Why I train and teach dogs the way I do
Recently, there has been much debate on social media on different methods of dog training and behavior modification. There have been several trainers and behavior consultants going back and forth with each other on the best tools, techniques, and methods to train dogs. Also being debated is the impacts of those things on the dogs.
I will save you all the details, but in a nutshell, there are certain tools and techniques that one camp has said are fine to use because they are not aversive to the dog.
The other camp says these tools/techniques are aversive and undesirable and should not be used with dogs.
Note: When referring to aversives, it is from the perspective of the learner, in this case, your dog. The most common aversive tools (although as I mentioned, not everyone feels these things are aversive) are e-collars, choke collars and prong collars. Other aversives may be spray bottles, loud shaker cans, leash pops, or even a stern word.
I have been reluctant to insert myself into the debate. For one, I strive to provide value and knowledge to my community. You, my friend, are not here to listen to me pipe off on outdated, aversive training methods (although, I could easily get on a soapbox). And calling out other trainers that I disagree with is just not how I want to show up in the world.
But you should know how I train, teach, and work with dogs. If you are considering working with me, you should know about the methods I use and why I do so.
Dog trainers typically get labeled as “positive reinforcement trainers” (no punishment/aversives used) or “balanced trainers” meaning they use both reinforcement and punishment.
As you probably guessed, I’m with the camp that refrains from using aversive tools/techniques and science backs me up.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior as well as about two dozen organizations worldwide have released position statements on this topic. The consensus is there is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification.
Studying behavior science and learning is not a new concept. In the early 1900s, it was determined that desirable consequences of behavior will yield to that behavior being repeated:
“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”Thorndike’s Law of Effect
Some years later, B.F. Skinner expanded upon that law with operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is where the term “positive reinforcement” (R+ for shorthand) comes from: something is added (+) with the hope of increasing the likelihood the behavior will occur again (reinforcement).
Now, the science aspect is fascinating to me! I could go deep into the science of behavior and learning (and if you want me to, comment on this post!) I believe it is important to be using methods that are based in science meaning they have been tested, documented, and peer-reviewed.
I teach the way I do because it is how I want to learn. It is how I best learn.
To me, the label “positive reinforcement” seems too narrow. Let me explain with a human analogy. (Y’all know I love my analogies!)
Some of you probably know that I had a previous 15-year IT career in corporate America. And then one day, at the peak of burnout, I quit without a plan. (Spoiler alert: it worked alright 😉)
When I was new in my dog training career and learning about behavioral science, I often joked that I might still be in corporate IT if some of my past managers had been more well-versed in positive reinforcement!
But now I understand that it goes deeper than just using positive reinforcement.
I mean, I was certainly being reinforced (paid a salary) for my behavior (coming to work and doing my job).
But I was still absolutely miserable and burned out. (I’m sure some of you can relate to this).
❌ I had zero say in what team and projects I was assigned to. I was hired into one position. But then volun-told I was moving to another team working on an entirely different project.
❌ The environment was not ideal and therefore many of my basic needs were not being met. I prefer to work in a quiet cave and the constant noise of the open-office space is a setting I will never be productive and comfortable in.
❌ My boss only seemed to talk to me when I did something he did not like. It seemed after every meeting where he was present, he would correct me in the meeting and/or afterward send me an email about what I did wrong. Alternatively, it would be radio silence from him.
❌ At one point, my boss and another manager were discussing a peer of mine in front of me. Like me, she was in a new role with more responsibility. The managers’ strategy for her was “sink or swim.” They were not going to help her, support her, or guide her. But rather, left her to figure it out on her own.
I felt constantly overwhelmed, overstimulated, and frustrated.
But hey, I was being rewarded (paid) so I should be fine, right?
Positive reinforcement is great for training new skills, but you need more to effectively teach your dog, help them overcome fearful, anxious behavior, and truly thrive.
So yes, I use positive reinforcement. But I also encourage and coach guardians to:
✅ Interpret what their dog is telling them by reading body language.
✅ Meet their dog’s needs in healthy, appropriate ways.
✅ Adjust the environment so the dog can be more comfortable and therefore more successful.
✅ Foster a safe environment for their dog and remember that being safe and feeling safe are two different things.
✅ Give their dog agency – a choice in what happens to them.
✅ Celebrate wins and progress along the way!
How do you train and teach your dog? Why do you use the tools and techniques you do? Tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading, friend.
Until next time,
–American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: Humane Dog Training Position Statement
Curious about online dog training and coaching?
Early in the year, I feel like I get more inquiries than usual for dog training. And sometimes people are surprised that I work online. When I tell them that, the next thing I hear is either “But I was really hoping for someone to be in person,” or “Really? How does that work?”
You have a lot of options when it comes to dog training in 2023. In-person group classes, in-home private lessons, board and train, dog schools/daycare, day training. But as you may have guessed, my personal favorite is online coaching.
I am a big believer in online coaching to help dog guardians work through reactivity with their dogs. If the idea of working online with a dog trainer is new to you or if you are wondering if online dog training is right for you, keep reading. I’m giving you all the reasons why I think online coaching for dog reactivity is ideal.
#1 Online sessions keep your dog calm
Many of the guardians I work with say they want their dog to relax. We can start to practice relaxation at home – and this goes much better when it’s just you and your dog.
Last year I attended a mentorship program (because coaches need coaches too!) and another trainer/student asked “What do I do when I arrive at a person’s house and the dog is so keyed up I can’t really teach anything? The dog is stressed and the owner is too. Everyone is on edge right away.”
Easy. You don’t show up.
Working online means your dog stays under threshold and allows you to go at your dog’s pace. This is reason #1 because it is that important.
For a lot of the dogs I work with, they have very big feelings about a complete stranger walking up to their door, entering their home, and then standing and moving about once inside.
If your dog is barking, pacing, whining, jumping, and/or snapping when a person comes over, that is not going to be an ideal headspace for learning – canine or human.
It took me some time to learn this, however.
I remember early in my career, I offered in-person private lessons. One of the first clients I had was a dog named Ghost. Ghost was an Australian Shepherd and knew a lot of cues and fun tricks. He walked perfectly on a leash and loved to play with his dad. Other dogs did not bother him. He got along well with the cat.
So why did they need me? Because Ghost had reacted to other humans coming into his home. He had even nipped at a person.
The first few sessions with Ghost, we had to meet outside and walk around the block before I could come inside. Once inside I would only walk into the hallway. Over time, as Ghost got to know me, I could come inside and sit down. Even then, I made sure to not move too suddenly. We spent our sessions with me on the couch talking about management strategies and describing what to do the next time a friend came over.
Looking back, I could have done so much better for Ghost. (And his dad!)
In the initial sessions, a lot of the work is done at home. Dogs need to learn new skills in a non-distracting environment and your home is the perfect place for this.
When you are ready to introduce new distractions (like people or dogs), I give you step-by-step instructions on how to do that.
Which leads to my next point…
#2 Curriculum to follow
I provide a curriculum online for you to work through.
I am going to be brutally honest with you. I am not teaching you anything new or groundbreaking. With behavior and learning, we are all bound by the rules of science. Science tells us the different ways dogs learn and the best, most humane methods to teach them.
You have probably heard of (or maybe even tried) the techniques I cover. But the difference is I give you steps to follow. I make sure it is clear when to move on to the next step.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: You teach your dog a new skill like “rest on a mat” and they learn it quickly! As soon as you cue it, your dog happily goes to their mat.
But then a guest comes over, or someone walks by the window, or there is a sound outside. And your dog seems to completely forget the behavior. This isn’t because you are a “bad teacher” or doing something wrong. It’s because most dog training plans don’t take you beyond the “teaching” aspect to how to effectively apply it in real life by changing your dog’s emotional response.
#3 Train your dog when it works for you both – not when the trainer shows up or class starts.
When I got my start in dog training, I taught group classes in a pet supply store.
In the evening classes, there were plenty of times when guardians showed up seemingly out of breath, having rushed home from work to let their dog out for a quick potty break before rushing to get to class on time. Their dogs were keyed up from being inside all day. Everyone was hungry and thinking about dinner.
I taught one mid-morning class and often heard the dog was napping and had to be woken up to come to class!
Neither of these scenarios are ideal.
With my online format, you watch the curriculum and implement what you learned when it works best for you and your dog. Set up your cell phone camera to record your training session and you are good to go.
#4 Our time together is maximized
You only see your trainer for about an hour a week – and that’s in-person or online. What you do in your time outside the sessions is what really matters.
Which is why I want to make the most of my time with my clients. I want to make sure that my clients feel comfortable and confident with what happens outside of our time together.
Our coaching calls are not spent with me live-demoing how to teach your dog a skill and then you try it a few times. You’ve got demo videos and handouts in the curriculum for that.
Rather, our sessions are to discuss what is working, what is going well, what we need to keep doing, and what we need to change or even stop. We review videos of your training sessions. I coach you on how to track and evaluate your progress. We make plans for next steps and continued progress.
Clients tell me these sessions hold them accountable. They know what they are working on in between sessions and commit to the plan because they want to have feedback and support.
#5 The sessions are all recorded.
Did you know we only remember about 10% of what we hear? Having access to the recording of a session is great if you need a refresher on a specific topic.
Recorded sessions are a favorite for me and my clients. Recording the sessions allows everyone to stay present in the conversation rather than taking notes. (Although some clients take notes too, and that’s OK!) I almost always go back and rewatch sessions and take notes then. I truly feel this makes me a more effective dog trainer.
#6 YOUR confidence will increase.
You live with your dog every single day. You deserve to feel confident to help your dog through behavior struggles.
My sincere goal for clients is to not need me anymore because they have the knowledge, tools, techniques, and analytical ability to address behavioral issues with their dog.
When I did in-person sessions, I used to internally cringe when guardians would say “My dog only listens to you, you have magic abilities!” No, I promise you I don’t.
In fact, you already have the ability to get behavior change from your dog. You will see there isn’t any “magic” that a dog trainer/behavior consultant has. I’m here to help you hone your skills and help lay the path.
#7 Geographical limitations are removed.
Working online means I can work with people anywhere in the world! I have worked with folks from all over the United States, Mexico, Canada, Australia, England…some of which worked with me because they could not find anyone in their geographic area.
While there are plenty of dog trainers out there, finding one to help you work through maladaptive behaviors can be tough. Additionally, it has been my experience that in certain parts of the world, older, out-of-date methods are more commonly used – methods that can actually be detrimental to the dog.
In short, finding a qualified, positive reinforcement dog trainer can be no small task. Working online removed any geographical limitations!
Have you considered working online with a trainer? What other questions do you have about online dog training? Ask me in the comments!
Thanks for reading.
Until next time,
Why find-it is awesome for your dog
While scrolling through Instagram, I came across the story of Violet. Violet is a small mixed breed that is being fostered by a person I follow. I follow a lot of accounts that post about dogs up for adoption, but Violet’s story stuck out to me because she had been returned back to foster care THREE times because of “bad behavior.” She would jump and nip at people “relentlessly.” Would-be adoptive guardians said they were unaware how much energy she had. (Boy, does that remind me of Rosie’s first days at home with us!)
While I refrain from giving advice without having enough background information, there is one skill I think almost every dog can benefit from and that is find-it.
Find-it is simply tossing treats on the ground for your dog to eat. This game is a favorite for me and both Rosie and Tres. I don’t have to bend down to deliver treats and they get to chase and seek out treats on a walk. It’s a win-win!
Truth be told, there are a lot of reasons you should be playing find-it with your dog. Make sure you read to the end where I tell you how to teach your dog find-it and put it on a cue!
It encourages foraging, a natural dog behavior. Foraging is the act of searching for and working to obtain food. I have been nerding out big time on enrichment lately. It’s critical to consider enrichment when treating behavior issues, but that is a post for another day. Foraging is so important, it is listed as one of the 14 areas of enrichment for dogs. (1)
Foraging doesn’t make a lot of sense to us humans. Make the food more challenging to obtain? But this behavior is deeply satisfying and even calming to dogs. This is because of the concept of contrafreeloading. Once an animal learns how to work for food, they will opt for that instead of readily available food for free.
If you want to get some foraging in your dog’s life, start with meal time! You can sprinkle their kibble in the grass or over a snuffle mat. For wet or refrigerated food, stuff it in a Kong, slow feed bowl, or a Toppl.
Sometimes, guardians tell me their dog doesn’t forage or seem interested at all. If foraging is new to your dog, make it really easy at first. “Hide” treats in plain sight and then get excited and praise your dog when they “find” the treats!
A great reason to put find-it on cue is to use it as redirection. You can use it to prevent your dog from ever seeing that dog across the street. Or, back to Violet, you could play find-it to prevent your dog from jumping and mouthing at you by tossing treats away from you. Truth be told, I wish I had known about the magic of find-it when we initially adopted Rosie. Her jumping and mouthing behaviors were intense.
Find-it can also be used as what to do instead of reacting to a trigger. It gives your dog something to do in the presence of a trigger. Done well, it should look like you are playing a fun game with your dog!
Note: When using find-it as something to do instead of react, I recommend starting with counterconditioning and desensitization first. If your dog is having big reactions to triggers, that means there are big emotions behind that behavior. To successfully use find-it in this context, addressing the emotions first will then more easily allow your dog to learn what to do instead.
We did this with Rosie and barky dogs behind fences and up on balconies. At first, we got as much distance from the other dogs as possible and I kept the treats (high-value) flowing as long as the dogs were barking. We now have progressed to playing “find-it” when we walk past these houses. I toss treats on the ground a few steps ahead of us as we walk by. Both my dogs love having something else to focus on!
#3 Multi-Sensory Experience
Find-it can also be a multi-sensory experience, incorporating scent, sight, and sound (if you use crunchy enough treats!)
I had this realization while out on a nighttime walk recently with my dogs. It was really dark outside and I had the dog wear their light-up collars for an extra safety measure. (And, if I’m being honest, because they look cool. We call them their “disco collars!”)
I had medium-value treats in my treat pouch that night, which happened to be crunchy kibble, but a different brand than their normal mealtime kibble.
My dogs could not see the kibble being tossed but could hear it hit the ground and then they would have to use another sense, smell, to find it. They came home nice and relaxed!
#4 Physical Exercise
It is winter in the northern hemisphere right now. The days are still short. It is cold. Maybe it is windy, raining, or snowing where you are. It is just not ideal weather to go outside. But your dog is looking at you expectantly at your evening walk time.
Guess what? You can also incorporate distance (one of the 3Ds of dog training) into your find-it game. I got this idea from Allie over at Pet Harmony (and also one of the authors of the book in the references section, I highly recommend it!!) Allie plays find-it while sitting on the couch and tossing treats away from her dog to chase. If you have stairs and if your dog is able, you can even toss treats up and down stairs.
#5 Mental Stimulation
While you can keep find-it to food scatters and treat tosses, you can also put it on cue! When I say “find it!” my dogs’ noses drop to the ground to search for a treat.
To teach find it to your dog:
- Have a handful of treats in a pouch or in your fist. Say “find it” and immediately drop a treat on the ground. Repeat several times.
- Say “find it” and instead of immediately dropping a treat, wait for your dog to drop their nose. Praise and toss a treat as soon as they do.
- Build duration. Say “find it.” Praise your dog when they drop their nose to the ground, but wait a couple of seconds before tossing the treat. Build the duration gradually so your dog doesn’t get frustrated.
- Practice in different environments to help your dog get really good at the game.
Are you going to incorporate find-it in more settings now? Tell me in the comments!
- Canine Enrichment for the Real World by Allie Bender and Emily Strong
Finding a dog sitter for your reactive dog
Finding a good, reliable dog sitter can make a big difference when traveling and you have to leave your dog at home. Finding the right person to care for your dog can allow you to have peace of mind on your trip. However, finding a sitter can be challenging, and even more so when you have an anxious, reactive dog.
When we moved last year, I had to find a new sitter and I was so nervous about it. Luckily, we struck gold and have a wonderful, kind, patient sitter that I trust.
To help you navigate this process, I’ve broken down finding a dog sitter into 4 parts: Searching for a sitter, interviewing a sitter, prepping for the sit, and the actual sit.
I definitely recommend starting your search early! If your dog has severe stranger danger, it will take time to get them comfortable with a new person.
Searching for a Sitter
To begin your search, first, determine what you want the sit to look like. Will the sitter be staying in your home? Will your dog go to the sitter’s home? Will it include overnight stays or just walks and check-ins throughout the day? The services offered will vary by the sitter.
Note: My personal preference is a sitter that comes to our home. My dogs do better with a routine in a familiar setting. This is the consensus of my clients as well (because we all have fearful and/or reactive dogs.)
When looking for a dog sitter, you may wonder where to start. Sure, there are online platforms in which you can find a sitter. But we have all read horror stories online of pet sits gone wrong.
I don’t mean to throw shade, but there are plenty of well-meaning sitters on those platforms that sit because they “love dogs so much” when in reality, they do not have a solid understanding of dog behavior and body language – things that are super important when working with reactive dogs.
Online resources I recommend to start your search are Pet Sitters International and the National Association for Professional Pet Sitters. Both of these websites allow for location-based searches and will tell you more info and credentials of sitters (insured, licensed, certifications held, educational courses completed, First Aid certified, and Canine CPR certified, etc.)
Additionally, try joining a local Facebook group. There are usually “Dog Moms/Dads of Your City” groups that are open to the public. While a lot of the content in these groups may not pertain to you, they can be a great resource for finding a sitter. You will get recommendations from others that have had success. (This is exactly how I found our current sitter).
You can also try asking your groomer, vet, trainer, or even local pet store employees. I worked at a pet supply store early in my career and was honestly blown away by the compassion and thoughtfulness of the employees. Some of the employees I worked with pet sit on the side or could at least make a recommendation for a sitter.
Once your search yields some prospects, having an in-home consultation is a must.
Before the sitter arrives, make sure you clearly communicate how to interact with your dog. For example, you may prefer they text when they arrive instead of ringing the doorbell. Or maybe your dog does best meeting new people outside before coming inside. (For more info on people coming into your home, check out my free Guest Guide).
It is a red flag if this person cannot follow your directions and wants to pet and say hello to your dog. This is very scary for people-reactive dogs!
This is also your time to ask questions and set expectations. Some questions you might want to ask:
- Ask for references
- How many years experience they have
- How much experience do they have working with reactive dogs
- If any hiccups occurred during and sit and how did they handle it and what was the outcome
- Are they certified in canine first aid and CPR (if those things are important to you)
- Will anyone else accompany them during the sit. Some sitters may have their significant other or a friend with them. It’s important to set expectations so there are no surprises later.
- Reiterate your expectations for the sit (overnight stays, daytime check-ins, etc.)
- Cost of the sit and training sessions leading up to the sit
Preparing for the Sit
While this in-home consultation will probably be enough for you to determine if this person is an ideal candidate, your people-reactive dog will likely require a bit more time. It is important to negotiate the cost of the sit itself, but also additional training sessions leading up to the sit.
Depending on the dog, this may take several sessions over the course of weeks (or even months). The beginning sessions will be relatively short (20 minutes or less). Over the course of these sessions, practice actions required for a sit, like putting on a harness, going for a walk, feeding the dog, playing with the dog, etc.
If your planned trip is going to be for several days/nights, plan a shorter sit first, perhaps a couple of hours, and work up to overnight.
It is also a good idea to go for a walk with your sitter so you can demonstrate what to do in certain situations (like an oncoming dog). Review the different cues or words your dog knows and where and when to use them.
It’s finally time for your trip! By this point, you should have completed a thorough desensitization process so your dog is super comfortable with their sitter. If your dog is happy to see their sitter, congrats! Job well done, my friend!
You are almost home free, but here are a few tips to ensure the sit goes well:
- Write out detailed instructions. We only remember about 10% of what we hear so having clear written instructions is helpful. Some notes you might want to include are: meal time details (amount, time, method), walk instructions, medications (if applicable), and anything else pertinent to your dog. I read once that dog sitters actually prefer detailed instructions to eliminate any ambiguity. (This made me feel much better about the full-page note I leave for our sitter!)
- Leave out all supplies so they are easy to find (poop bags, treat pouch, extra treats, bowls, food, toys, enrichment items)
- Leave emergency numbers like your vet or a trusted friend or family member just in case.
In my signature Stranger Danger Program, I coach guardians on how to desensitize their dogs to people, dog sitters included. I work with dog guardians all over the world to coach them so their dogs feel more relaxed around others – allowing guardians to welcome guests into their homes, hire a dog walker, and yes, hire dog sitters too.
Having a people-reactive dog can make finding a dog sitter a bit more of an effort, but can absolutely be done. If you are struggling to acclimate your dog to people in your home, please reach out to me at Andrea@BestLifeDogTraining.com
Wishing you all the best in 2023.
Until next time,
When your dog’s triggers cause you anxiety
On a recent coaching call, I was working with a guardian on the next steps for her dog’s behavior modification plan. We were working together to help the dog feel more comfortable around other people. Both the dog and her guardian had been doing amazingly well up to this point so I was excited to raise the bar.
I asked the client, “Progress has been going well. How do you feel about the next steps?”
“My dog is doing great but….” And she paused. I could see her become emotional.
“It’s just hard,” she continued. We’ve spent so long avoiding triggers and preventing other people from getting too close, it’s scary to think about stepping outside our comfort zone.”
And that made me pause and think.
We have come a LONG way in dog training and behavior modification over the last 20-30 years. Canine body language is becoming more mainstream so guardians can recognize signs of stress in their dogs. We know that an ideal learning environment is one that allows for more agency and less pressure.
But something often overlooked is how difficult it is for humans to step outside the comfort zone.
They have spent so long avoiding their dog’s triggers. Sometimes, even years. And now, we are going to intentionally expose the dog to the very thing they are scared of and have a history of reacting to?
How do we address the very stressful, very real feelings that come up for the guardians?
First, we use science and follow a desensitization process.
Desensitization (DS) is exposing your dog to a trigger but at such a low level that it does not induce a stress response in your dog. It is usually paired with counterconditioning(CC).
Over time, this DS/CC process allows the dog to feel more comfortable around those people/dogs/things/sounds that were causing stress.
Done correctly, it is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Some guardians say after a session, “Well, nothing really happened.” To that I say, “Great, well done!”
But it can still be anxiety-inducing for the guardian. After all, they know their dog’s history.
If the thought of exposing your dog to their triggers as part of a desensitization plan gives you anxiety, keep reading for 3 things that may help.
1. Have a plan to get the heck out of there if it is too much for you or your dog.
Guardians sometimes ask me, “What if my dog starts to get worked up? What if my dog reacts? What do we do if the situation escalates?”
Bail. Leave. Get outta there. Abort mission.
Before starting a DS/CC process, I teach guardians a flight cue to use with their dogs. Anxious or nervous feelings can come up because of feeling trapped, no escape. Knowing you have an “out” and knowing how to communicate this option to the dog can go a long way to reduce anxiety – for both ends of the leash.
We practice this flight cue until 2 things happen: the dog gets happy upon being given the cue AND the steps are second nature for the guardian, like muscle memory.
If you have any feeling that your dog might be approaching their threshold and possibly have a reaction, just leave. This is especially true in the early stages of desensitization.
What this does for the dog is more practice using “flight” instead of something else.
What this does for the guardians is increased confidence in their handling abilities and increased proficiency in reading their dog’s body language to note more subtle signs of stress.
They know when and how to intervene to support their dog if needed.
2. Go into a DS session with a clearly defined goal.
Another source of uneasy feelings for guardians comes from not knowing: not knowing what to do in a session, not knowing what to do if things go sideways (see tip #1), not knowing how to record results or define success.
By answering those questions before you begin your session, you are setting yourself up for success.
Yes, we are working around the dog’s triggers in desensitization but it is not random. It is not “let’s try this and hope for the best.” DS is methodical and systematic.
Before you begin a session, you should have a general idea of where your dog is right now. Are they fine with dogs behind a fence but lunge and bark when a dog is out of a walk across the street? Is your dog more comfortable with people approaching outside your home versus a guest coming into your home? Identify the situation you feel your dog is most likely to be successful.
Then, consider the 3 Ds of dog training: Distance, Duration, and Distraction.
These 3 parameters can guide you on how to raise criteria for your DS sessions. For example, when working on acclimating your dog to guests in your home, you might focus on:
- Have the guest inside your home with your dog 15 ft away (distance)
- Have the guest inside your home for 5 minutes (duration)
- Have a guest inside your home telling an animated story and talking loudly and gesturing (distraction)
That is an oversimplified example but hopefully gives you an idea on how to play with criteria while still keeping your dog under threshold.
Define in measurable terms your goal for the session and what success will look like. If you don’t know what your target is, you have no way of knowing if you hit it.
Was the goal of your session to get closer to a specific person? To walk by another dog from 15 feet/5 meters away? To have a guest sitting calmly on your couch for 10 minutes while your dog chews on a bone?
You should feel fairly confident your dog will be successful. Again, we aren’t looking to make giant steps in a short amount of time, but rather small steps over time.
3. Have a way to track progress.
Tracking progress is critical. You need real data to get real results.
Reactivity is emotional for the dogs and the guardians. When bumps in the road happen, it can be easy to get stuck in a negative thought pattern. You may question if your dog is even improving. When this happens, go back and look at your data. It will tell you objectively if your training approach is having the desired effect.
If you are feeling nervous about a particular DS session, review previous successful sessions. Seeing a history of where your dog has done well can make you feel more confident.
Tracking progress is also a great way to keep you motivated. It reminds you of how far you have come and can guide you on how to set up future sessions for success.
Tracking progress can include journal entries, videos, and/or an actual progress log noting various behaviors and how often they occur. Pick a method that works for you and is sustainable long-term.
Does working around your dog’s triggers feel stressful for you? Tell me in the comments how you cope.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back next year with a new blog post. If there is a certain topic you want me to cover, let me know!
All my best,
P.S. If you found this post helpful, share on social media and tag me. If you know someone who might benefit from this post, please share it with them.
Better mindset, better results with your reactive dog?
Today, I want to talk about a very important tool in your dog’s reactivity recovery: your mindset.
Now before you roll your eyes and check out, keep reading.
I’m not talking about “always being positive” and avoiding negative thoughts at all cost. Toxic positivity really gets under my skin.
I’m not asking you to eschew emotions and your past experiences and positively think your way to a better life with your dog. If you have a reactive dog, you know that no amount of positive thinking is going to get your dog to stop barking and reacting to their triggers.
So how can your mindset help your dog? First, let’s define what we mean by mindset and the different types.
What is mindset?
Mindset is a set of assumptions that impact how you interpret the world around you. It can affect your goals and whether or not you achieve them.
We can have a fixed or a growth mindset, these terms were coined by Stanford researcher and professor Carol Dweck, Ph.D.
If you believe certain qualities are unchangeable, this is a fixed mindset. People in this mindset may say things like “That’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I can do to change it.”
In the growth mindset, you see yourself as capable of changing over time. You become more open to learning from mistakes. You are able to reflect and adapt.
As Dweck writes in “Mindset:”
“…as you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another — how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”
That’s a big, powerful statement.
What does mindset have to do with training and behavior modification?
Ok, that’s nice, Andrea. But I’m here for dog training and behavior modification. What’s mindset got to do with it?
When you have a fixed mindset, you may have thought things like:
Fixed Mindset Approach My dog was just born this way, nothing can be done. I want my dog to stop lunging, barking, or growling at other dogs or people, but it has gone on so long. This is just our life now. All my other dogs were “easy.” I don’t have the skills to address these challenges with this dog. My dog did really well in that situation, she must have just been having a good day.
Our mindset can have a direct impact on our success and progress when it comes to dog training and behavior modification. If you think your dog’s reactions are because he is being “disobedient” or “stubborn,” this will impact your relationship with your dog.
This way of thinking is also likely to hold you back from seeing progress with your dog because you are expecting to see the worst out of your dog. If we see our dogs as incapable of change, that is the path we will follow.
It is really important to shift our mindset when working with your dog.
But when you have a dog struggling with reactivity, fear, and/or aggression, this is easier said than done.
Why we get stuck in a fixed mindset
Does this sound familiar?
You have been working with your dog to reduce her barking at passersby outside the living room window.
You have management in place to increase the likelihood of your dog’s success (not barking out the window) and have been following a training plan. It’s been several days in a row that your dog has not barked at the dog’s that walk by.
But one time, you forget to put your management strategies in place and a new dog walked by and took your dog by surprise causing her to bark out the window. And feel all hope is lost.
Why does this happen? Blame our DNA.
The negativity bias (also known as positive-negative asymmetry) is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Not only do negative events and experiences imprint more quickly, but they also linger longer than positive ones.
❌ You are more likely to remember that one occurrence than all the other times your dog did well.
❌ You are more likely to blame yourself for your dog having a reaction than you are to acknowledge your success when your dog does well.
❌ If you avoid a reaction, you are more likely to downplay your role in it. You may say “Yeah, my dog didn’t bark at the window, but I had use the ‘find-it’ cue to do so.”
The negativity bias goes back to the caveman days when it was very much a life-or-death scenario. If you perceived something to be a threat, and you were correct, you lived to see another day.
But if you perceived something as NOT a danger and you were wrong, that was probably the last decision you made.
Evolutionarily speaking, the negativity bias kept us alive as a species. Subconsciously, we scan for threats and we want to avoid harm.
But fear not! Now that you are aware of this, you can change your mindset.
How to change your mindset to benefit you and your dog
Knowing that our brains are hardwired to remember the negative, we have to put forth an effort to remember the good.
Here are some tips on where to start:
#1 – Learn the power of “yet” and don’t get too caught up in “now.”
When you say things like “I cannot get my dog to stay calm when people come over” try “My dog isn’t able to relax on a mat when guests come over yet.” The “yet” implies it is a work in progress, a goal you are working towards.
#2 – About that work in progress, give yourself credit for your hard work.
Guardians usually have pretty clear goals for their dogs and it is easy to get wrapped up in reaching that goal and achieving success. But reward yourself for the effort you are putting in.
#3 – Be kind to yourself.
As soon as you catch yourself going down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts about your dog’s behavior, have a cue to stop yourself. Get up and go to another room. Take a walk. Play with your dog.
#4 – Practice reframing negative experiences.
It is upsetting when your dog has a reaction. But rather than mentally beat yourself up, make note of your internal dialogue and substitute positive, action-based thoughts. “I’m such a failure with my dog,” can become “I wish I made a different choice but I will remember how I wish I had acted differently and will apply this to future situations.”
#5 – Be patient with yourself and your dog.
Behavior modification and treating reactivity is a long game. There will be ups and downs – it is all a normal part of the training process. Learn to celebrate small victories while understanding that you may have days of back-sliding. It’s all part of the learning process.
Now, consider those previous thoughts about your dog, but with a growth mindset twist:
Fixed Mindset Approach Growth Mindset Approach My dog was just born this way, nothing can be done. My dog was born an anxious dog, but it does not mean she has to stay that way. I want my dog to stop lunging, barking, or growling at other dogs or people, but it has gone on so long. This is just our life now. I want my dog to relax around people, and I understand that is a big ask for my dog and she’s not there yet. I need to work with my dog to help her be successful. All my other dogs were so easygoing. I don’t have the skills to address these challenges with this dog. I’ve never had a dog with reactivity issues. I need to do some research and dedicate time to working with my dog. My dog did really well in that situation, she must have just been having a good day. My dog did so well when we walked by the barky dog, that is a reflection of the work we have been putting in.
Adopting a growth mindset doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice like anything in life. Enjoy the process and acknowledge your effort along the way.
How has your mindset affected your interactions and training with your dog? Tell me in the comments!
- TEDx Talk: Harnessing the power of yet – Dr. Carol Dweck.
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck
- What is a mindset
Counterconditioning in Dogs
Spend any amount of time on social media or YouTube and you will likely hear dog trainers, behavior consultants, and even vets voicing the importance of counterconditioning to help dogs overcome their negative feelings toward various stimuli.
(Note: In this post, I use the word stimulus and trigger interchangeably).
At first glance, it sounds easy and straightforward. But we like to dive into the details around here, so let’s get into counterconditioning, why it is so heavily used in the dog behavior modification field, and how to do it.
Make sure you read through to the end! I cover 5 common troubleshooting points if counterconditioning has not worked for your dog in the past.
What is counterconditioning?
Counterconditioning is the process of changing one’s emotional response to a stimulus. In dog behavior modification, this may look like helping a dog that is anxious and/or fearful of people learn to relax around people and even see people as a positive thing.
And just to note, counterconditioning is going from one emotional valence to the other; it doesn’t always go from negative → positive. The other way can happen too. Although I don’t know why you would want to do that in the realm of behavior modification.
How to use counterconditioning with your reactive dog
Counterconditioning is often used to help dogs overcome reactivity to other dogs, people, vet visits, noises, body handling…really anything that triggers an undesirable emotional response for the dog.
The aversive stimulus is paired with something the dog finds enjoyable like treats, pets, praise, or a toy. This might look like feeding your dog a delicious bit of jerky when someone passes by the window or giving your dog a high-value chew when you have a visitor in your home.
The dog gets the good stuff as long as they are exposed to the stimulus.
Sounds simple enough. But does it work?
Is counterconditioning effective for reactive dogs?
Scientific research tells us that counterconditioning is more effective than other methods (extinction, punishment) in changing an animal’s negative response. (1) (2)
My experience with my own dog is the same. I used counterconditioning with Rosie to change her feelings about 2 dogs that barked from the balcony every time we walked by. She would lunge, bark, and even jump into the air. After following a counterconditioning plan, she now looks up to me as we approach expecting a treat and we calmly continue on our way.
If it sounds simple on paper and scientific research tells us it is effective, why do guardians tell me things like:
“My dog isn’t food-motivated enough.”
“Treats aren’t enough to distract my dog from the trigger.”
“I tried counterconditioning, but it didn’t work.”
The devil is in the details, my friends. If you have tried counterconditioning and it didn’t work, here’s some troubleshooting points to consider:
1. How consistent is the counterconditioning?
Let’s say you want your dog to stop lunging and barking at a barky dog behind a fence.
You pack your treat pouch full of delicious steak and set out for your walk. You feed your dog as soon as the other dog starts to bark. And it seems to work – no reaction from your dog!
You do this for a few days, but by the end of the week, you are all out of steak. You use a training treat – still enjoyable to your dog but not as delicious as the steak. The weekend rolls around and you forget your treats entirely (life happens!) and your dog launches into a full-blown reaction as you pass by the barky dog.
What’s going on?
If you are only offering the treat sometimes or offering a lower value treat, the contingency between the stimulus (barking dog behind the fence) and the treat will not be strong enough to change behavior.
2. Is the order of events correct?
It is very important that the stimulus (trigger) predicts good things. That means the triggers must first appear and then the treats appear. From the dog’s perspective, the trigger causes the treats to appear.
Often, we get so anxious ourselves that we start shoving food in the dog’s face as soon as we are aware of a trigger. But, if your dog has not observed the trigger, they will quickly learn that frantic feeding means there is something to be on the lookout for in the environment.
3. Are you starting with the stimulus at too high of intensity?
Counterconditioning is often addressed in conjunction with desensitization. And there is a good reason for that! Desensitization is a treatment or process that diminishes emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.
When done properly, desensitization is about as exciting as watching paint dry. We expose the dog to the stimulus but at such a low intensity that the emotional response does not occur. Then we can do counterconditioning to help form a positive association.
If you start a desensitization session when the stimulus is at too high of an intensity, your dog is not going to be able to accept the treats being used as part of the counterconditioning process. (See point #1 of this post).
4. What is your dog’s comfort level?
Distance is a common metric when working with fearful, reactive dogs. What is the distance between the dog and the trigger? We want to reduce that distance so that friends coming into your home or other dogs out on walks don’t have an impact.
But if you are only measuring progress by the distance your dog is from a stimulus, you may be overlooking the most important metric of all: your dog’s comfort level.
When following a counterconditioning and desensitization (CC/DS) protocol, boring, uneventful training sessions are the goal.
By keeping your dog’s comfort level in the forefront of your mind, closing the distance becomes a side effect.
5. What are you counterconditioning?
If you have a dog that is noise reactive to people coming over, what is it exactly that starts your dog’s stress cycle? Is it the sound of a car door slamming in the driveway or the doorbell ringing? Is it the voices of the people? Is it something else entirely like a sound or odor that we as humans cannot detect?
In Patricia McConnell’s book,”The Other End of the Leash,” (someone correct me if I’m mistaken on the source) she talks about a dog that lunged and barked at people that came over – but only sometimes. It was so inconsistent that it remained a bit of mystery. At some point, the guardian recalled an incident when the dog was very young. A pizza delivery driver accidentally stepped on the dog in the process of delivering the pizza, causing the dog to yelp in pain.
That single learning experience was enough for this dog to remember pizza, not people, cause pain.
- Counterconditioning is the process of changing your dog’s emotional response toward a stimulus.
- It is a process that is backed up by science, proven to be effective and humane for treating reactive behavior in dogs.
- While it sounds simple, it is nuanced. Review the troubleshooting guide, analyze your approach, make adjustments, and try it again!
Tell me in the comments!
Did any of the troubleshooting points give you an “a-ha” moment? What are you going to try differently in your counterconditioning protocol with your dog?
It’s not about obedience.
From kindergarten to eighth grade, I attend a very small private school. The bar was high and the teachers and nuns ran a tight ship.
I am a lifelong people-pleaser (now in recovery). As a young girl, I figured out what things or actions made the adults happy. And then I strived to do those things.
But, I was just a kid. And of course, there were times when I did things that did not make those adults happy. It was definitely not intentional – the idea of just a verbal reprimand was absolutely terrifying and would induce tears almost immediately.
When these occurrences happened, whether to me or another student, first the teacher would call you out. And then you would likely get sent to the principal’s office.
For a few years, the principal was a nun that I was scared of the most. Her verbal lashings were the worst and her most noted thing to say to a student in her office was to call them a “disobedient thing.”
I still remember the furrowed brow, scowl, and red face that accompanied the comment.
I barely understood the word at the time but made a mental note of what things were disobedient and made sure not to do those things.
Not because I admired this nun or respected her. But solely to avoid punishment.
(Like I said, lifelong people-pleaser).
Fast forward a few decades and I refer to my group classes at the pet supply store as “good manners” and not obedience training. Just hearing the word “obedient” makes me cringe a little and mentally transports me back to the 4th grade.
If you’ve been here a bit, you know the emotional and physical effects that are happening in your dog when they have a reaction. It’s not that they have “bad” manners.
So if we aren’t teaching obedience or good manners, what do we do?
When I dove head first into learning and understanding all things reactivity, I came across Susan Clothier and her Relationship Centered Training (RCT) approach. And things just clicked.
Focus on building and enhancing the relationship between you and your dog.
“But I love my dog,” you say.
Yes, I have no doubt!
But how is your relationship?
And how do you grow a relationship with another species?
Here are three ways to focus on the relationship between you and your dog.
#1 Bond with your dog by partaking in shared feelings, interests, and experiences together.
Bonding with your dog is a fantastic way to build your relationship and it is as easy as doing something your dog enjoys together. Bonding activities might be sitting on a bench just soaking up a view, playing tug together, going on a sniffari, giving a good belly rub, or teaching a new trick.
On a recent beach trip, Rosie was entertaining herself digging up sand crabs. When Matt kneeled down and started digging with her, I swear I could see her face light up!
Think how nice it feels to share something you enjoy with someone you care about. You can do that for your dog, too!
#2 Learn your dog’s consent cues and honor when they say no.
We ask our dogs to do a lot of behavior that probably doesn’t make sense to them: Sit to greet a person, walk nicely on a leash, ride in a car, hold still for grooming, and stay calm when a complete stranger comes into your home.
We often ask our dogs to opt-in for so many behaviors.
We must give them the opportunity to opt out, as well.
Giving your dog the OK to say “no thanks, I’d rather not” can go a long way to fill up your dog’s trust bank with you. You become someone safe your dog trusts.
How do you do this?
- Skip the pets when your dog’s body language says they aren’t into it.
- Avoid making your dog “say hi” to a stranger if they don’t want to.
- End (or skip) a training session if your dog is not feeling it.
- Stop and let your dog sniff to cope with an oncoming trigger.
It is lots of small things over time.
#3 Foster a safe learning environment for your dog.
Much like a child trying to be obedient to avoid punishment, dogs who are afraid to make mistakes are going to be less inclined to try new things.
Mistakes are part of the learning process. When you are working on behavior modification with your dog and learning new skills, mistakes are going to happen – for you and your dog.
Rather than view them as a failure (or worse, something to reprimand), think about what you can do differently to be more successful the next time.
How do you build and maintain a relationship with your dog? Tell me all about it in a comment!
Lessons Learned from Reactive Dogs
When I first started my dog training career, I had never heard of the concept of reactivity in dogs. I had never experienced a dog completely losing it at the end of their leash when another dog is near. I had never dealt with a dog that was fearful of noises. And I certainly never had a dog that was scared or showed aggression toward people.
But then I (inadvertently) started working with a reactive dog. And about a year later, I (unknowingly) adopted a dog with reactivity struggles. And nothing has been the same since!
As my reactive dog, Rosie recently celebrated her 4th birthday (or what we guess is her birthday), I reflected on how far we’ve come and all we have learned along the way. I thought I’d share a few of the lessons learned from working and living with reactive dogs.
#1 – Reactivity has zero to do with obedience and everything to do with an emotional response.
I still remember this handsome Golden Retriever we’ll call Ty. He and his dad walked into the store where I worked as a dog trainer and wanted to sign up for classes. Ty’s dad told me he really wanted help with leash walking when other dogs were around. He was such a well-trained dog, but when he spotted another dog while out on a walk, he would “lose it” and lunge, bark, and snap at the other dog. It was all his dad could do to hold on to the leash.
So we signed them up for 6 one-hour sessions on Monday evenings.
We focused on loose leash walking and gave a high rate of reinforcement (fancy way of saying a lot of treats for doing things we like). I introduced as many distractions as I could inside the walls of the store (squeaky toys, sudden direction changes, treats on the ground, etc.) but Ty was solid. This dog did amazing on the leash. If he did ever create tension on the leash, he seemed to know how to fix it himself.
I tried to come up with a few new tricks to teach like crawl and rollover. He picked up on new tricks very quickly (and many tricks I wanted to teach he already knew). Ty would happily do just about anything for a little piece of jerky.
The point is, Ty was an extremely well-trained dog and his dad was very good with his own timing, mechanics, and reinforcement.
Mondays were usually very slow in the store so it was not until session 4 that I experienced the behavior Ty’s dad described in our initial conversation.
We were practicing loose leash walking in the back of the store and we rounded the corner into the main aisle. We were all the way in the back, but had a clear line of sight directly to the front door of the store. And in walked another dog. I can’t tell you what the dog looked like because it instantly became a situation of holding on to the leash for dear life and getting Ty AWAY from that dog.
His dad took the leash and literally pulled Ty away. I tried giving Ty a treat but it was like I was invisible. That’s when I realized that this had nothing to do with “training” or Ty not listening or being “obedient.” Something much more was going on.
A reaction is the behavior that you see. But what is actually going on is an emotional response as a result of what happens in the brain. The limbic system, the amygdala in particular, triggers the fight/flight/freeze response. This heightened emotional state that the dog is in can cause increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increase of cortisol and epinephrine.
To truly treat reactivity, you must address and change the dog’s emotional response.
And that leads to my next lesson learned…
#2 – Treating reactivity is not training.
Dog training is what I did at the store when I first started in the field. I taught group classes and private lessons. We covered the basics and good manners. I had a few repeat clients that just loved coming to classes so I got to teach some fun tricks every once and awhile too. The most difficult thing I had to work with was “teenage dogs” (5 months – 24 months, depending on breed) that seemed to have forgotten all previous training and were now driving their guardians a little bit nuts.
A dog training session might be teaching your dog behaviors like sit, touch, stay, or rollover. While you may use these cues in treating reactivity, training your dog alone is not going to be enough to treat the reactive behavior.
You must also be doing desensitization and counterconditioning. Treating reactivity is behavior modification and it requires a more scientific, methodical, and systematic approach. Recording and analyzing data become important.
#3 – Reactivity stirs up big emotions for the guardians, too.
I cannot think of one single client that came into the store that was really struggling with their dog’s behavior. Sure, there were plenty of annoyed or frustrated dog guardians (see previously mentioned teenage dogs). But for the most part, having a dog was close to what they expected and their issues did not really impact their daily lives or well-being.
Guardians of reactivity dogs, on the other hand, often tell me they are exhausted by their dog’s behavior. They feel ashamed. They feel isolated. They feel misunderstood, often by family and friends (I could write a whole post about societal expectations for dogs based on inaccurate, out-of-date info).
Many guardians of reactive dogs have gotten emotional in my presence. They always apologize, but it is not necessary. Because what they feel is real. It is valid.
They got this dog and expected this wonderful, loving relationship. But then, after living with the dog for some time, they learn their dog has some very real, very concerning behavior issues.
They can’t take their dog for a walk. They can’t have people over to their home anymore. They can’t take their dog places like they hoped.
Reactivity impacts their lives almost if not daily. However, we also need to remember my next lesson learned…
#4 – Reactivity is NOT the dog’s whole personality.
One of my favorite questions to ask potential and new clients is “tell me about your dog’s personality.” They almost never mention their dog’s behavior problems. But rather, they often describe all the cool things about their dog. How they greet them with a full body wiggle after a long day at work, or the silly way they sleep with their legs in the air, or the amazing agility and tricks they can do.
Rosie, my own dog, is leash reactive and a frustrated greeter when it comes to people. I feel bad when people see this side of her. Because the remaining 99% of the time, she’s fun, goofy, smart, curious, cuddly, and sweet. She loves learning new things and really enjoys a good bully stick. She sleeps on my feet as I type this blog post.
I encourage you to do this too. Remember all the cool things about your dog. Maybe even write them down to read on the more challenging days. Your dog is so much more than their behavior problems.
#5 – Body language is so powerful.
Canine body language is SO fascinating to me, but it wasn’t always like that. I remember my first dog training mentor educating me and the other mentees about canine body language. It was discussed in the context of “puppy playtime,” a 30-minute session twice a week where puppies under 5 months old who were up-to-date on vaccinations could come and play with other puppies.
A trainer (myself or the other trainer at the store) would supervise. We were to look out for play that got too rough and separate when needed. It wasn’t too hard to spot when things were ramping up a bit too much.
But to get really good at reading dog body language takes practice. Three tips:
1. Definitely record training sessions and interactions with your dog and re-watch them. This is invaluable to becoming a better dog communicator.
2. Context is important. Look for behavior that is repeated in similar contexts. For example, if your dog trembles and their head is on a swivel, scanning all around as soon as they go outside. If this is normal behavior, your dog could be overwhelmed and fearful. But if the behavior isn’t always occurring, it could be something in the environment, like wind or changes in barometric pressure, that has your dog on edge.
3. Learn your dog’s more subtle signs of stress. Sure, most guardians know what a reaction looks like for their dog. But what does it look like when your dog is only mildly stressed? What behaviors does your dog display before a reaction occurs? What about after a reaction, how does your dog calm themselves?
A warning about learning your dog’s more subtle body language – you can’t unsee it! I had a habit of approaching Tres, my mini-Schnauzer mix, head on to give him kisses and face scratches. But then I noticed he would turn his head away and lick his nose as I walked toward him – even if I was bringing him a piece of yummy food for him. The act of me walking directly to him making eye contact was a bit much for him. So now, I approach in an arc and avoid eye contact. It’s much less pressure on him.
What about you? What lessons have your reactive dog taught you? Tell me in the comments!
Do you have agency in your dog behavior modification plan?
I recently conducted a survey asking guardians about their experience with their reactive dogs. I asked things like where they were now vs. where they wanted to be, what their goals were, and how their dogs’ behavior impacted their lives.
Many of the answers were common things I hear from guardians of reactive dogs. However, there was one underlying theme that surprised me.
Read through the following comments can stop and think what comes up for you:
“One trainer recommended we pop her collar, but I just couldn’t do that.”
“The trainer was really focused on using BAT but in our busy city neighborhood, we couldn’t make it work.”
“A prong collar was suggested but that was a hard no for me.”
“We tried using LAT but now I feel anxious, always scanning for triggers.”
What strikes me is the complete disregard for the guardian’s agency.
I think anyone who is in the R+ community understands the importance of giving dogs a sense of agency and recognizing consent in our dogs. And I totally agree.
Why wouldn’t the same be true for the human end of the leash?
The method, technique, and recommended equipment are irrelevant (some were +R/force-free that I use myself). What matters is the guardians were not given a choice. They did not buy into the proposed solution.
If you are not on board with what is being recommended, it is a non-starter right out of the gate.
Think about a time when you *had* to do something, you did not have a choice. And you found that something to be quite unpleasant. How does that make you feel? What is your reaction?
When I worked in corporate America, I was hired on by a company to fill a particular position. I had a background in the company’s industry and was interested in the work my team would be doing. Fast forward about 2 ½ years, I was feeling like a productive, valuable member of the team and I was comfortable in my role. But then I was told that I was being transferred to another team doing different work (and a lot more of it) on a project I found incredibly dull and boring. Oh, and no raise.
I went to my current boss to plead my case. I did not want to go to this team for a LOT of reasons. My boss, an understanding, effective, fair manager, was sympathetic to my plight. But his hands were tied. Go to this new team or be out of a job.
What do you think happened?
I’ll spare you all the tears and anxiety. I lasted a little over 2 years and then I quit.
It wasn’t until a few years later, after studying and researching behavior science, that I understood the science behind what happened.
What IS agency, anyway?
Agency is the capability of individuals to make choices and to act on those choices in ways that make a difference in their lives. (2)
In psychology, agency is the ability to act autonomously and freely, feeling that one is able to act independently and effectively to control their own lives. A common goal in therapy may be to help people act autonomously in a way that works best for their individual needs and lifestyles.
People who feel that they do not have any agency may be anxious or depressed, and may struggle with motivation or procrastination (1) (see my story above).
Why Agency Is important for behavior modification
Let me be honest. Taking on a behavior modification plan for your reactive dog requires change for the humans involved. And change is tough. To make change effective and sustainable long-term, we must consider agency. Science tells us that there are 4 components to agency: intentionality, forethought, self-reflection, and self-regulation. (3)
Let’s break each of these down and apply it to working with dogs.
This refers to an awareness to conduct yourself and your actions in a certain way based on an idea or goal. It is important that the actions you take are clearly tied to a goal. You conduct yourself differently to achieve a certain outcome. If you are practicing a skill or cue with your dog, with no real understanding how it is going to get you closer to your goal of getting your dog more comfortable around people, you are not going to be effective in adhering to the plan because the purpose and the intent is not there.
Because you are now becoming more intentional, the ability to think and plan ahead comes into play. You guide your actions in anticipation of future events. You are more aware of what situations your dog is likely to be successful in (or not) and plan ahead to increase the likelihood your dog will stay relaxed. You are also able to plan training sessions ahead of time because you have intentionality behind the action you are taking.
This is an active, constructive process where you set goals and then attempt to monitor, regulate, and control your cognition, motivation, and behavior. This is the step beyond setting goals and taking action. Once action is taken, you track progress over time. Have progress markers for yourself, not just your dog. This is key to know if a behavior modification plan is having the desired effect.
This is a functional self-awareness in which you reflect on your personal efficacy, thoughts, actions, the meaning of their pursuits, and make corrective adjustments if necessary. You are able to objectively look at the results of your data collection and evaluate your own progress and current path. Yes, it is important that your training plan is yielding positive change for your dog. But how are you feeling? Is your training schedule leaving you drained and exhausted? Do you find certain techniques or methods recommended by the trainer to be anxiety-inducing?
If a trainer is telling you what to do and handing you a behavior modification training plan without any input from you, they are not considering YOUR agency.
Everyone has their own lives, schedules, thoughts, habits, likes and dislikes. For long-term sustainability (which is important for addressing reactive behavior), it is important that the guardian buys into the plan. An easy way to do this is to work with a trainer collaboratively to set goals and structure a plan that works for you. This is the approach I take with the guardians that work with me. Without it, we are not considering the most important aspect in helping the dog: the guardian.
What thoughts come up for you after reading this? Do you feel a sense of agency when working with your dog?
- Frie, R. (2008). Psychological agency: Theory, practice, and culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Bandura’s Theory of Human Agency (Bandura, 1986, 2000, 2001, 2006)