I frequently go to dogs that, when on lead, react aggressively to other dogs. I explain how the way to change this is to keep ‘distance under threshold’ and then add ‘good things’ that are triggered when Bonzo sights another dog.
Sometimes (often, in fact), over the following weeks the process becomes distorted in clients’ minds. This is even when we have gone out and have worked on the process together.
People extract the easy bit. They see another dog and then do all they can to prevent Bonzo spotting it. They increase distance or hold Bonzo’s attention. They make ‘good things’ happen for ignoring the other dog (that they have done their best to ensure Bonzo isn’t aware of).
Proudly, they report to me that they are successfully avoiding most dogs. If they see one, they take off in another direction. They ask Bonzo to look at them, ‘watch me’, preventing him for clocking the other dog. They feed him.
These ‘good things’ – food or fun or both – can be connected to nothing in Bonzo’s mind other than their Person having a sudden fit of kindness!
Then they understandably say after a few weeks, “We aren’t getting anywhere. We live in the real world so we are going now to force him up closer to other dogs”. That will, sadly, wipe out any trust they may have built up.
In the time they have wasted, Bonzo would almost certainly have made progress. With regular one-to-one sessions out on walks, an experienced trainer would keep them on track. That’s not always possible unfortunately.
My railway train analogy
I like analogies. I find this helps clients to understand the principles involved.
I ask them to imagine Bonzo is terrified of trains and the only place they can walk him is in a very large field with a railway line at the end of the field.
There will be a distance at which he can see and hear the trains whilst still feeling safe. Closer, and he’s over threshold and will react. Over threshold, he won’t eat and he won’t play.
So, from this comfortable distance, as soon as he hears an approaching train, the food and fun starts. As Bonzo looks in the direction of the train line, either chicken rains from the sky or they start his favourite game.
When the train has passed. The food or fun ceases. No train, no ‘good things’.
With regular sessions, in principle, bit by bit, Bonzo’s threshold should reduce over time until he stands near to the train line without feeling any fear, waiting for his chicken. Counter-Conditioning.
Now I ask Bonzo’s person to imagine she can see a distant red light. When this turns to green she knows a train will soon be coming. Immediately, before Bonzo can see or hear it, she takes his attention, feeds him and runs off away from the field and the train line. He’s not aware of any train.
Distraction can’t ever change how Bonzo feels about trains.
To my mind the command ‘Watch Me’ is Distraction. Used to extreme, ‘Watch Me’ is walking along looking up into his human’s eyes, shutting out everything else.
Distraction doesn’t build up any associations, either good or bad, between Bonzo and the other dog. Distraction might make life easier, but it doesn’t change how Bonzo feels.
If Bonzo first clocks the other dog and then looks up at his person for the good things he now expects another dog to trigger, that is Counter Conditioning.
Here is a nice visual explanation from Donna Hill.