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Underlying Emotional Issues Cause Reactivity and Aggression

When a person gets the flu, he is susceptible to experiencing a wide range of symptoms, including fever, headaches, and a sore throat. However, treating the symptoms alone does not eliminate the flu.

We need to apply this same logic when treating “reactivity” or “aggression” in dogs, as these behaviors are simply symptoms to an underlying emotional cause.

Two of the most common causes of problem behaviors in dogs are fear and frustration. Fear causes dogs to snap at strangers who invade their space. Barriers prevent dogs from investigating things that interest them, leading to frustration that can cause barking. A fear of being alone can cause, among other things, accidents in the house and destructive behaviors. And leashes can create both a feeling of entrapment (fear) and barrier frustration, each of which lead to lunging, growling, and even biting.

What is true with all of these behaviors is that they are rooted in a form of stress, and dogs that experience regular or high levels of stress exhibit poor behavioral health. At Pawgress, we refer to these dogs as having a Vitamin “C” deficiency. That is, dogs with poor behavioral health lack the: Confidence to remain calm, due to an absence of consistent choice and control over their environment

Empowerment-based training maximizes choice and controllability so dogs can learn how to achieve their behavioral goals while remaining behaviorally healthy. By creating consistent opportunities for dogs to make self-soothing choices over environments that previously caused them stress, the dogs build the confidence to remain calm, which eliminates their emotional need to engage in the symptomatic behaviors at all.

In short, empowerment-based training teaches dogs how to feel about a situation, which changes how they behave. It is a win-win. Humans eliminate the nuisance behaviors that cause them problems, and the dog’s behavioral health greatly benefits.

For example,  let’s say Stacy has a Labrador named Dexter. When Stacy takes Dexter to the dog park, she notices that he prefers to play by himself and avoids other dogs. But as soon as Stacy puts Dexter on-leash, he freezes, barks, and growls at any dog that approaches him. From this information, we can deduce that Dexter likely has a fear-based reactivity toward other dogs, triggered by a feeling of entrapment while on-leash.

Since Dexter’s fear is causing his behavior, we can take his goal of fleeing other dogs while on-leash and turn that into his reward for making calm choices over his environment.

What does this look like in practice? We setup a controlled environment where a helper dog is positioned somewhere in the area, at a low enough intensity level that it does not elicit a fearful response from Dexter. Then we allow Dexter to explore the area at his pace. If we notice, at any point, escalations in Dexter’s stress level, we prompt him away from the helper dog. Otherwise, we stay out of Dexter’s way and let him choose where to go (while we loosely hold the leash, of course).

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Every time Dexter approaches the helper dog and turns around to walk the other direction, the space he gives himself becomes naturally rewarding and helps him build the confidence to move closer next time. After all, a desire to achieve space from a scary thing is why Dexter freezes, barks, and growls at dogs in the first place. This empowers Dexter to take control over his environment and to learn how to make calm choices in a way that is more natural to him, rather than teaching him to rely on a handler to make decisions for him.

We know we have succeeded in changing how a dog feels when it reliably anticipates a reward as it encounters triggers. In Dexter’s case, this might be something obvious such as happy body language as he approaches other dogs on-leash. Or it might be something more subtle, such as noticing the other dog and choosing to look away. Every dog is different.

There is always a balance between training and management, of course. We cannot, for example, allow dogs to have free and unrestricted access to the world. This means Dexter will inevitably encounter other dogs while on-leash before his training is complete. In the moments where training is not possible, management strategies — preventing Dexter from practicing stress — are employed to preserve the integrity of the treatment plan. But we should always strive for training that empowers animals to control their own outcomes. Their behavioral health depends on it.

Rusty Barnes of Pawgress Dog Training in Oakland specializes in “shy and fearful dogs (and stubborn wiggle butts).” He also won Bay Woof’s Beast of the Bay 2018 Best Trainer — East Bay category. Learn more at Pawgress.dog.

Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.

Main article photo by: Photo courtesy Rusty Barnes