The best training methods for reactive dogs

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

The best training methods for reactive dogs

March 26, 2024 Uncategorised 0

Living with a dog who barks and lunges on lead can be exhausting. It’s not uncommon to hear people asking for support on social media with their dog who is struggling with the world around them. Often, it’s all we can do to focus on the quickest way to stop the behaviour.

Sadly, it’s also not uncommon to hear the list of common quick-fixes that follow. Changing walking equipment is one method people often recommend.

They may suggest getting a different collar, like a prong collar. Prong collars, sometimes called ‘pinch’ collars, have prongs that put pressure on the dog’s neck. When tightened, they ‘pinch’ or pull the skin as well as pressing into the neck itself. These are illegal in a growing number of countries.

Another type of collar people sometimes recommend is a shock collar. Because the people who recommend these do not like explaining how they work, they sometimes call them ‘e-collars’.

Some shock collars work by bark activation. The dog barks and they shock the dog.

Others work by proximity to an invisible fence. These sometimes deliver a warning tone to the dog. Then they deliver a shock if the dog does not move away from the invisible perimeter.

People also recommend remote-activated collars which they sometimes call ‘training’ collars. These involve you delivering the shock yourself to your dog. These are also illegal in a growing number of countries.

Because these tools are as unpleasant as they sound, other people recommend different management tools such as ‘no-pull’ harnesses and head collars. The ‘no pull’ harness works on the principle of disabling the dog. Head collars control the dog’s head movement. As they are also unpleasant, it is not uncommon for them to have unexpected fallout or for them to not work at all.

Why management and corrections fail

Whenever our dogs are strongly motivated to perform a behaviour, it makes it much less likely that punishment or management will work.

For example, usually you may be a very diligent, respectful and careful driver. However, the threat of punishments, getting a ticket or even getting a permanent ban will probably not stop you from rushing if you are taking a person having a heart attack to the hospital.

Management, corrections and punishments are most likely to fail when they compete with strong internal motivation. That motivation can come from goal-driven behaviour. For our dogs, this can be things like strong desires to chase prey species. Sometimes it can be to have contact with another dog. It’s not unusual for dogs to keep going despite actual or potential punishment. if you think about it, it’s not much different from you in a race to get to the front of a queue for free tickets to your favourite band.

It’s not just the desire to get closer to things that can cause our dogs to lunge and pull on lead. They can also be struggling to move away from things they’re afraid of. When we have them trapped on a lead and we’ve removed their ability to move away, we leave them little option than to make a lot of noise in the hopes that it keeps others away.

Goal-driven behaviour is not the only reason punishments, corrections and management fail. It can also fail because of strong emotions. Again, it doesn’t matter if these are good or bad. Anxiety, fear, phobias, panic, joy and excitement can be powerful motivators of behaviour that are not easily overcome by management or pain.

Strong goals and strong emotions often create a lot of arousal that can then heighten our dog’s arousal.

Arousal, emotion and motivation

How we experience the world isn’t constant. Think about eating ice-cream – that first sweet and delicious spoon-full is often the best one. After that, you’re probably not still making ‘mmmm’ sounds of pleasure.

Sometimes we temporarily get used to the pleasure of good things.

We can temporarily get used to pain and unpleasant things too. We’ve all heard the apocryphal tale of the frog in a pot of boiling water – how the frog will stay in the water as the temperature rises rather than jumping out. If you’ve ever swam in ice-cold water, you’ll know that feeling of temporarily getting used to the cold.

Strong motivation can be one of those things that helps us do that. Ironically, having adrenaline running around your system can mean we temporarily put unpleasant feelings like cold or pain to one side. That means that the more aroused our dog is, the less likely corrections or punishments are to work.

In 2019, I was involved in the removal of a dog from one home where the dog had three different shock collars. What can make a dog work through the pain of three functioning shock collars?

Strong motivation and arousal is our answer.

However, it can also go the other way. These things can also temporarily make our dog more sensitive, not less.

Sensitisation & arousal

Not to get too weird on you, but arousal can also heighten sensation. Anyone involved in any pleasure industry can tell you that, be it kink, kitchen, concert or carnival.

We simply cannot know if arousal and strong emotion will be something our dog accidentally gets used to or sensitises to. Were we to use shock collars, prong collars or the likes, we’d probably hope we have to do so as little as possible and that our dogs would learn not to pull. That means we’d hope to use the minimal amount to help our dogs learn new behaviours. Nobody would be hoping to turn the collar up to full volume, surely?

At the same time, we also hope our dog doesn’t get so sensitive to them that it causes a lot of terrible fallout. I know for sure that my client who installed an invisible perimeter fence to shock her dog when he went close to the boundary did not mean for him to become so sensitive to warning tones that he’d sensitise to the microwave and reversing alarms on a van.

Some of that fallout can not only be devastating, but of long duration. It takes a long time to dismantle phobias.

The trouble is that there is all kinds of predictable fallout and we can never know before we use it whether it will go one way or the other with our dog. What it isn’t, no matter how much the manufacturers try to convince you, is reliable or consistent.

Associative learning

Whether these tools work to reduce pulling or not, they are unpleasant. Because they are unpleasant and they run the risk of being paired up with whatever it is the dog is pulling towards, they risk becoming a consequence of unpleasant experiences. They also risk making our dogs feel much worse about the world.

Why is that important?

If our dog is lunging and barking on the lead to keep other dogs away, they often start pulling in anticipation. The moment they see another dog, there’s tension on the lead. This in turn puts tension on the device we are using to control or correct our dog’s pulling. For instance, if they are pulling on a prong collar, the collar will tighten. The same thing will happen with a head collar or harness. If they pull and we press the button to deliver a shock, the same thing happens.

Seeing an unfamiliar dog or an unfamiliar person who they are afraid of then comes to also predict an unpleasant experience.

I find people tail-gating me to be unpleasant and annoying. Often, this makes me slow down because I have to drive more carefully. Would it be less unpleasant if someone pinched my arm or there was a high-frequency noise? Would it cause me to change my behaviour?

While an unpleasant consequence occurring if I slow down might cause me to speed up again, it won’t make me feel any better about the tail-gater who caused it.

In fact, it may even make me feel worse about the person doing it.

And, if a person is sitting next to me punishing me every time I slow down when I’m tailgated, I’ll probably get irritated with them as well.

Predictable fallout of aversives

Whether or not it changed my behaviour is moot. It’s still unpleasant. Whether I keep driving more cautiously or I speed up again, it won’t change how I feel about the tail-gater or the person delivering the ‘correction’.

The first predictable consequence of this situation is that it makes me feel even more angry with the tail-gater. Or it could make me feel even more afraid of this dangerous driving.

A very unpredictable consequence would be that I feel better about whatever’s triggering my feelings. In fact, we could argue that’s not just very unpredictable, but completely unlikely.

The same is true for our dogs. Prongs, shock collars, head collars and restricting harnesses will not change how the dog feels about whatever causes them to feel bad. It’s predictable, in fact, that it will make them feel worse. Not only do they have to tolerate whatever is causing them to feel afraid, frustrated or annoyed, but they also have prongs digging into their neck or a shock or something restricting and controlling their head or body.

The second predictable consequence is that the dog may well connect our presence with the correction. This damages our relationship and makes us highly untrustworthy. Worse, we depend on the dog’s good nature not to use their teeth on us as a consequence. I don’t ever want to hang around with a dog who doesn’t trust me and whose teeth are bigger and more powerful than mine.

The costs of correction

If manufacturers had to put the potential risks on the packet that contained these tools, people would no doubt still buy them. People still buy cigarettes, after all, even if they have pictures of lung cancer or the harms done to unborn babies.

We are not particularly good at changing our behaviour when consequences are delayed.

Humans are also stubbornly irrational. We think of all the people we know who didn’t die of lung cancer after a lengthy smoking habit. We’re very good as a species at thinking consequences won’t happen to us.

Legislation goes some way to preventing humans from harming themselves. This is why governments restrict the sale of harmful products. It is also why some countries are moving towards legislation against the worst of these implements such as choke chains, shock collars or prong collars.

Other governments think grown adults should be able to make choices of their own. They think that, given all the information, we’d make a sensible decision. Unfortunately, deregulation and lack of legislation simply proliferates these harmful products. Like many harmful things, they are often marketed extensively to vulnerable people who are desperate for a solution.

So what are the solutions?

The best training methods for reactive dogs

The best training methods for dogs who lunge or bark at other dogs or at unfamiliar humans will never be a quick fix. We need to accept that this is the case. We also need to accept that so-called quick fixes really aren’t that at all. They can jeopardise our relationship and lead to substantial fallout.

As someone who works almost exclusively with dogs who have bitten other dogs or human beings, that fallout is a cost that I am well aware of. Some of the worst bites I’ve seen have been from dogs who have finally had enough of being hurt or corrected.

Accepting that if they work, they are unreliable and they simply squash behaviour is important. They will not change how our dogs feel about the people or dogs they are reacting to.

The best methods are ones that work to help our dog understand that humans and other dogs are not harmful. These need to give dogs choice, but they also need to avoid flooding.

Sadly, it’s also become common for trainers to muzzle dogs and overwhelm them, preventing them from escape. If a trainer could not do what they are doing without a muzzle and a lead, then we need to look at the dogs – whether they are relaxed at all points during the training.

Again, while these methods work occasionally – there are people who don’t get lung cancer, right? – it doesn’t mean that they are reliable or predictable.

More support

There are much more reliable methods we should be using. In the next post, we’ll pick up the ways in which we can work with our dogs in ways that don’t carry such huge risks.

Working through the free Lighten Up Resilience Roadmap guide is one way you can do that. You can also find the online course that goes along with this and the Skills for Resilience course too.