If you have a reactive dog, you may have been told to expose them to their triggers so they can ‘get used to it, but is this really the way to approach this behavior concern?
If you have a reactive dog, you may have been told to expose them to their triggers so they can ‘get used to it’. Head of Training & Behavior, Karishma Warr, explains why this is definitely not the solution, why this will likely make their reactivity worse, and what you should do instead.
Firstly, let’s define ‘reactive dog’.
Reactive dogs are dogs that have maladaptive responses to everyday environmental stimuli. These behaviors are a product of the flight / fight / freeze response, and are usually rooted in intense feelings of fear, frustration, and overwhelm.
Check out this blog on reactivity for a more in depth discussion
BLOG: Understanding Leash Reactivity
To help reactive dogs handle their triggers in a human-approved way, we need to do two things:
This process of behavior therapy often takes weeks if not months.
Counterconditioning involves changing the dog’s emotional response to triggers. The dog needs to stop experiencing the trigger as frustrating, scary, or overwhelming, and instead feel, calm, happy, and safe. Only then will they be able to learn a new way to respond to their trigger.
We do this through a process called “classical conditioning'“. We turn a negativity bias into a positivity bias through pairing the triggering stimulus with a reinforcer in carefully controlled behavior therapy sessions. Reinforcers vary from dog to dog, but are often high value foods, or play. Over time the dog’s emotional response changes from negative, to positive through this repeated association.
Just like with humans, therapy to modify extreme fear, frustration, or overwhelm can take many months - this is normal and to be expected.
“Just like with humans, therapy to modify extreme fear, frustration, or overwhelm can take many months - this is normal and to be expected.”
Management involves avoiding exposing your dog to their triggers in ways they cannot handle yet. Our goal is to keep them feeling safe and to protect their nervous system from rehearsing maladaptive stress patterns. This is not the therapy itself - this is just managment - but it is as important as the active counterconditioning sessions. Without management, our dogs will repeatedly rehearse maladaptive responses. We will be taking 2 steps forward with our counterconditioning, then two steps back again.
Think of it this way, if you went to a psychologist to treat your phobia of water, they would slowly expose you to water over a series of weeks or months. Slowly you would dip your toe in, then go ankle deep, then eventually chest deep, before being able to dunk your head under. While working on that emotional shift (aka counterconditioning), you would trust your therapist to not push you in the deep end half way through a therapy session. That’s what it feels like to reactive dogs, when they are exposed to their triggers at too great an intensity. We need to avoid this for our therapy to be effective!
“Our goal is to keep them feeling safe and to protect their nervous system from rehearsing maladaptive stress patterns. This is not the therapy itself - this is just managment - but it is as important as the active counterconditioning sessions. ”
Many guardians are told that they should expose dogs to their triggers - a process called “flooding” - so that the dog habituates or ‘gets used to it’. Some even recommend then punishing the dog for expressing fear or discomfort around the stimulus.
In most cases exposure therapy/ flooding is unsuccessful and unethical. Throwing an animal in the deep end and expecting them to just 'deal with it' is likely to make a behavior problem, rooted in fear, anxiety and frustration, considerably worse.
Training plans that rely on exposure, or punishment of undesired behaviors should be avoided ,and are likely to increase aggression. See two articles linked below for a thorough discussion of this:
Managment is the foundation of a behavior plan, to avoid re-sensitization through repeated exposure. Behavior therapy would involve systematic counterconditioning to the triggers, so the animal is able to offer another trained behavior and continue loose leash walking, or check in with their human. This is best done under the guidance of an experienced professional - a certified science-based dog trainer or behavior consultant. As your dog's sensitivity to triggers decreases your trainer should coach you to systematically reduce and remove managment.
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