When it comes to dog training it is all about quality over quantity. Meaning, it is better to have a few really good sessions or interactions, rather than many negative or neutral interactions.
Lots of people I work with have dogs with reactivity issues be that to dog over fear or aggression, or towards people in the same way. Either way many owners can think it is very important to keep forcing their dogs into situations the dogs are not comfortable in, as well as likely to react in. This forcing leads to more situations of reactions, reinforcing the reaction behaviour as the one to get rid of the scary thing, or get the dogs removed from the scary situation. It becomes cycle of reinforcing the wrong thing.
I think it is far more important, for some dogs, to have more sessions of good quality interactions, which might be only 2-3 meets with one other dog in a good way. Rather than seeing 20 dogs and reacting at all of them, leaving everyone involved stressed!
Basically I see it like this:
Each dog has memories they can pull on in a situation in order to pick the right reaction. I see each dogs memories of interactions like above, some positive good ones where good things have happened. Many neutral ones, where nothing really has happened, and quite a few negative ones where something bad has happened.
When in training I feel like some dogs have the negative memories, join with the neutral to over shadow the positive ones.
This ganging up on the positive memories leave the dog being reactive, even though they have had some good meetings with dogs or people.
It’s easy to have leads of neutral meetings when on walks, you can have hundreds where your dog doesn’t react and you walk on by, but one negative one tips the scale. This can undo months of training as your dog isn’t learning to pull on those positive memories, and see reacting isn’t the only option.
What we need to achieve is this:
This result comes with more positive interactions over time, quality interactions where a dog fearful dog meets a calm dog on several occasions, full of rewards and fun. Where a dog aggressive dog meets people who won’t make eye contact and hand him treats. These interactions might only be minutes long, but the buzz they give the dog in terms of happiness last a life time. Emotions have such a strong link to both us, and our dogs it would be daft to assume a dog didn’t learn from their emotions, and learn from the more positive ones better.
You’ll never get rid of the negative interactions, but you can make them less major to the dogs life. Drowning them out with positive interactions that last a lifetime.
So when I suggest to a dog owner its actually ok to avoid other dogs on walks when its busy, or your having a bad day, and aren’t in the mood for training. I do because I would rather you went out for a walk where you saw only a few good things, and very little or none bad things. I would rather you held off on a walk one day, to avoid big negative things, then push it because you think your dog will suffer missing one walk. Your dog will suffer more from the trauma of the event.
This suggestion of holding off, and avoiding some things isn’t forever. You can’t avoid life. But if you can work steadily and fill your dogs, and your own memory bank with good experiences then you can start to hit those areas with the things that used to set your dog off. This premise applies to you as well, you will learn to trigger at your dogs triggers, and panic. The more good things that happen with you as an owner, the more positive you feel about your dog. I see it all the time with owners, empowered to learn from their dogs and take life in their stride.
This is also one of the reasons to keep in touch and work with a behaviourists over time, not just assume one session is enough. It is important to ask for help to set up scenarios if needed, and get help as your dogs learning and reactions change. Behaviour modification is not an easy thing, and the plan put into action is fluid as the dog changes, it is very important to re-assess it a you go, changing your goals and criteria of what will set your dog off on a reaction.
This is sort of a brief explanation of the subject to get into peoples head the idea that, yes it is ok to avoid some things and seek out good things for your dog. My top tip of it all is to make this rewarding for the dog, go over the top crazy when they do things right, not wrong or you ignore so the dog doesn’t get anything for it.
Kathryn Jones FdSc AAB
Clever Fox Canine Training and Behaviour
A Clever Approach to Dog Training and Behaviour