As your dog matures, they will naturally start to:
* Become interested in practicing and/or participating in a variety of predatory behaviors
* Develop intense likes/dislikes, become frustrated by not being able to get to something like really like or really don’t like (not being able to play with, chase, nip, etc)
* Begin to become more sensitive to their enviroment (some working breeds struggle with loud booming/grating/sharp noises and the beings/objects that create them)
* Become afraid of certain experiences/things (It is important to know that reactivity does not just come from fear – this is only one part of this list!)
We can both use this protocol when we are purposefully practicing – but also when our dogs go over threshold by accident.
Safety first! The main rule is safety first. If you have to use high value treats to lure your dog far enough away, or even pull them away on their harness, go ahead – safety first! Then start practicing. It is ok if your dog is over threshold – as long as they and others are not in harm’s way.
Remember, we are NOT aiming to DISTRACT our dog. We are aiming to provide them with a new coping mechanism that allows them to realize we exist, and we can help. This takes time and is different for every dog.
Treats in treat pouch
Dog on-leash, of course — ideally wearing a comfortable harness attached to a 6-foot leash. I prefer to wear a strong treat pouch belt and tether the leash to the belt.
1. Allow your dog to notice and look at the trigger.
* Note: If your dog seems surprisingly relaxed, allow them to just be and watch until they aren’t interested anymore. If your dog isn’t entirely relaxed or if you are at all unsure, proceed on!
2. When you sense they might have a tenancy to react, or are already breathing heavier, stiffening, etc, say your marker word that means one treat will be dropped on the ground, and drop a treat beside yourself.
3. Repeat: They look 👀 at trigger 🛸, you mark 🗣️, drop treat beside yourself 🍿.
* Note: If your dog ignores you, pretend they aren’t ignoring you and keep practicing. Wait long enough for them to look, give your marker cue, drop treat, repeat. Keep up the good work, don’t worry how it looks.
4. Stop only when your dog has lost interest in the trigger.
Every dog will progress differently, but here are some natural stages of what practice can look like. Typically each practice will follow one of these different stages. You dog may skip a stage or two each practice, or even regress sometimes at first. The final stage is what we are working towards, but don’t worry if it takes a long time to get there, or if your dog gets stuck at a particular stage for what seems like a long time. Remember, if positive reinforcement based training for reactivity was exciting looking of instant, it would be on Cesar Millan’s TV show and it isn’t! Each treat is a treat in the piggybank…
1. Reacts no matter what, ignores you, ignores treats completely.
2. Reactions no matter what, ignores you, only gobbles treats when the trigger is gone.
3. Reacts no matter what, ignores you for a while, then goes between gobbling treats and reacting.
4. Reacts, ignores you for a while, then intermittently pays attention
5. May or may not react, intermittently pays attention
6. May or may not react, mostly pays attention
7. May or may not react, pays attention almost completely
8. Mostly doesn’t react, pays attention
9. Doesn’t react, pays attention
10. Doesn’t react, looks at you before your marker or your treat delivery!
11. Doesn’t react almost every anymore, but looks at old trigger then looks at you for a treat
Instead of freaking out at alien sightings (skateboards, cars, buses, children, lawnmowers, hats, you name it… 🛸) we want to turn our dogs into relaxed observers. 🛸👀🗣️🍿
Every dog has different triggers, and for different reasons. One dog might want to kill skateboards, another might find the sound annoying, another might want to chase them for fun and be frustrated.
Our long term go is for our dog to feel okay and relaxed around their triggers.
The forever goal is for our dogs to realize that if they relax and defer to us, we’ll handle the situation, we’ll support them, and they have the pleasure of getting to be “off duty.”
For some triggers, this will mean long-term pulling out this protocol every time. For other triggers, it will mean using it only sometimes. Other triggers will fade into the distant memory of both you and your dog as ever having been triggers at all. The important thing to remember is, anything that resembles easy work on your part and relaxed safe participation from your is SUCCESS, and a trigger never being a trigger again is a bonus.
When Miles was young he used to snarl, lunge, and bark hysterically if children ran by, at any distance. After about a year, he was completely different and he has lived for many, many years only needing this protocol now and then when we are stuck in one place and a kid keeps running by screaming (like an Amtrak train or a lineup at a small store). On the flipside, if you were to tell me, my friends, and my family that Miles would never fully attack with aim to bite a person who opened any dishwasher ever again after this training for the rest of his life, none of us would have ever believed it.
The above is a modified version of a game I made up many years ago that won a Maxwell Medallion for best dog training article from the Dog Writer’s Association of America. You can check that article and the video within in out (but please follow the above protocol, this article is pretty old!) to get any idea of why this type of trigger training is valuable. The dog is desensitized to the the trigger by practicing safe exposure, counter conditioned to the trigger through food, learns to defer to human moderation rather than freak out, and learns to decompress all at the same time.