When Your Dog Can’t Look Away: Coping With Canine Fixation
Many owners have dogs who bark and lunge. Some dogs bark and lunge at other dogs; some focus on strangers they see out on walks. Other dogs fixate on moving vehicles or wildlife. Our walks and car rides can be absolute mayhem.
This can be a nightmare for us, particularly if our dog is big enough to pull us over. It’s not much more pleasant if we have smaller dogs either. Not only is it embarrassing, it doesn’t inspire us to take our dogs out for a walk. It often means we reduce the size of our dog’s world.
In the last post, I got controversial. Many traditional rewards-based dog training programmes for reactive or predatory dogs encourage dogs to focus on their triggers. Some use counterconditioning.
They ask dogs to engage with things that bother them, frighten them or frustrate them, asking them to look at them, see them or watch them.
I used to use all of these methods.
But in the past few years, I’ve stepped away from them in most circumstances.
What’s changed for me?
I don’t need to ask excited dogs to notice things they’d like to chase. They’ve often already noticed them. And if they haven’t, I’m really not going to draw attention to them.
Why would I bother teaching them to do something they’re already doing or draw attention to things they struggle to cope with emotionally and behaviourally?
If they’d not seen the squirrel or bicycle in the first place, I end up drawing attention to it, which could have been avoided. Sometimes, I was making drama for my dogs rather than avoiding it. Also, looking is usually followed by chasing the moment that the thing moves. Anyone whose dog fixates on cats will tell you that. Everything is fine until the cat moves.
Teaching an excited dog who loves chasing to notice more things is not helpful in most circumstances.
I also don’t ask most fearful or anxious dogs to look at things they’re afraid of. Although it’s important our dogs don’t avoid things completely, teaching them to look at things is only important if they’re so afraid that they are not engaging at all. By the very nature of reactive behaviour, your dog is probably out at the end of their lead, barking like a demon at stuff.
If anything, they’re too engaged.
How Lighten Up has evolved
I’ve moved away from teaching or encouraging dogs to look at things on the whole.
Sometimes, I found that, especially if I paired it up with something good like a game of tug or some food, I was actually causing my dogs to look out for stuff. I was making it more relevant, not less.
This process, known as respondent counterconditioning, is intended to change a dog’s emotional response to things they’re afraid of. The arrival of the scary dog predicts a game. When you see strangers, then food will appear as if by magic.
We think of it as following the bad stuff with the good stuff, so that the bad stuff comes to predict the good stuff.
When that happens, the bad stuff simply predicts the good stuff will happen. The good stuff also causes an incompatible physiological and emotional reaction from my dog. You can’t feel afraid and also feel pleasure and joy, for example.
This strategy is still an important one in my work, but I find it more effective when I use conditioned safety cues that cause my dog to feel safe.
Was it really counterconditioning?
With fearful dogs, I don’t focus much on respondent counterconditioning very much anymore beyond the first couple of training sessions. There are many reasons behind this shift.
One of the reasons was that pairing things up might not be counter-conditioning.
It might just be classical conditioning.
What this means is that I thought I was changing my dog’s feelings about things and in fact, sometimes I was just teaching them to look out for stuff even more because now it predicted insanely good stuff. I made the scary stuff ironically even more relevant to the dog.
Plus, counterconditioning works with negative emotions. You can also do it with positive emotions like excitement and joy, but if you counter those emotions, you end up causing fear or avoidance … not something I wanted to do! If you use counterconditioning with positive emotions, this usually involves unpleasant stuff like citronella, lemon juice or shock. This type of training is used in avoidance training. That’s not how I work. So I was left without a solution for dogs who had a rush of positive emotions when stuff happened in the world, like pheasants dropping in or squirrels darting up a tree.
Classical conditioning at work
My boy Heston was never fussed about cars. He grew up with a main road just outside the house. He paid no mind to cars at all. When I later adopted a 14-year-old car-chasing Malinois named Flika, I had to do some training around cars with her. Heston came along for the walk and – inadvertently – my impromptu training sessions.
Because I was pairing up food with cars for Flika, Heston quickly latched on to what I was doing. He’d never even bothered about cars. Now, he was noticing them all!
I’d turned cars into something noticeable and relevant to him.
Likewise with the sheep and my girl Lidy. She needed a bit of work around sheep. Heston was there while we did that training. He started looking at me for biscuits the moment he saw a sheep.
For Flika and her car chasing, and Lidy and her sheep fixation, I absolutely did not need to teach them to look at the cars or the sheep. They were doing that very well of their own accord. I’m much more choosy about what I pair and how these days.
For that reason, I focus solely on disengagement. There’s a lot of reasons for that.
What the science tells us
You’ll know this yourself because it will be your lived experience with your dog who barks and lunges. You may even laugh that it took so long for psychologists to demonstrate this through experiments!
We pay more attention to things that bother us. Whether we’re stewing on it or whether we’re looking out for it, we pay more mind to them when we feel anxious about them. Although it’s not healthy to ignore problems completely either, it’s also not healthy to focus on them beyond usefulness.
How does that line go? Worrying is as effective as solving problems as chewing bubble gum is at solving algebra?
Some researchers (Kring & Werner, 2004; Thompson & Goodman, 2010) suggest that being able to select what you pay attention to is part of emotional resilience. Where we have a tendency to fixate upon things, it stops us paying attention to more productive or rewarding stuff. When we pay too much attention to negative information, it raises our emotional vulnerability.
Yes, watching the news too much is not good for your spirits if you’re feeling anxious.
But do we check out negative information more and search the world for negative experiences simply because we’re vulnerable to negative emotions, or does checking out negative information more cause us to become vulnerable to negative emotions?
In humans at least, emotions like anxiety and fearfulness cause us to look out for and pay more attention to negative stuff.
And that’s what we see with our dogs, isn’t it? Our anxious dogs are hypervigilant, scanning the world for things to be scared of. They don’t stop and smell the roses. They don’t even seem to be taking in anything else in the world.
Walking with anxious dogs
When an anxious dog sets foot outside the door, we might expect them to be on alert. They are looking for trouble. This is what we see when we notice dogs vigilantly scanning the world for threat. Some dogs don’t even stop to pee or sniff. Their heads move from side to side, looking for trouble.
Sometimes, they don’t even trust us. Being outside in the real world scares them and they are constantly vigilant for the things that scare them. It feels as if they’re walking through a warzone or the set of a horror movie. They are constantly on edge.
Most dogs who are emotionally resilient do not do this. They are able to enjoy their walk. Their noses will be down. They’ll be checking out the smells. When scary things get their attention, they’ll notice, but then they usually go straight back to doing what they were doing.
Our anxious dogs are often trapped in a vicious circle. They are anxious and it would really do them good to stop and sniff (see Duranton and Horowitz 2019 for a review of how sniffing enhances optimism). Yet despite that, they are constantly on the hunt for trouble. They are often the first to spot a dog on the horizon, even if they’ve trained you to become hypervigilant too.
Anxious individuals are better threat detectors
In research on humans, anxious humans are quicker to detect things that will make them afraid (Cisler & Koster, 2010). Anxious individuals sift the world for sensory stimuli, quicker to detect it than non-anxious people.
They also detect things that make them feel anxious quicker than they detect things that are neutral or positive.
If you give them one of those quizzes to find the hidden item in a drawing filled with hundreds of details, they’ll find the things that make them feel afraid quicker than anyone else, and they’ll also pay less attention to all the other stuff. They’d spot the snake under the tennis racquet before anyone else, but they’d struggle to see the chocolate box behind the plant pot.
The weight of evidence leaves little doubt that anxious individuals are on the look-out for threat.
And yes, these studies also show the same effects in animals. So when you see your dog anxiously scanning the world, looking for trouble, then you’re seeing the same vicious circle in action.
So how do we change things?
In the next post, we’ll talk about directing our dogs to disengage. Sometimes they’re going to need a little support. Again, you know this already. Chances are that your dog has been ignoring you when you’ve been prompting them to move away. You know it’s the healthy thing to do and that your dog struggles with it. If you’ve ever tried to move them away from next-door’s Lhasa Apso who drives them mad, you’ll know more than anyone how hard it is to get our dog to stop focusing on stuff they don’t even like.
I can talk. I’ve spent all morning mentally focused on a post on social media that stuck in my craw. My mind is like a terrier with a toy. It will not let that post go.
Prompting a change in focus can help. We need our dogs to be in the habit of following our prompts to disengage, though, otherwise they simply won’t bother. Kathy Sdao has shown a video of a little dog barking at a Golden Retriever in her session at Clicker Expo 2023, and that’s exactly what happens. The dog begins to bark and then their owner can’t get them to move away.
Prompting our dog has a lot of limitations, though, as you probably know.
The limitations of prompting
First, it relies on a strong learning history, and many of us simply haven’t put in the legwork. If we want our dogs to disengage when we ask, we need to be in that habit. Lidy and I were getting out of the car this morning when three fractious small furry things got in a scrap and their retractable leads all got tangled up along with their three guardians’ legs. I was able to prompt Lidy to move away from the fence because it’s a skill we’ve practised thousands of times.
My neighbour with the chihuahua may think I’m mad for those short training sessions, but Lidy followed my cue when his dog tried to get over the fence to join in. Practice works.
It is a very reactive response, though. It also relies on us and our training history. I’d much prefer it if my dog didn’t need prompting. In most ways, that’s far superior because it means I’ve equipped her with the skills to manage her own emotional arousal. It means she is regulating her own self like a healthy normal dog. Don’t get me wrong: she’ll always be ‘like’ a healthy, normal dog. I have to support her a lot to get to this point. It’s almost as if she’s cosplaying an average dog, with a lot of direction.
It also doesn’t solve one major problem: dogs who don’t feel safe in the world are still actively looking out for threat and ignoring the safe and interesting stuff.
What if, instead of teaching our dogs to pay even more mind to the bad stuff, we actually help them focus on the good?
That’s a huge ‘What if…’
A bunch of researchers have been doing exactly that with human clients. They’ve simply trained them to pay more attention to neutral and positive stuff (Dandenau & Baldwin, 2004; Dandenau et al., 2007).
And guess what?
There are many reasons to assume that doing exactly this causes genuine attentional change and also genuine emotional change.
We actually see this all the time with dogs. Earlier, I referred to a study from 2019 by Charlotte Duranton & Alexandra Horowitz. In it, they found that increased sniffing increased optimism in dogs. That very much fits with the work in humans that shows that, when prompted to focus on the good stuff, it decreases emotional vulnerability and increases emotional resilience.
So many dog trainers have seen huge improvements with reactive dogs who start scent work or mantrailing. Activities like this, where the dog is asked to focus on one particular thing and block out everything else are exactly the kind of activity that promotes healthy focus on neutral and positive stuff.
But there’s more…
I recall a conversation I had with a cherished colleague who was telling me about her assistance dogs. One of them in particular struggles a little when ‘off-duty’. Yet give the dog a job like finding an empty seat in a busy shopping mall, and the dog is hyperfocused on that activity with no reactivity at all.
Why is that?
Partly, no doubt, because he has been asked to focus on one specific thing. Like asking anxious people to look specifically for the box of chocolates in a Hidden Objects game, it allows the individual to tune out the negative stuff.
When we do activities that require our reactive dogs to focus exclusively on a specific activity, from simple ‘find it!’ games right the way through to search and rescue, we often find our dogs in ‘work mode’.
But the science suggests this is actually also helping them learn to focus on a broader range of things. Instead of getting fixated on the stuff they don’t like, perpetuating a vicious and highly reinforced cycle of anxiety, they broaden their horizons.
We can’t ask our dogs if it is making a difference, but we can certainly notice it in their behaviour. We can exploit the therapeutic value of focusing on neutral items and on interesting items.
Rather than drawing even more attention to the things that freak our dogs out, we can help them build up those withered attentional muscles that have quit looking for anything good. Helping our dogs move their attention away from the stuff that frightens or annoys them, and helping them focus their attention on things that are pleasurable and enjoyable can make all the difference.
Unless you have a fearful dog who is not engaging in the world at all, there may be little value in teaching them purposely to engage with things. We may find life much easier if we focus on disengagement and on helping them engage with rewarding stuff. Instead of teaching them to look at things which frighten them or make them feel anxious, focusing on helping them engage with the wonders of life may make a real difference.
For our dogs who find the whole world exciting and full of things to chase, they also need help moving their attention away – not towards – those things.
To find out more
This article is part of a series on emotional resilience. You can find the full programme outlined here.
Our dogs also need foundation skills to help them. You can find 10 useful foundation skills here.
We will need to take a break from challenges while our dogs learn key skills.
We may also need to adapt the world a little to support our dogs as they acquire these skills.
Our dogs will need skills of paying attention to other productive activities in a range of situations.
A very small number of dogs may need to learn to engage with the world if they’re avoiding everything
You can read this article about reactive behaviour and fear.
This article about anxiety may also help.
If you are a canine professional and you are looking for help in navigating the approaches out there, you may find the Lighten Up course on canine frustration to be of use.
Some dogs struggle to pay attention to things even in simple situations. If your dog is struggling to focus on anything for a duration, you may find that they have issues managing and regulating their attention. You can find out more about that in this short webinar.