Tuesday, December 13, 2011


A dog who is reacting to something is not thinking. It doesn't matter whether the reaction is part of survival mode or over the top excitement. A dog with that much adrenaline running through it's system is incapable of responding to most cues he's been trained to respond to. However, a dog in this state can be redirected with something scarier, more counter survival then what they are reacting to or, in the case of the over excited dog, something much more interesting.

There are those out there who say just put a shock collar on the dog and that will fix all reactivity. Does it work? maybe, sometimes, depends on if it's more counter survival then what is being reacted to. The #1 factor with a shock collar is timing and that takes training. The #2 factor is context. Even at the highest setting, is the shock more counter survival or is the situation? I've had many people come to me when the shock collar no longer works, or never did work. You have to know what survival is and what it means to your dog and dogs as a whole. The #3 factor is association. Will the dog come to learn that wearing that particular collar means pain in specific circumstances? In my experience, 90% of the time - yes. Doesn't "cure" the reactivity.

Survival has been defined many ways, but for the purposes of reactivity, survival is the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, the reactions are a method of avoiding pain by chasing away the other dog (killing the other dog also makes it disappear and thus avoids the pain). If the reactivity is a form of resource guarding, then it's a seeking of pleasure because the resource being guarded is a source of pleasure the dog is perceiving as a necessity.

In the natural world, pain means death and pleasure means life.

If you add more pain (death) to a situation, you are liable to get a dog who reacts with more ferocity. You could also create a dog who gives up. Early this year I worked with a dog who had given up. He had so much pain from a shock collar associated with going for a walk, with having a leash on outside the home, that he walked as slow as he could, hung his head nearly to the ground and made it very obvious that he was avoiding even glancing at other dogs. You could see the nervous licking, the trembling, the avoidance whenever another dog got too close. At the first lesson with this group of dogs, I watched this dog flinch at least 40 times in the space of 30 minutes. Whether or not the shock was being administered was a moot point, the dog expected it and the reaction was Pavlovian. The worst part of this was the fear in the attitude of the owner. She was terrified of taking the shock collar off the dog in public, knowing from experience that her dog knew where the pain was eminating from. The reactivity, the aggression toward other dogs was still there, just suppressed with the shock collar.

What does work?

I keep one or two large exercise balls in my yard. I am trying to teach certain muttniks to play Treibball. But I have used the balls to break up fights and to stop reactivity. Using the balls this way cures nothing, however, it redirects the dog's attention long enough to either grab the dogs in the case of a fight or move a reactive dog far enough away from it's triggers that it can becalmed. Cure is in hard work, lots of slow desensitization and counter conditioning. Depending on the level of reactivity, it could take months. There is no magic wand or electric device that can change a dog's emotional response to situations that trigger a survival mode reaction. There are no commands or cues that can stop a dog from having those emotions - obedience can only keep the dog from physically reacting - but not until the commands have been proofed for months and sometimes years to every possible trigger. Handling the emotions directly with conditioning and desensitization is faster. Change the emotions, find the real triggers and make them part of the pleasure of survival not the pain. Don't just mask the emotions behind a dog who out of fear, intimidation or pain shuts down to external pressure.

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