Veterinary Behavior Consultations, LLC and TEAM Education in Animal Behavior, Spicewood, TX, USA
The reactive dog may be unable to focus on the handler in novel or unfamiliar environments, lose control with the sight or sounds of other dogs, and may lunge or pull when on leash in the presence of people, animals (cats, squirrels, birds, etc.), or other stimuli (cars, bikes, buses, planes, etc.). In this lecture, reactivity is the term used to describe pulling, lunging, growling, barking, snapping, and biting. Reactivity is a general and nonspecific term that may encompass motivations of anxiety, fear, arousal, excitement, conflict, and frustration. The focus of this lecture is not the diagnosis and treatment of canine aggression, rather to provide attendees with practical insight into how reactivity on leash can be modified. Topics covered will briefly include safety, controlling the learning environment, and the application of response substitution (operant counter conditioning) on walks. The main emphasis will be on teaching the cues look, watch, touch & go and leash pressure. Using a marker for operant conditioning and reinforcement with food, one can change the classically conditioned emotional responses to various stimuli.
Although the goal is to keep the dog below its level for reactivity, for the safety of the owner, pet, and others, these recommendations should only be made if it is deemed that the owner is capable of keeping their pet under their control while implementing these exercises. Pending the case, additional safety precautions might include, a head collar, double leash system, basket muzzle, and citronella spray deterrent (as a deterrent to the approach of off leash dogs).
The following training tools will be needed: Clicker, high value reinforcers (ideally small readily consumed food treats), treat bag, 4 to 6 foot leash, well fitted buckle collar or harness, and sturdy athletic shoes for the trainer/owner. Other supplies may also be necessary as noted in the safety section.
The Training Process
The S.T.A.R.R.™ Method stands for a systematic, team, approach to reducing reactivity. The training process is broken down into the an acronym A.C.E.S.™ for ordering the training process. The first two steps are association and cues. The final steps are exposure and systematic desensitization. This presentation will focus on how association and cues are incorporated into exposure, such as the everyday walk. When dogs show overreactivity or hyper-vigilance to stimuli, the following is a general example of the first exercises we have owners implement in their everyday routine.
The first step is association, whereby stimuli become associated with earning really good stuff for the dog. The focus is on classical counter conditioning but it also includes the marking of operant behavior. A marker or clicker is used to help pinpoint the exact moment the dog earns the treat. In order to avoid the clicker becoming associated only with aversive stimuli, clicker training should be used in a variety of contexts before using it around triggers of reactivity. On these walks the owner is instructed to focus on clicking/treating two things: offered “check ins” with the owner or noticing stimuli in the environment. They are also to maintain a substantial distance from stimuli to help keep the dog below threshold of reactivity. The goal at this point is not to get close to stimuli but instead have brief exposure to stimuli from a distance that does not elicit reactivity from the dog. Exposure is brief to classically condition a positive emotional response to stimuli.
For example, a dog that has a history of barking and pulling on leash towards unfamiliar people and/or dogs on walks when the stimulus is a half block away, we would start with marking/clicking the first instance the dog notices a stimulus. The owner is walking the dog and notices her dog’s ears perk forward and he fixes his gaze in the direction of a person getting out of a car about a block away. The owner should click that instant and then give a high value treat. Treats may be given every 1–2 seconds or continuously as the dog navigates past the stimulus. Alternately, the owner may elect to change direction to avoid further escalation of the behavior (this will dependent on the individual dog).
Since the dog will already be conditioned to the clicker, it should be expected that upon hearing the click, the dog will orient towards the owner for the reinforcer. If the dog is unable to reorient after hearing the click, that is information to the owner that the dog is over threshold or too distracted by the stimulus. The owner will need to redirect the dog and get further away from the stimulus.
Ultimately, if the owner is consistent with marking and rewarding for the sight of all stimuli, two things will start to happen; one the dog will begin to anticipate earning a click and treat for the presence or sound of a stimulus and will likely begin to anticipate. An owner will often report this happens when they are late on clicking the presence of a stimulus and the dog turns and looks at them like, hey where is my click? The second side effect is that the dog will start to look for triggers not because he is needs to be vigilant, but because it has become a game; the motivation of the behavior has changed. This will also be evident in the body language of the dog.
The second step is teaching cues. At the same time that owners are working on marking and reinforcing the sight of stimuli, they will also work on teaching the cues; “Look”, “Watch”, ‘‘Touch & Go” and “Leash Pressure.” These cues will be initially taught in a non-distracting environment and should not be associated with the presence of triggers of reactivity during the initial training. Two cues are a pair of opposite behaviors (“Look” and “Watch”). “Look” will be used to mean look at something away from the owner/handler. A directional cue (finger point) might also be added with “Look” in order to indicate what direction the dog is to look. “Watch” will mean to focus and look at the handler. The “Touch & Go” cues the dog to touch its nose to the handler’s hand/palm.
The “Leash Pressure” cues the dog to go with tension on the leash for reinforcement. Initially, tension on the collar predicts the presentation of a food treat. Eventually tension is a cue for the dog to move in the direction of the tension for a food treat.
These behaviors can all be taught with clicker training using capturing and/or shaping. Once on cue, the owner will use the cues in a variety of contexts within the house and yard, with inanimate objects such as a toy or chair, and when possible with neutral or positive stimuli (i.e., a person or animal the dog lives with and has a good relationship). Once the dog has learned these cues and the dog has started to associate stimuli with earning a click/treat, the owner may now start to incorporate some of these cues during walks. They will ping pong back and forth between, look, watch, and touch (and other known cues) in the presence of previous stimuli for undesirable behavior. The touch cue can be given as the owner pivots to change direction or to redirect the dog while walking past a stimulus. Owners should practice these cues throughout the walk without stimuli present. Offered or uncued looks and watches in the presence of a trigger should still be reinforced but eventually they will be on a variable ratio of reinforcement.
The initial plan of associations and cues is used for a majority of on leash reactivity issues. The foundations concepts and skills lay the groundwork for further work involving exposure (close encounters) and systematic desensitization.