’ve been using varied rewards. You can then just use them selectively. Use the good rewards for big disengagement and keep the cheap rewards for the less threatening stuff. It’s more noticeable to your dog if you’ve been using exactly the same reward every single time.

Then you can also use different grades of reward. I know that praise is kind of cheap to a lot of dogs, but a ‘good dog!’ and a ‘well done!’ can also start to vary the rewards. For example, I can use my best rewards for the big stuff, and a ‘great stuff!’ for the stuff that was barely worth disengaging from. I know when my dog looks at me expectantly that they totally understand what’s happening. Just as a final tip, it’s also important not to use your marker word as praise. A marker word is just there to tell the dog they’ve done the right thing and it should always be paired with a proper reward.

From here, I just start focusing on the best disengagements from troubling stuff.

In practice

My girl Lidy is not that fussed by litter, but she will move towards it. If I had been rewarding disengagement, I would probably have been rewarding disengagement from litter. She is, however, fussed by cats. Very fussed. If she disengages from cats, she gets all the prizes. The prize bell rings and she gets a jackpot reward. That helps keep her neurons firing as well. Surprise always boosts learning.

We’re now at the point where she disengages from most things that have been triggers for her in the past. She can walk past most sheep fields these days as long as they’re pretty static. The other day, we were walking along the lane and a small dog had got into a sheep field. The sheep were all fizzy and this clearly got Lidy excited. Normally, I don’t reward disengaging from sheep any more. They’re not worth paying out for. But I rewarded her when I cued her to disengage from the sheep and do a u-turn. That was worth paying out for!

We’re just operating a sliding scale of rewards. Good rewards when it was a gold star disengagement from something really fun. Sometimes, I don’t reward her casual glance and disengage.

Glance – look – stare – fix disengagement

We can also start very gradually (think weeks & months, not hours & days!) start phasing out rewards for times our dog just glances at their former triggers. I say nothing to Lidy now when she glances at people. They are not even worth engaging with. She’s still not at the ‘glance’ stage with cats or other dogs, and that’s fine. She does glance at sheep and birds, and we just carry on doing what she was doing.

A glance lasts less than a couple of seconds before they disengage. It will probably involve the head turning, and that’s fine. They take it in. They notice what there is to notice. Then they move on.

A look probably lasts a few more seconds and is more intense. We may still be rewarding looking at things at quite a high rate, depending on what it is they’re looking at. For former triggers, I pay up. I think that is worth reward.

Staring, which usually happens when the dog comes to a standstill, and a fixed stare, mean I’d still be working on very high levels of reward. Staring tells me my dog may need a cue to move on. This means we’re not ready to progress to phasing out rewards yet. That may only be for this particular trigger, so I can phase out rewards for one trigger and keep them high for others.

For instance, Lidy stares at horses, cows and cats. In fact, it’s a full fix on cats, and into stalk mode. She’s not ready for me to phase out rewards for disengaging yet, and that is fine. She doesn’t stare at sheep or people, so we’re ready to start phasing out rewards for them.

Auditory and olfactory stimuli

If your dog is more interested in sounds or smells, you can also do this approach there too. Admittedly, it’s a little difficult for us to know if odours are strong or not! By the time it’s at a level we can smell, it’s probably well worth disengaging from for a huge prize.

Phasing out rewards depending on the strength of noises is a little easier. It takes a lot for Lidy to notice dogs barking these days, but if there’s particularly panicked or frenetic barking, she’ll pay attention. I usually don’t reward that any more because we’re well into habituation around the noise of other dogs. It takes a lot of barking outside to get her attention these days.

Even so, we can still use it in the same way, keeping good value rewards for the best stuff and phasing them out for the minor dramas.

In essence

We don’t want to make mistakes as we reduce rewards for disengagement. If we do, we’re likely to find our dogs go right back to barking and lunging again. At the same time, it’s neither feasible nor helpful to try to reinforce our dogs for every single time they disengage from something minor. We can even end up causing more trouble for ourselves.

As we move to reducing rewards, it helps to have used varied rewards in the first place. This means our dogs are more used to variability. When they’ve always had steak for disengaging, they’re going to find it pretty frustrating when they don’t get steak for disengaging. We can also substitute lesser rewards and eventually skip rewards for minimal noticing. That way, we can pave the way towards the moment our dogs dismiss things that used to bother them.

To find out more

This post on the roadmap to resilience is essential reading

Having basic skills in place such as those outlined here will also help your dog

Knowing how to avoid triggers and how to reduce their impact is a vital skill for owners

Being able to get our dog’s attention to support them when they need it will also help

Teaching them a cue to disengage (or recall) is crucial

Moving to uncued auto-disengagement is the next step

You can also find out more from the Lighten Up training courses

Download your FREE copy of the Resilience Roadmap ebook here

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