Here are a few hard and fast rules to an effective behavior modification plan for any dog that exhibits fearful, anxious, impulsive, or aggressive tendencies.
#1 Tracking Progress: Track progress in months, not days or weeks. Don't get carried away by day to day, or week to week, successes or failures - both can interfere with the consistency with which we follow training protocol. Keep a behavior log so that you can objectively analyze changes in behavior long term.
#2 Symptomatic Behavior: Barking is one way that a dog can express frustration, fear or anxiety, but it's not the only way. Look at body language, facial expressions and other more subtle behavioral patterns to develop a better understanding of your dog's underlying stress level. A quiet dog is not necessarily experiencing less stress than a barking dog.
#3 Accumulation of Stress: One trigger vs. many triggers. Sometimes our dog's reactive behavior is easily linked to one specific environmental trigger and sometimes, it's not. Stress accumulates. The better you are at reading and responding to subtle signs of stress, the more effective you will be in training. You don't always have to know what causes the stress in order to help your dog work through it.
#4 Have A Good Management Plan: A good management plan is just as important as a good training plan. The more often your dog practices certain undesirable behaviors, the more habitual those behaviors will become. Changing the environment or your dog's daily routine is sometimes 100% necessary in setting the stage for successful behavior modification.
#5 Fight or Flight Responses: There are two ways that a dog can respond to a stressful situation; they can either behave in an active manner or a passive manner. Their response might change depending on the context of the situation. Dogs that have a tendency to actively respond to stress triggers (barking, growling, charging) are more likely to receive training attention, while passive stress responses (those dogs that shut down or exhibit more subtle stress signals) usually go unnoticed or are dismissed as being "just fine." Both require the same level of attention and understanding.
#6 Working "Under-Threshold": Excessive barking, sudden loss of appetite, ADHD type behavior, stress whining, clinginess (wanting to be picked up, demand barking, jumping or pawing for attention) are just some of the symptoms that your dog has hit their stress threshold. Giving your dog more space away from the stress trigger, or removing your dog from a stressful environment, is the best way to help meet your dog's needs and prevent regression in training.
#7 Predict, Prevent, Practice: Assess your dog's behavioral responses and then use that information to predict and prevent undesirable behavior. Once the initial assessment is conducted you should no longer be testing your dog, you should be training your dog. This means that you should be setting them up to practice the behaviors that you do want to see, while minimizing the probability that they will fall back to less desirable tendencies.
#8 Capture Calm: Don't let your dogs good behavior go unnoticed, reinforce it.
(see rules #9 and #10)
#9 Be Prepared: You don't always know when a teachable moment will present itself, don't be caught off guard. Have the necessary tools at hand to help set the stage for success: high value treats, harness, leash and training pouch are a few functional training tools to have at hand in a moment's notice.
#10 Choose Your Reinforcement Wisely: The value of the reinforcement you use, relative to the level of distraction in your training environment, will determine the efficacy of your training program. Consistent, reliable responses require a high value reinforcer. You'll get the most traction from a training food that is moist, meaty, aromatic, and easy to break into small pieces without crumbling. A tennis ball or a good tug toy might be worth its weight in gold if your dog has high toy drive. Conversely, giving a dog a dry biscuit, a pat on the head or a "good boy" is generally not significant enough to yield solid, reliable training results.
Article written by Alyssa Lapinel, CPDT-KA. Alyssa is the founder and head trainer at Legends Dog Training based in San Diego, CA. Alyssa works creates and implements customized behavior modification plans for dogs that exhibit fearful, anxious, impulsive or aggressive behavior.
Alyssa Lapinel, CPDT
Certified by the Council for Professional Dog Trainers