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Why Reactive Dog Classes Don’t Work

It happened again. There is another dog approaching and your stomach tightens, and you move to the other side of the road. Or maybe, you’ve stopped walking your dog. By the time you take a reactive dog course many things have come into play that will reduce your chances of success.

Fear or Stress? NOPE just a learned response

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that trainers told them ‘fear’ cannot be cured. This is a ridiculous statement that has more baring on the trainer’s education level than the dog’s ability. All fear can be changed. Fear is a survival reaction to something unknown, or to something that created a negative emotion. 

Simplifying reactivity/aggression to fear or stress is like saying a bridge collapsed because the wood burned because a match was dropped on it.

Cause and Effect (causality)

While the match in the above example was the catalyst, it was not the cause. Many elements needed to happen before the wood would have burned. A tree needed to die. Wood needed to be cut and dried. The kindling needed to be made. The kindling and wood needed to be arranged properly. The match needed to be lit. The small flame fanned so it would grow. Remove any one element and the match wouldn’t have created a fire. 

The same is true with reactive dogs. No one event creates a reactive dog. All the tricks in the world will not ‘undo’ all the learned emotions/responses that resulted in reactive/aggressive behavior.

Set or attitude are subject variables and are as important in a learning situation as any other variable. So what the learner brings to the learning situation is his set, temporary conditions (drive, fatigue) and permanent conditions (heredity, intelligence and previous experience).

Let’s get a little scientific for a minute

The law of effect principle developed by Edward Thorndike suggested that:

“responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation (Gray, 2011, pp 108–109).” Thorndike

What is Connectionism? Where Training Goes Wrong

Connectionism was based on principles of associationism, claiming that ideas (emotions/reactions/behaviors) become associated with one another through experience and that complex ideas can be explained through a set of simple rules. Connectionism further expanded these assumptions and introduced ideas like distributed representations and supervised learning and should not be confused with association.

So, what does this mean? It means that telling your dog to ‘look’ at you and then give it a treat will teach the dog that looking at you is good. But, it won’t teach the dog not to fear other dogs.  The confusion comes from a thinking that ‘association’ is the start and end of any dog training theory.

If you work just with ‘association’ then your dog is not ‘learning’ a new behavior or alternative behavior.

What is the practical application of connectivism?

Practical implications of Thorndike’s ideas are suggested through his laws of learning:

1.       rewards promote learning, but punishments do not lead to learning. ( stopping the behavior changes nothing)

2.       repetition enhances learning, (the task/trick needs to become a behavior – a new ‘learned’ response)

3.       potential to learn needs to be satisfied.  (The dog needs to be given time to change their emotions and learn new responses to fearful things). 

Dogs do not just ‘get over it.’

How Does Learning Effect Reactivity?

Let’s take a look at the average reactive dog class. We immediately assume that all the dogs have the same problem. This is never true. For example, I recently worked with a reactive dog who wasn’t afraid or stressed. Instead, this dog found anything that moved more exciting than the ‘task’ the owner wanted the dog to do.

I have worked with reactive dogs who had ‘learned helplessness.’ All trainers understand that if a dog is punished when it sees a dog then it will associate strange dogs with pain. Each repeated incident increases the reaction. However, this is a learned response. In many cases this dog only wanted to say hello to the other dog, or wanted to back away from a certain dog, and the owner used a harsh leash jerk to correct the dog.

What did the dog learn? As Dr Ian Dunbar states the dog learns to tell other dogs – stay away, my owner will freak out.

Or the dog becomes frustrated because they receive so many corrections that they learn to shut down, stop reacting, stop thinking, stop feeling – until the day the dog emotionally implodes and is ‘suddenly’ aggressive.

All Dogs are Reactive to Some Extent

I find that at about 10 – 12 months old all dogs have varying agrees of reactivity. But whether the dog becomes reactive, or whether the reactive rover class works, depends on the owner’s reaction to the dog’s reaction.

Let me say this again. How you handle your dog defines whether it will be reactive, but you can’t start when the dog is reactive. You need to start teaching a dog not to be reactive when it first comes home. And you need to ‘do’ something. You can’t just decide that you want to fix ‘the reaction’ (symptom) and not fix the problems (learned behavior/fear/stress). And last – accepting that you probably caused the problem.

What Next?

I am not telling people to stay away from reactive rover classes. Stop thinking that there is a magic trick that will fix your dog. It took time, or an emotionally traumatic experience, to cause the problem. It will take time to fix the problem.

What happens when you have tried everything and your dog isn’t fixed? If you fall into this category then please read the article ‘Here Be Dragons’ – Understanding Reactive Dogs