Does your dog embarrass you on walks? Is your dog struggling to be calm when they see humans, dogs, bikes, joggers, etc? I’ve been there. My first dog, Pepper, was so afraid of strangers that one day while running alongside my bike, she veered into the road because the upcoming car was less scary to her than the stranger 50 plus feet down the hill. The second dog I adopted, BJ, was terrified of new places, people, and dogs. Astrid was so frustrated by the leash preventing her from running up to other dogs and chase other critters, that she used to throw temper tantrums that would make a 2-year-old child seem mild-mannered and sometimes she would growl at dogs.
Did you know that one of the pioneers in canine behavior modification, Karen Overall, learned much of what she shares with us today from a dog named Flash that put 3 people in the hospital before she adopted him? He lived with Karen for over 10 years and became a great canine ambassador, guiding Karen in her work and directly helping in the rehabilitation of other dogs! Read more about Flash here.
The good news is we can change your dog’s behavior and the emotions motivating the behavior using kind humane methods. Pepper and BJ overcame their fears and became very well behaved dogs. Astrid no longer throws temper tantrums and can now pass other dogs on trails calmly, we still do some management because her rehabilitation isn’t done yet. My goal with this blog is to help connect you to many of the resources available that can help guide you on your journey. I provide some links in the main body of this blog, a more comprehensive list of resources can be found in the resources section.
The first priority is to understand thresholds and trigger stacking because understanding these concepts is crucial to addressing reactivity regardless of what method you decide to use for treatment. Which of the two people in the drawing below do you want to be? The difference between the two is that person A’s threshold and autonomy is respected while person B’s threshold and autonomy is not. The importance of helping your dog stay under threshold cannot be understated. A 1999 review paper on animal stress coping styles said “Successful coping depends highly on the controllability and predictability of the stressor [5,6]. A consistent finding across species is that whenever environmental stressors are too demanding and the individual cannot cope, its health is in danger.”
A trigger is something that causes stress. Nearly all aggression is caused by some sort of stress (Mills et al, 2014; Veenema et al, 2007; Carmen Sandi et al 2015 ; Reisner et al, 2007 ). Have you ever had a stressful day and near the end of the day you snapped at someone over small infraction? You were trigger stacked. You experienced too many stressors in a short window of time and went over threshold. If you experienced fewer stressors you may have stayed under threshold. Going over threshold hinders our thinking, learning, and our ability to keep our composure and remain calm. The same can happen to our dogs. Here is a great article on thresholds and trigger stacking. Here is another article on trigger stacking.
Does Pavlov ring a bell? The first option is directly related to his experiment with dogs drooling when he rang a bell because it predicted food. Counter Conditioning (CC) is giving your dog a high-value treat after your dog notices a trigger regardless of what behavior your dog does. Your dog’s behavior is information on whether you are too close to the trigger but does not change whether you provide the treat or not. The goal is for your dog to begin associating the trigger with “chicken falling from the sky” while your dog is at a distance they can calmly notice the trigger (Haug, 2008) Over time the distance necessary to stay under threshold will decrease. CARE for reactive dogs website is a useful resource for understanding Counter Conditioning. Midnight Dog Walkers book is also helpful and the author has a wonderful group on Facebook. Here is a video on Counter Conditioning.
Have you tried Counter Conditioning and it didn’t work? It could be that your dog associated the arrival of treats with something other than the trigger (maybe you reach your hand in the treat bag or tense up before your dog sees the trigger so now your behavior predicts triggers and treats) or maybe your dog was too close and didn’t feel safe. Was your dog refusing treats like Astrid is in this picture? Here is a video on the importance of dogs being underthreshold for Counter Conditioning to work.
This treatment option has a long history of use with multiple species, including humans, and to my knowledge has the most supporting scientific evidence for canine behavior modification. Several studies have found counter conditioning as equivalent or superior treatment option as just exposing an animal to a trigger. Here is a recent human study that cites some of the other studies on counter conditioning. Here is a paper summarizing Pavlov’s contribution to behavior modification. The next two treatment options for dogs were developed more recently.
The second option is using operant conditioning through the Look at That game (LAT) where you click (or verbally mark) and treat when your dog looks at the trigger. Control Unleashed is a good book for understanding this method. Another method is called Engage-Disengage which builds off of the Look at That game. Here is a video by Donna Hill on the LAT game. Here is an article that describes the Look At That game. Seeing the trigger becomes the situational cue to the dog for doing these behaviors. Most counter-conditioning training protocols use operant conditioning as a second step after the dog shows they have a positive conditioned emotional response (sees a trigger and looks back at you expectantly for food).
Trainers that use operant conditioning as a first step say that counter-conditioning will also happen through their method because the dog will usually get treats shortly after seeing the trigger. Think of the body language your dog has after you train your dog to do a trick when you used treats for rewards, long after you have stopped giving treats for every repetition, your dog probably is showing very happy body language because they now have positive associations with the trick. How about the body language when they see their leash, training props, or when you approach places you have trained at? Naysayers of starting with operant conditioning say that your dog may become happy about the task you ask them to perform but may not build the positive association with the trigger and thus you might find yourself having to micromanage your dog for the rest of their life.
The third option is BAT 2.0 which was crafted by Grisha Stewart. Grisha has a website, some videos on youtube and a book called BAT 2.0. In this method, you set your dog up from a trigger far enough away that they can relax and sniff and explore the environment. You follow your dog around on a 15-foot lead as long as they do not seem to become stressed or head straight toward the trigger. This method is about helping teach your dog they can relax in the presence of a trigger and learn social skills and teaching your dog that they can choose to move away from the trigger whenever they want. Because we can’t always successfully set up the environment so your dog is below threshold enough to relax in the presence of the trigger to sniff and explore the environment Grisha provides some other options including Mark and Move which is similar to Engage-Disengage to use in less than ideal situations.
BAT relies heavily on setting up the dogs environment in such a way that the dog does not practice the behaviors we do not want and instead does other preferable natural behaviors, ideally good social behaviors including polite cut off signals and pro-social behaviors that are naturally reinforcing. I do not know of any research that has been done directly on this method being used in dogs. But it is a form of low-intensity exposure therapy which has been studied in humans.
One aspect of BAT is we help the dog feel free to reduce their exposure to the trigger if they wish by moving away from the trigger or showing cut off signals that tell the trigger they don’t wish to interact. This aspect shares some similarities to a method being researched in humans and rodents called active coping which has been shown to reduce fear for extended periods of time and appears to not have the risk of spontaneous return of fear that happens with extinction training (Hartley et al, 2009). The brain structures related to fear are high conserved across species so it is reasonable to extrapolate research from one species to another, which is why we do many studies in rodents to learn more about human behavior and ways to change behavior (Quirk et al, 2006; Hartley et al, 2009).
Finding a Trainer
It is best to find a force-free trainer that can help guide your behavior modification plan and help you problem solve your situation. Bringing in an experienced trainer is well worth the time and money and may help you speed up progress with your dog and end the embarrassing over threshold incidents. Here is a directory of force-free trainers.
Why Force Free? Surely I should punish bad behavior!
If your child panicked at the sight of a spider, would you punish him for panicking? If you screamed in terror whenever a snake slithered by you, would applying “stim” via an e-collar or a pop on a collar around your neck help you become less terrified of the snake? You might learn to not scream or show obvious outward signs of panic, but you would probably become more scared. Aggression is often caused by fear and/or frustration. A 2008 paper by Huang et al said this “Fear-motivated aggression is the most common diagnosis in dogs aggressive toward unfamiliar stimuli, even when elements of territoriality are present. Offensive posturing by the dog does not rule out anxiety or fear as an underlying cause . The distance to the stimulus and previous learning affect the dog’s behavioral presentation. Many dogs show highly offensive posturing when behind a barrier or when the trigger stimulus is far away. As the stimulus approaches or the barrier is removed, the dog’s behavior may become more
ambiguous and finally reflect outright fear. ” Aggression is one of the Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fidget responses.
Using punishment is correlated with increased aggression which is the opposite of your training goal. A 2018 paper by Dodman et al said “As in a number of previous studies [22–27], the present findings confirmed a positive association between owners’ reported use of aversive or coercive training methods (ATT scores) and the prevalence and severity of their dogs’ behavior problems as measured by the mini C-BARQ (Table 1). Based on the results of the regression models, the main associations were with owner-directed aggression, stranger-directed aggression, separation problems, chasing (among dogs belonging to owners who score low on the TIPI conscientiousness scale), persistent barking, urination when left alone, and defecation when left alone (in dogs belonging to men with self-reported moderate depression).” A 2008 paper by Dr Luescher and Dr Reisner said “Because conflict behaviors are an indication of underlying stress, punishment (which increases stress) is contraindicated. Even though punishment could be effective in suppressing particular conflict behaviors at the moment, it does not address the cause of the problem and in many cases increases the stress and conflict that lie at the root of the problem. Thus, because punishment does not address the underlying emotional state of the animal, it is likely to increase the conflict behaviors or may eliminate one behavior but induce another conflict behavior.”
Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist who adopted and treated Flash, a dog that had put 3 people in the hospital before coming to her home, said this in a 2019 paper ” Contrary to popular belief, efficacy data for aversive, punishment-based interventions are lacking. However, studies have demonstrated that adverse behavioral outcomes are associated with punitive training methods among dogs in the general population and dogs seen at specialty behavioral medicine practices.”
More on Thresholds
Keeping dogs under threshold is very important for helping reactive dogs, but it can be difficult. Learning more about your dog’s body language will help you pick up on the earlier signs of stress. Did you see any signs of stress or arousal in the picture at the top of this blog? We cut that walk short because Astrid was showing so many signs of stress and arousal in a short period of time. Here is an article on body language. The Dog Decoder is a fun phone app for learning dog body language that is great for adults and kids. Here is a video on the interaction of trigger stacking, thresholds, and body language.
One of the biggest challenges to helping reactive dogs is other people.
We can’t expect everyone to cooperate with giving our dogs the space we need even when we request it, we need to go out of our way to maintain our dogs’ threshold distance ourselves when possible. Training a u-turn behavior on cue facilitates turning around (and running if needed) in order to gain distance from a trigger (Haung, 2008). Training this cue is recommended by every trainer I know. Here is a video on teaching u-turn and other ways to move your dog away from a trigger and helping your dog cope while the trigger goes by.
Be ready to advocate for your dog. Have short statements ready to tell people that they should provide you and your dog the space you need. I tend to say something along the lines of “Don’t let your dog approach, it won’t go well” when I encounter leashed dogs on the trail. Suggesting some sort of danger seems to be the most effective means of convincing others to respond as requested.
Some warning signage may increase the number of people that cooperate with giving you space but it may also land you in legal trouble if your dog injures a person or dog because they may say the signage proves that you knew your dog was dangerous and failed to prevent the injury. Some say that the signage just draws people in closer to try to read what the gear says. I don’t expect my gear to work by itself, rather I expect it to help reinforce my verbal message.
I choose to muzzle Astrid on most walks and I use an “ASK BEFORE APPROACHING” bandana and a “NO DOGS” leash sleeve when in on-leash parks. On Saturdays, I wear a shirt I designed that says “Leash Your Dog, My Owner Bites” on the front and “Leash Your Dog, it’s the law” on the back. This shirt and several other designs are available at my storefront on Teespring. I find these help reinforce my verbal request for people to not let their dogs greet and to improve compliance with my verbal request for pet parents to fetch their illegally off-leash dog that is running toward my dog. There are multiple educational campaigns attempting to make yellow colored gear signal a need for space. Here is the Yellow Dog Projects gear.
Location, Location, Location
Observe people in your area. Select quiet times of the day to walk your dog in quiet locations with good visibility (Horwitz, 2008). Open grassy areas with paths are a great option as most people stay on the path and you can work your dog in the grass keeping at least your dogs’ threshold distance from the trail. If other dogs are a trigger for your dog, you will need to move farther into the grass when you see flexi leads or off-leash dogs. Cemeteries and large parking lots are also good options. If you walk on trails, they should be wider than your dog’s threshold distance or have areas on at least one side where you can get off the trail to let triggers pass while keeping your dog under threshold. If walking in a suburbs, be ready to cross the street or take a side street or walk into someone’s driveway as needed to keep your dog’s threshold intact.
If your dog is not staying under threshold on most walks, you need to change when or where or how you walk or temporary stop walking while going through behavior modification. You may need to seek a veterinary behaviorist for guidance and possibly medication. Stress slows learning but does not fully stop learning. Unfortunately, when our dogs go over threshold in an offensive display the scary thing tends to move away which reinforces that lunging, barking, and growling makes the scary thing go away ( Horwitz, 2008) and makes those behaviors more likely to happen in the future. We need to set our dogs up for success so they do not feel compelled to do these behaviors.
Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs.
- Find areas where people have the best control over their dogs.
- When you see an off-leash dog, try to keep as far away as possible. If you are far enough away they may not run up to your dog.
- Walk with another person when possible so they can move between you and the off-leash dog and address its pet parent. This is extremely handy for when you get the argumentative pet parents because you can gain some distance with your dog while they are busy arguing with your walking partner.
- If the dog approaches, motivate their pet parent to recall or fetch their dog by implying their dog is in some sort of danger (“My dog has -insert disease here-“, “If your dog approaches it won’t go well”, “I will spray ___ if your dog approaches”, “Call your dog, my dog is muzzled for a reason”).
- Ask your dog to go behind you and sit while you throw treats at the other dog and then move away while the off-leash dog is distracted. This may not be a good option if your dog will get upset when observing another dog eating treats.
- Carrying an umbrella is another option that can provide a visual barrier and physical block of the other dog, make sure to get your dog used to it opening and closing in the manner you will use it.
Note that these methods are not aimed at changing the off-leash dog’s future behavior, rather they are intended to protect your dog at that moment.
If your dog has difficulty staying underthreshold especially in their own home, then it may be time to consider medication.
SSRI’s are used to help many dogs that have anxiety. But responsible use of SSRI’s includes a behavioral modification program. They are not meant to address hyperactivity unless the hyperactivity is rooted in anxiety. SSRIs are particularly useful when one can not change the dog’s environment enough to keep a dog under threshold most of the time because the SSRIs can help the dog cope with the environment better and help the dog stay under threshold more often during the training process.
Ideally, a Veterinary Behaviorist should be involved because just like any drug SSRIs are not without some risks. Veterinary Behaviorists will have the most experience with these drugs and how to combine them with behavioral modification. It is very important that if one takes a human or animal off of SSRIs they should be weaned off slowly, not cold turkey unless they are being taken off due to a severe side effect.
Prozac, one of the most common SSRIs, is one of the best studies SSRIs which nearly every new SSRI is compared to in research studies to gauge efficacy. I will provide a few studies in the resources section, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
What coping strategies an animal tends to use is associated with different effects on physiological and neuroendocrine characteristics (Koolhaas et al, 1999). These differences, as well as genetic differences between different animals, might be why these medications do not affect everyone in exactly the same way. Your dog may have to try a couple of medications before finding the best one for your dog.
Any dog can bite if they become too stressed. The best option for keeping everyone safe is to manage your dog’s environment to minimize their stress and keep them under threshold while helping change your dog’s emotions regarding triggers slowly and carefully. Consider what stressors can be completely removed from your dog’s life. Does your dog really need to go visit Uncle Larry who has 12 kids? Maybe the farmers market is just too crowded for your dog and he would be better off staying home with a stuffed kong.
Please basket muzzle train your dog so that you can utilize this precaution as needed. Even your most friendly golden retriever can benefit from muzzle training because if he is injured he may react to someone manipulating the painful area. Astrid has never injured a person or dog, yet I find muzzling her on walks helps me quickly convince other pet parents to take my request for space seriously and thus helps me keep my dog under threshold more often which speeds up her training. Muzzle training is especially important for dogs who have injured a person or animal before.
Chirag Patel has a great video on how to condition a dog to love their muzzle. The Muzzle Up Project is another great resource for information on muzzling. This article describes the different muzzle options that are available.
Please do not put a muzzle on your dog without first training your dog to love it unless you are in a situation where a procedure needs to be done that day and your dog might bite someone if not muzzled. Remember aggression is caused by dogs feeling more stress than they can cope with. Until you have taught your dog to love the muzzle, it will be another stressor and will make your dog more prone to either an aggressive display or shutting down. A 2009 study found that 36% of dogs responded to their owners attempts to muzzle them with aggression. I wish this study had asked how the muzzle was introduced because I would be willing to bet money on the muzzle being forced on the dogs in the 36% rather than the dog being trained to put it on voluntarily. Putting a muzzle on a dog without classically conditioning the dog to love the muzzle is likely to lead the dog to have a negative association (dislike or be afraid of it) with the muzzle and will make future muzzle training require more effort or a different looking muzzle.
Behavior modification can transform our dogs into much more confident dogs. Often pet parents find that complete strangers will compliment us on our dogs’ behavior after behavior modification because the work results in well behaved and responsive dogs. But we can not completely change who our dog is or what they have experienced. The behavior modification we do creates new memories but does not erase the old memories. Our goal is to make the new memories more potent so they are what comes to the forefront of our dogs’ mind when they see triggers, but there probably will always be a little stress caused by their triggers and we should be mindful of this to prevent us from trigger stacking our dogs to their breaking point.
While both BJ and Pepper learned people could be kind and had treats, it would have been unfair to them to turn them into therapy dogs or take them into really crowded environments. It would be unreasonable for me to expect these dogs to enjoy strangers like the Labrador down the street that begs everyone for a pet. Before taking your dog places they don’t have to go, please ask yourself if they will enjoy it or if it will cause them stress.
Threshold and Triggerstacking
Kang, S., Vervliet, B., Engelhard, I.M., van Dis, E.A.M., Hagenaars, M.A., Beyond extinction; counterconditioning reduces return of harm expectancy, Behaviour Research and Therapy (2018), doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2018.06.009.
Polo, G., Calderón, N., Clothier, S., & Garcia, R. de C. M. (2015). Understanding dog aggression: Epidemiologic aspects. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(6), 525–534.doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2015.09.003
Look At That
Gregory J Quirk, Jennifer S Beer, Prefrontal involvement in the regulation of emotion: convergence of rat and human studies, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, Volume 16, Issue 6, 2006, Pages 723-727, ISSN 0959-4388,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conb.2006.07.004.
Find A Trainer
Directory of Force Free Trainers. https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Findyourmember
Why Shouldn’t I Punish my Dog?
Lore I. Haug, Canine Aggression Toward Unfamiliar People and Dogs,
Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice,
Volume 38, Issue 5, 2008, Pages 1023-1041, ISSN 0195-5616, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.005. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019556160800106X)
Dodman NH, Brown DC, Serpell JA. Associations between owner personality and psychological status and the prevalence of canine behavior problems. PLoS One. 2018;13(2):e0192846. Published 2018 Feb 14. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0192846
Andrew U. Luescher, Ilana R. Reisner, Canine Aggression Toward Familiar People: A New Look at an Old Problem, Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice,
Volume 38, Issue 5, 2008, Pages 1107-1130, ISSN 0195-5616, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.008. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195561608001083)
Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer, Ilana R. Reisner, Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 117, Issues 1–2, 2009,
Pages 47-54, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011.
S. Pineda, B. Anzola, A. Olivares, M. Ibáñez, Fluoxetine combined with clorazepate dipotassium and behavior modification for treatment of anxiety-related disorders in dogs, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 199, Issue 3, 2014, Pages 387-391, ISSN 1090-0233,
Christos I Karagiannis, Oliver HP Burman, Daniel S Mills, Dogs with separation-related problems show a “less pessimistic” cognitive bias during treatment with fluoxetine (Reconcile™) and a behaviour modification plan, BMC Veterinary Research, 2015 11:80
Pages 925-935, ISSN 0149-7634, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0149-7634(99)00026-3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763499000263?via%3Dihub