Proactive vs. Reactive Dog Training

a blue healer dog in the mountains with a blue sky and green trees in the background

So, what does it mean to be proactive in dog training and why is it better than waiting until an issue occurs to search for a “fix”? The difference between a trainer and the average pet owner is that the trainer is proactive, and the average pet owner is reactive. A reactive response is usually born of frustration and can make the behavior worse by increasing the dog’s stress levels.

Behavior modification is about identifying and/or creating “trainable moments”. It’s about using this moment to reprogram or counter-condition the dog’s underlying emotional response to one that is conducive to calm, attentive, relaxed behavior.

A Single Moment

The potential to change an emotional response and thereby change the consequent behavior rests on A SINGLE MOMENT.

  • Emotional Response = Excitement, Fear, Anxiety
  • Consequent Behavior = Barking, Biting, Jumping
Chihuahua pulling on leash

Let’s imagine a person walking a dog. The dog being walked is a “dog-reactive-dog” as he barks at any dog that comes within 25 feet. He notices another dog 50 feet in the distance while on their walk. The dog’s ears perk up and his body becomes tense. The distance narrows to 45 feet and the dog pulls into the leash. At 35 feet, the dog begins to whine with nervous excitement. Closer to 25 feet, the dog jumps to the end of the leash and starts barking uncontrollably. The person REACTS by scolding his dog for barking, “bad dog”. The dog cowers, presses his ears back and the person incorrectly assumes, “that’ll teach him not to bark at the next dog”. 

Predicting Behavior

Behavior modification relies on the ability to PREDICT future behavior, intervene and redirect BEFORE the dog is able to engage in an undesirable behavior. Once a dog has the opportunity to bark, jump, lunge, bite etc. – it’s more about management than training. As the person and dog close the distance between 50 to 25 feet, there is a build up of emotion (excitement, fear, anxiety) that results in an undesirable behavior (pulling, whining and barking). 

Let’s rewind: a person is walking a dog. The dog notices another dog 50 feet in the distance, the dog’s ears perk. PAUSE. THAT’S THE MOMENT. That’s the trainable moment. At this point we have the opportunity to intervene and redirect the dog’s focus to produce an alternate emotional response. With repetition and consistent intervention, we can condition and train the dog to react calmly and attentively when in the presence of another dog by prompting the dog to develop new cognitive and behavioral patterns.

Food Reinforcement vs. Correction Collars

Food Reinforcement

Food reinforcement is often times the most effective way to modify aggressive, excited, fearful or anxious behavior in dogs. This is because it is a vital component to every organism’s existence. Watch my video on Food at Work in Shaping Behavior. It has the unequivocal power to change brain chemistry, create new neural pathways and manipulate physiological responses (ie. heart and respiratory rate). 

Punishment

  • Punishment = yelling, prong collars, choke / slip collars, e-collars
  • Symptoms = stops barking, whining, jumping, reactivity

Punishment can suppress symptoms, but it masks the underlying problem which are stress and anxiety. This can have negative consequences on the mental and emotional health of your dog and can actually be dangerous when attempting to “correct” aggressive behavior. People will frequently punish dogs for barking, growling, snarling, air snapping which can effectively teach dogs to suppress warning signs – it WILL NOT resolve the underlying stress and anxiety that feeds aggressive behavior. Dogs that are punished for displaying warning signs of aggression can become “silent attackers” – those that bite without warning.

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