The Secret to Helping Your Reactive Dog Thrive Emotionally
Many owners think that there will be a simple tool or life hack that will help stop their dog barking and lunging on walks. We’re all chasing that quick fix.
A magic pill that cures all ills would be just wonderful.
In reality, behaviour change takes some time. It need not take a long time if we take a systematic approach.
There are twelve simple steps we can take to reduce our dog’s barking and lunging. We can also act immediately, helping our dogs learn the skills they will need separately. When we teach our dogs what we want them to do instead, life will be much easier.
Most guardians want their dog simply to disengage from exciting or frightening things and just keep moving. Instead of standing behind our dogs trying to pull them away or trying to distract them when they’re lunging at the end of the lead, we can teach them to disengage and u-turn with us. As long as we have a clear cue, we can prompt our dogs to move away from trouble.
Just this morning, for example, I could see a lady approaching at a very speedy rate with a lot of shopping bags. My dog struggles with people walking too close to her, particularly when they have things to grab. Flappy trousers, long coats and shopping bags were frequent targets in her past.
Key Skills for Reactive Dogs
Besides teaching our dogs what we want them to do instead of barking and lunging, we can also change the situation. One or two challenges are fine, but if we were running into hot spots every time I took my dog out on a walk, I’d be better to find other walks until my dog was ready to face such challenge. Her struggles tell me that I’ve not done enough training yet for her to cope.
If it’s impossible to change the situation, we can make small adaptations. In fact, that is exactly what I did today. We turned away and moved to the side. I positioned my dog so that she was not looking directly at the lady. Then I kept her busy to keep her focus on me. We played our usual simple games and the lady was able to pass without a small shepherd dog stealing her handbag.
So far, these have all been preventative measures. They are forward-looking approaches. They also stop the behaviour from happening.
This kind of support involves taking actions that will make it less likely that our dogs will end up in a sticky situation. In many ways, they are largely management tools.
Management tools are all well and good but they do not directly change how our dogs feel about the world.
Sometimes, they may change our dogs’ feelings indirectly. Our dogs might learn to feel safer and they may relax. If they’re very interested in chasing things, they may learn that we’re much more rewarding if we’re engaging in games with them instead of letting them stand their ground and bark at cars or wildlife.
Moving on from management & external control
These processes are led by us as the dog’s guardian. We’re in charge of skilling our dogs up. We’re also in charge of the walks we take them on. If we stop and keep our dogs busy while other dogs go by, then the control rests with us. We’re the ones making decisions.
I don’t know about you, but the last thing I really want to do for the rest of my dog’s life is make decisions for her. This means I also have to be on guard the whole time. In many ways, I become hypervigilant, constantly scanning the horizon for threat and excitement. I am managing my dog. I am not equipping her with the skills she needs to manage her own emotions.
Changing a dog’s feelings about things is both an art and a science. In human terms, we’re talking about the equivalent of cognitive-behavioural therapies or other forms of reflective therapy. These are designed to change the way we feel about things. If there were one single therapy that worked all the time with humans, you can guarantee it would have queues around the block. And that’s with humans who can rationalise and talk!
Changing the way a dog feels about things, then, is much more challenging.
How easy it could be if we could just reason with them!
Cognitive change for dogs
Cognitive change is the process of changing how we assess and evaluate situations. For instance, if you don’t like heights, cognitive change would be the process by which you’d perhaps come to realise that heights can be wonderful, giving you amazing views and uplifting experiences.
We might not simply change how we feel about the situation. We could also change the way we feel about ourselves and our capacity to handle the demands of the situation.
When we take our reactive dogs out in the hopes that they will get used to other dogs or to strangers, we’re trying to change the way they think about the world. Perhaps we might think that going to a café and sitting there a while will help them understand people aren’t so bad really. We try to change the way our dogs feel about things all the time.
Sometimes we might coax them if they’re afraid. We might tempt them with treats or bribes. We might try to give them encouragement or rewards for bravery.
As you can tell, this may work well with fears, but we probably don’t feel the same about changing how our dogs feel about things that are exciting. I mean, nothing in the world is going to make a squirrel less fun to a dog, is it?
Programmes that try to bring about cognitive change
There are many programmes in dog training that try to change how dogs feel about things they would normally be afraid of. It is a central tenet of dog training. Getting the dog to engage with stuff is probably a core skill in most traditional programmes for reactivity.
It’s also becoming more popular in training dogs who are excited by the things that pass by.
Thus, we can find programmes that prompt the dog to engage with things, asking them to look at them or see them, and these programmes abound in dog training.
In theory, some of this is understandable. One thing that research has consistently demonstrated is that we need to engage with scary things rather than avoiding them.
However, there is a caveat. When we experience scary things at low intensity so we can still manage our feelings, then it allows the cortical structures of the brain to down-regulate the subcortical structures.
In other words, our brain is updating itself from the inside out.
Wow, those are some big ideas!
So what’s the theory?
Most of us are familiar with parts of the brain that handle emotion. Many of us will have heard of the amygdala, that almond-shaped subcortical structure that sets off fire alarms in the brain whenever it detects anything threatening. Since the 1990s, we’ve had the phrase of ‘an amygdala hijack’ enter our language, meaning the times our ancestral brains take over. When we talk about a knee-jerk reaction, that’s exactly what we mean: a strong and involuntary emotional response to things.
Professor Dan Siegel in his books and courses talks about ‘the downstairs brain‘ when he talks about these ancient and ancestral brain structures that unite all mammals. I love that idea, so I’m going to use it here.
He also talks about those newer, more recent structures that form the cortex as being ‘the upstairs brain‘. That involves the pre-frontal cortex which is central to decision making and emotion regulation.
We often think of the amygdala taking control – hence the amygdala hijack. But is it just one-way traffic?
All the evidence says no. When we experience things at low intensity, the rational and thoughtful upstairs brain gets to turn the volume down on the amygdala for the future. It downregulates the reaction.
It makes a lot of sense. We can’t be going around simply learning more and more thinks to panic about in life. We’d end up as recluses who never went out. An adaptive brain updates itself.
Therapies based on the theory
Many, many human therapies have come from this understanding. As research progresses, we understand why they are so successful. When Freud first sat his patients down in Vienna, he did not know what we knew now. For over a century, therapists simply worked off behaviour and results. Did their interventions work? That’s all that mattered.
Exposure therapies soon found their feet and added to the therapist’s toolkit. Then behavioral therapies came along. The 1950s-1970s brought an explosion of therapies from person-centred therapies to rational emotive therapies, cognitive-behavioral therapies and many, many more.
Whether they put clients in vivo and experienced things in real life, or they worked by asking clients to recall events, they were working on helping people reappraise experiences. One way or another, we are exposed to the things that bother us.
Since then, research has been busy explaining why these therapies work. Cognitive reappraisal changes the way the brain works. Through fMRI scans, we can now see that the upstairs brain is busy engaging with things during such therapies and that the subcortical structures are indeed quietening down. We also understand that our memories are more plastic than we would ever have thought and that how we feel about them can be altered.
This is especially true as we recall memories. There is a period of time when we recall events that our neurons are more plastic and pliable. During this time, our cortical structures can literally change the way we feel about things.
But what about dogs?
Despite many cartoons on the subject, we can’t put dogs on the couch and ask them to imagine things that they’re afraid of. We can’t show them helpful approaches to adapt their thinking and down-regulate their emotional reaction.
That means when we work on behaviour change with dogs, we have to work in vivo – in real life. We can’t work with memories. We have to work with the real deal.
Where cognitive reappraisal works, it has to happen at low intensity.
There is no way for the upstairs brain to down-regulate the volume of the downstairs brain if the downstairs brain is already shouting. This is perhaps why so many dog trainers realise that we need to work ‘below threshold’.
What they mean when they say that is that the dog is relatively calm and composed. We can’t crack open their skulls and check if their upstairs brain is doing its thing, but we can see it in their behaviour.
Besides happening at low intensity, it’s also important that the individual engages with the triggers that cause their emotions. Avoidance and management – the lower levels of the twelve steps of emotional resilience – doesn’t work (much) to change the brain. If we’re sticking our fingers in our ears, screwing up our eyes and going ‘la la la’ so we can’t hear, you can understand that our mind is not open to change. It’s the same with dogs who don’t engage with things that scare them.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is multifold.
Firstly, most reactive dogs do engage with the stuff that they’re afraid of. They’re at the end of the lead barking at it. Not wanting to engage with stuff is not the problem. Engaging less with it would certainly help. Extremely fearful dogs would likely avoid engaging with the things that scare them, but most of the dogs I work with are there, barking away. Right there behind them are their owners, wishing they’d just engage a bit less with the world.
Second, cognitive reappraisal has been shown to be very useful with fear. But not all reactive behaviour is fear-based. Some of it is excitement. Some is frustration. Occasionally, it’s just a lack of impulse control. There’s an argument that behaviour may be underpinned by anxiety, and it’s an argument I make myself a lot, but if your dog is desperate to bark at horses, then cognitive reappraisal probably won’t be helpful. The upstairs brain is very good at down-regulating negative experiences. It’s not so good at down-regulating positive ones.
So dog trainers really, really need to understand what is driving the behaviour, and that can be hard to know. We can’t ask dogs to explain their emotions, and we can’t crack open their brains to have a dig around in the moment.
This is further complicated by the fact that few programmes for dogs actually help trainers or owners work out what the issue is. That can mean that we’re encouraging our dogs to engage with things and it might simply be contributing to their frustration or their fear. That’s a huge ethical issue. We don’t want our dogs to struggle with such negative emotions, particularly if we’re directly causing them by exposing our dogs to things to help them conquer their emotions.
In reality, there are very, very few times when dogs need to be helped to engage with the scary stuff or the exciting stuff.
If you’ve got a dog who avoids everything, there are kinder, gentler approaches that are better for them in terms of building up positivity and optimism.
Another complication is the crucial point that exposure must – and absolutely must! – be ‘low intensity‘. What emotion regulation researchers mean when they say this is that it must not be too arousing. If it’s high intensity, all the research so far in humans largely suggests that it would be better to stick to more proactive approaches. You can find links to these at the bottom of this article.
Where does that leave trainers and owners?
The first thing we need to do is to understand impulsivity and frustration in our dogs. We also need to understand if a) it’s necessary and b) it’s possible to create low intensity situations for our dogs to learn new long-term coping strategies.
The more I learn and the more dogs I work with, the more I realise that very few dogs indeed need to be coached to look at, to see or to notice the things that excite, frustrate or upset them.
What they need to learn how to do is to disengage before the situation gets too hot.
If our dogs could do that, then we’d be riding high on a rocket-fuelled airwalk. We’d be walking on absolute sunshine.
These days, I focus almost exclusively on that single behaviour for most of the dogs I work with. Disengagement. Very few dogs who bark and lunge need any support in noticing things. Not noticing things would be a big step up.
The benefits of taking other approaches
When we ask our dogs to look at, to see or to notice things, we are often adding unnecessary steps into our lives.
First, we have to notice and see the stuff. That means we spend our time vigilantly looking out for ladies with shopping bags, cars, cyclists, joggers, other dogs… and if you have a dog who barks and lunges at a lot of stuff, that’s a lot of stuff you need to look out for.
Then, when we see it, we have to get our dog’s attention. That means we may well be stopping them living their lives when they may well have ignored the stuff we’ve now so kindly drawn their attention to.
Then we have to tell our dogs to look at the stuff. That means we have to have taught them that cue. Add another two weeks on to your training to teach them the cue so you’re not just a noisy human behind the dog.
Then we have to get them to disengage. We have to do so before our dogs get too hot under the collar.
I’d rather just step in at the last step, letting the dog be in charge of what they engage with and helping them disengage.
Unlike Freud and other early therapists, we’re not just working in the dark. We’re working with the benefit of research. A lot of that research is with humans, of course. Ironically, much of the research on fear, fear learning and ‘unlearning’ fear has been done on animals in laboratories, so that can help us understand what works and what doesn’t.
Most work on the neuroscience of fear and arousal has been conducted on rodents and primates. We can extrapolate from these models to avoid further suffering and also to help us understand what approaches will work with dogs. Almost every level of research on resilience and recovery has been conducted on animals.
But we do need to move out of the 1970s in the dog training industry and question what works. For most reactive dogs, there simply isn’t any benefit in teaching them to engage with things that excite or frighten them.
They are already engaged.
Our dogs are already noticing things.
For that reason, the critical skill is disengaging before things get too challenging.
Unless we want to spend our whole lives micromanaging our dogs, we need to pass the control over to them from this point on. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend my life looking for micro-behaviours in my dog. I don’t want to still be managing their arousal levels for them when they are seventeen. Also, this is still management.
Whenever I’m watching my dog for the slightest whisker twitch that precedes a growl, all the decision-making rests with me.
Plus, I don’t know about you, but I need to keep a bit of an eye on the stuff that’s bothering my dog. I simply can’t manage to a) look for all their triggers to tell the dog to look at them b) make sure those triggers don’t do anything mad and c) keep an eye on my dog’s microexpressions.
I’d rather they disengaged before it all got a bit too mad.
I’d rather they were in charge of the process, not me.
I don’t plan to be doing all the regulation for them until they die. If I’m doing that, they’re not learning.
In many ways, this article is simply a justification why I simply encourage dogs to notice what they want to notice. I’m busy teaching them other things, like how to disengage before they get too fizzy. Eventually, I’d like them to be in charge of that process. That’s when I know their emotional perspective will have changed. For those reasons, the two following posts over the next two weeks are perhaps the most critical of the twelve steps. And also for that reason, this step is perhaps the least critical of all to me now.
It’s controversial, I know.
Focusing on emotional resilience
A dog does not learn to be resilient when we are micromanaging their every move. When we tell them what to look at and when to disengage, that’s exactly what we’re doing. The control rests with us. We’re responsible for the decision-making.
Way back at the beginning of this article, I said there were two things that researchers in the field of emotions have learned about the importance of engaging with things that scare us.
I said that we might not simply change how we feel about the situation. We could also change the way we feel about ourselves and our capacity to handle the demands of the situation.
It’s this first sentence that has preoccupied many dog trainers, including myself. We’ve used all kinds of exposure therapies such as classical counterconditioning or systematic desensitisation. Perhaps we’ve used exposure gradients and operant counterconditioning. We’ve tried to help our dogs change how they feel about things that frighten them.
But in many ways, I think my focus is now on the second sentence. Engaging with things that make us feel worried or anxious helps us learn to change how we feel about ourselves and our capacity to cope.
Every time we triumph, we learn how capable we are.
What I want for my dogs
I want my dogs to learn how capable they are at coping with scary stuff. Let’s face it: the world is scary to dogs. It’s filled with machines that don’t make sense. There aren’t just vacuums, there are roombas and robot lawnmowers. There are machines that speak and tv screens that are so large they simulate reality. The world is full of scary stuff. We go to the vets more than we ever did. We take our dogs to places where they’ll have to cope with far more complex situations than they ever did in the past.
It’s also normal to be scared of things!
We forget that sometimes, in our quest to create bomb-proof dogs who can cope with anything.
It’s normal for dogs to feel afraid of strangers and unfamiliar dogs.
When we help them down-regulate that, it’s great, but we must proceed with caution. Learning to cope with things you regularly have to do is one thing. Being on a mission to make our dogs brave in all circumstances is another thing entirely. It also runs the risk of invalidating our dogs’ feelings. When we say, ‘oh, you’ve no need to be anxious! I’ll just embark on a treatment plan to show you how wonderful the world is!’, we invalidate what can be perfectly normal feelings.
I’d rather focus on my dogs learning that the world is a bit scary, but do you know what? We can deal with it. Recovery is the important thing, not a complete lack of fear. Fear is healthy. It stops us doing stupid things. It’s how we cope with fear that is important.
To that end…
What we teach our dogs matters. The most amazing thing I’ve realised in the past five years is that resilience isn’t just some thing, set in stone from birth. It’s a teachable skill. We know what resilience looks like. We can unpick it, as I have with the twelve steps of emotional resilience. When we know what it looks like, when we know how resilient dogs behave, then we can teach those skills to other dogs.
In the next two posts, I look in detail at two critical skills of resilient dogs. I’ll show you what they look like and how to set up the world so that you can capture these skills when they happen. Once you get it, your progress will be so quick that you’ll wonder what held you back for so long.
Engaging with the world is not a skill most of our reactive dogs need to be taught.
They are already doing that.
The skill they are lacking is disengaging before things get too emotional. Although it is a vital part of treatment and we need to engage with the world in order to accept that it is benign, we cannot do this at high intensity or if it is too overwhelming for our dogs.
By teaching them to disengage before the world gets too overwhelming, we give our dogs skills to manage their own emotions rather than relying powerlessly on us to manage them.
To find out more
You can take the Mayhem to Maestro course for Frustrated Greeters
If you are a dog trainer, you can take the Frustration Masterclass course which covers this in extensive detail in Module 6.
Both courses are open all year round but there are guided versions in January & July each year where you have more support for completion.
You can find out about the Lighten Up Roadmap to Resilience
You can learn the foundation skills
Learn how to change the situation selectively
You can modify your situation
You can also teach your dog where to focus
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