Proven Ways For Reactive Dogs to Learn Emotional Mastery

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Proven Ways For Reactive Dogs to Learn Emotional Mastery

June 13, 2023 Uncategorised 0

If you’ve been following the roadmap to resilience with your dog, you should find you’re both well on your way to success. The components within the programme are designed to effortlessly reduce your dog’s barking and lunging on walks.

In the past, many dog trainers like me took a loose approach to reactivity. We’d cherry-pick from a handful of courses, dipping in and out depending on a variety of factors. Maybe we thought we were taking a bespoke approach and adapting our toolkit accordingly. In reality, we were working instinctively, rather than working systematically.

That sometimes made it hard for clients to see the process. It also made it hard for them to see how much progress they had made.

The last few years have really changed that for me. It’s now all about resilience and regulation.

The Roadmap to Resilience

There are twelve essential steps we can take to support our dogs who bark and lunge. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter too much if they are doing so because they are anxious or frustrated. The steps are designed to be dynamic and flexible. We move through them at our dog’s pace. It’s practical and efficient.

So far we have covered:

Teaching foundation skills separately so that our dogs know what they’re supposed to do;

Changing our walks while our dogs learn key skills;

Adapting our walks instead of walking into trouble;

Teaching our dogs to let us hold their focus;

These are all anticipatory skills. They reduce the impact of the world on our dogs, relying on management. Although management is useful, it does not really teach our dogs the skills they need. Following this initial starting stretch of the roadmap, we can then begin putting foundation skills into play.

Changing our dog’s feelings about triggers;

Whether to teach our dogs to engage or not

Teaching dog to ignore triggers;

Helping dogs choose to ignore triggers without our guidance

Helping our dogs focus on rewarding activities

Why pairing matters and when to phase it out

Effortful ignoring

As our journey progresses, we move from our dog gradually paying less and less mind to the things that bother them. Whether they bark and lunge at other dogs or at people, at cars or at cats, we should find that by this point, our dogs are able to do more interesting things. We can always step back on the roadmap if we’re not finding this. It’s also important to remember that the triggers that cause our dog’s barking and lunging may need completely different roadmaps.

For instance, my dog Lidy is now at the point when she will ignore sheep from time to time and just carry on with her walk. She’s long past the days of lunging at cars. Now, she pays them no mind at all unless they really are too close and too fast – not that I ever let that happen. But she’s not at the point where she’s ready to ignore cats. That’s a challenge too far!

We’re still working on our disengagement around cats, and that’s fine. Management is helping us along. In all honesty, I don’t do very much more than management because she’ll never be off-lead around cats and she is manageable even when one shoots out from under a bush.

It’s not pretty behaviour, but life is too short to tackle this problem for any other reason than having nothing better to do. Because of her other behaviours, she’s not a dog who is ever off-lead in places that are not free of other animals and completely fenced in. Most people don’t have a dog with such strong behaviours as she has, thankfully!

So what is effortful behaviour?

Without wanting to humanise our dogs, we know there are times when they’re really trying to do the thing we’ve asked them to do, even if they’re not yet fluent or polished. Effortful simply means that it takes effort. Sometimes, we think of dogs as flotsam on the tide of life’s emotions, carried by their feelings. For our reactive dogs, this certainly seems to be the case.

But for the vast majority of dogs, including our own reactive ones, we know that they tone down their behaviour. Mostly! You only have to look at dogs who lack in this completely to see a dog who doesn’t have effortful control. They’re often destructive, unable to be left for a minute, destroying sofas the moment you go out of the room.

Nothing is safe with them. They can’t walk on a loose lead. They may get in fights with other animals and run into constant conflict with humans for their grabby, impulsive behaviour.

Effortful simply means wilful and controlled. It’s the opposite of impulsivity.

It’s not an on-off thing. Consider it more like a spectrum, with service dogs on duty at the far end and dogs who are highly impulsive at the other. A dog who has some effortful control is not at the mercy of their emotions all of the time. They are rational, thoughtful and deliberate.

Effortful behaviour, then, is where we choose a less preferred behaviour over a more preferred one. Like where you choose the salad over the fries. That takes effort.

Effortful attention

Attention is something that we can control to some degree. As we grow up, we learn to control where it goes more deliberately. Even very young infants don’t have attention that goes everywhere. For instance, Simion et al. (2008) found that two-day-old babies show a preference for biological motion, paying more attention to movements that looked like chicken movements than randomised patterns of movement.

By 5 months, infants are even more specialised; they increasingly spend time looking at human motion patterns compared to non-human patterns.

In short, our attention doesn’t spill out everywhere and treat everything as equally interesting. I don’t need to tell you this; you perhaps have a dog who would spot a junk food wrapper in a town dump within seconds.

Some of our attention is driven by our species needs. It’s also believed to be highly social. Five-month-old babies focus on human movement because human movement is innately interesting to us as humans. What was interesting in the Somppi et al. (2016) study was that the dogs in their study spent almost as much time attending to human faces as canine faces. If only humans were so interested in other species!

To varying degrees, our attention can be automatic and instinctive. Even so, we can also choose where it goes. Again, it’s not just about choosing where our eyes and mind go. It is only effortful when we choose to do it instead of more frequent or more rewarding focus.

When our dogs choose to pay attention to sniffing the floor rather than barking at some ne’er-do-well across the field, that is effortful attention.

Effortful attention and reactive dogs

I don’t need to tell you that it takes a lot of effort for our dogs to ignore the stuff they’d normally bark and lunge at. Madly, especially if this makes them anxious, you’d think that they’d prefer to pay it no mind. But as you know, all our dogs’ attention is on barking and lunging.

Our dog will notice another dog across the park and then won’t be able to peel their attention away.

Many of you will have seen this funny (and sweary!) video of ‘Tony’ and ‘Ezekiel’ on TikTok or YouTube:

Do you see how neither dog can peel their eyes off the other?

No effortful attention there!

So I know I don’t need to convince you that it is actually hard for our reactive dogs to move their attention away from the other dog.

Likewise if our dog barks and lunges at strangers. And yes, exactly the same with dogs who bark and lunge at vehicles, wildlife, livestock, cats, lawnmowers and wheelie bins… this is their dominant attentional focus.

Choosing not to do this is tough. This is why Step #4 of the roadmap to resilience focuses on requesting our dogs let us guide their attention.

When we direct our dog’s attention

If our dogs won’t let us direct their attention, then there’s little chance they’ll be able to do it by themselves. That’s why Step #4 comes first. We all need a helping hand when things are tough. Tony and Ezekiel’s guardians could have asked their dogs to pay attention to them in return for some high-value rewards. They could have made it easy for their dogs.

You know also that the middle steps of the roadmap are focused on helping our dogs disengage once their attention has been hooked by whatever it is.

Now we’re moving to our dogs not engaging in the first place.

Many of us direct our dog’s attention. This is absolutely fine. Luckily, Tony and Ezekiel came to no bother and other than some very fixed staring and difficulty moving away, no real harm was done. It would have been easier for both dogs if their guardians had stepped up though.

But directing our dog’s attention for them is very much about managing our dogs. This is fine, if this is what we want. I do this with Lidy around cats and probably always will.

However, this does not equip our dogs with the skills to manage their own attention for themselves.

As we move to helping our dogs become completely at ease around stuff that used to get them hot under the collar, we can build their skills at focusing on other things and then support them as they begin to choose those options instead.

Moving to self-direction

It seems mad to think that our dogs will choose other options rather than ogling the other dog approaching. If we’ve worked through Steps #1 to #9, we should be at the point where our dog is ready to effortfully control their own attention.

The other dog approaching simply becomes a signal for new behaviour: carry on with what you were doing and choose to pay that attention rather than this.

This is why Step #9 is so helpful. When we’re doing directed dog-led activities around things that used to cause their barking and lunging, they get into the habit of paying attention to other stuff. They let us build a positive history with the new stuff. They’re in ‘the zone’. It becomes their new thing.

When dogs ignore us because they’re too busy chasing birds or butterflies, or barking at the end of the lead at a teenager delivering newspapers, that’s not effortful control over their attention. That takes zero effort whatsoever. They’re just doing what dogs do.

When dogs ignore the birds and butterflies and choose not to bark at the end of the lead at a teenager delivering newspapers, that is effortful control over attention.

Why this is a gold standard is because when our dogs can do this, they are managing their own emotions, responses and behaviour.

How can we build effortful attentional control with our dogs?

This is all well and good, but how do we get there?

First, we work through earlier steps. If your dog can’t disengage when you ask, or sometimes disengage even if you don’t ask, then they’re not up here yet, and that is absolutely fine. We’re all on our own journey.

Second, we start doing some of the stuff suggested in the last post, even if we’re doing it on our own. Agility, trick training, Hoopers, mantrailing, gundog trials, obedience routines and scentwork are all ideal. Hell, if dog dance or heelwork to music is your dog’s thing, have at it. Nobody will judge you for dancing in the streets.

It really pays to give our dogs something else to focus on, rather than letting them just drift around looking for bother. Honestly, if we don’t step up and actively help our dogs, they’re never going to get to the point where they don’t need our support. That dominant attentional focus is always going to lead them into a Tony/Ezekiel moment. Also, good friends don’t abandon their friends to Big Feelings. That’s not what we signed up for, especially if those Big Feelings are unpleasant ones.

It also helps to let learning and rewards boost our work. If we want to build strong habits, then we need to firstly appreciate how flipping hard it is for dogs to NOT pay attention to the Tonys and Ezekiels in their world. Second, we need to stop being stingy.

Dog trainer extras

Dog trainers are a dab hand at this already. Herrnstein’s Matching Law is exactly this, just for attention. If you want shouting at dogs to become the sub-dominant behaviour, simply reward the other stuff. Differential reinforcement is our business! Pay up, pay out and pay big. Then add in some surprise, some novelty, some fun.

Also, remember that all behaviours we see are things we can shape more of. I especially like Lidy’s nose to the ground. This means she is attempting to catch shrews rather than shouting the odds with dogs over the road. If I want more nose-down behaviour, then I need to help her remember it’s really fun for dogs to do this. Baiting the ground, dragging chicken along it and having surprise scatter feeding picnics is one way I can do this. I can also do it with artificial odours for gundog trials. And I can cue it.

‘Go sniff!’ is my reminder to her to do a behaviour that keeps her nose on the ground. I can offer her lots of opportunities to do this, searching grass banks and teaching her other things like ‘Find my keys!’ or ‘Find it!’

These all start as cued behaviours but they require the dog to use their effortful control. When we show dogs the way and make it rewarding, we can absolutely build more of these behaviours.

A final word

Effortful attentional control is not easy. I’ve got a minor toothache right now and it’s sitting there, in my consciousness, drawing me back to it from time to time. It stops me focusing on writing this. It is also easy to exhaust. We really want it to become a smooth and automatic part of our dogs’ lives so that other behaviours become the dominant response, not fixating on, barking at or lunging towards other stuff. The more automatic we make it, the more habitual it is, the less challenging it is for our dogs.

It takes practice. That means it’s up to us to provide learning opportunities for it to happen.

Don’t forget as well that a key part of resilience training is also about recovery. Sure, they may engage in a bit of Tony/Ezekiel-style eyeballing and straining on the lead, but how quickly does their attention go back to what they were doing in the first place, and how much emotional fallout is there afterwards? We can also see our dog’s progress in terms of how quickly they recover, and effortful attention is part of that.

In essence

Our dogs may need a bit of help getting off the starting blocks as far as paying attention to other stuff is concerned. We first need to appreciate how normal, natural and habitual it is for our reactive dogs to bark and lunge at other dogs, at humans or at other stuff. But just because it is normal and natural doesn’t mean we can’t give our dogs a helping hand in focusing on other stuff instead.

When our dogs can purposefully choose other behaviour themselves, instead of barking and lunging, we truly know we are on the route to resilience.

To find out more

This step is not the beginning of our journey.

You can find the roadmap to resilience here

The foundational skills our dogs will need is here

Changing the environment to help our dogs is here

Making adaptations to the environment is here

Helping our dogs learn to let themselves focus on us is here. This is a crucial step preceding the techniques we have explored today.

Cognitive change is here

Whether we need to teach our dogs to engage is here

Learning to disengage is here

Disengaging voluntarily is here

Phasing out rewards and shaping less noticing is here

Learning to focus on the positive is here

And you can also find information about the Lighten Up training courses here