Choice Training – Working with a Leash Reactive Dog

My Labrador Sadie spies a dog in the distance and as the dog approaches she turns her head to look at me.  Her eyes catch mine and I smile at her, telling her what a good girl she is.  She turns again to look at the dog as he walks past and then back at me.  I praise her courage and the decision she made to remain calm in a situation that previously caused her fear.  

When Sadie first came into my life four years ago, she was what I would call a reactive dog, lunging towards and barking viciously at any dog that walked past or came close to her.   In the first five years of her life with another family, she had obviously learned to protect herself by behaving in a threatening manner.   In her mind, each time she aggressed, she kept herself safe by making sure no dog came into her space, and by the time she came to live with me, the behavior was so deeply ingrained, it had become a well rehearsed ritual.  Fortunately I was able to temper her reaction and teach her a new way to cope and behave in similar situations.  The techniques I used meant I could change her behavior without physically punishing or imposing my will upon her in any way.  I just gave her choices.

Choice training is not a new concept, but is one that I have used for many years to guide dogs into making better decisions in all kinds of situations.  Because modern day dog training is still polluted by the more traditional punishment based methodology, choice training has been somewhat pushed into the background, but the beauty of this method is that it works, and yes, even with the aggressive or ‘red zone’ dogs. 

It saddens me how dogs are manipulated and pushed around.  For example I regularly see owners and trainers teaching their dogs to sit by pressing down on their poor animals’ backsides, or punishing them by poking, kicking or restraining them on their sides or backs in an effort to dominate and gain control.   The flawed idea that a dog will only learn to behave through force and fear is sad and misguided, but  people are still misled into thinking that these methods are the right way to go.  This leads to elevated stress levels that could be avoided if time was taken to understand how dogs’ learn and how they can be taught effectively.  Choice training is a beacon of hope in what is still a dominating world.

Sadie, my chocolate Labrador.

Sadie, my chocolate Labrador.

Choice training involves catching actions and behaviors that you like and marking them with rewards that your dog finds motivating.  These actions and behaviors can then be the dog’s ‘default’ behaviors that he or she can use in certain situations.  A default behavior gives the dog an alternative and makes him more positively confident in a situation that previously made him insecure.  The dog is then gradually exposed to increasingly stressful situations and is watched to see what alternative behavior he offers.  If the behavior is something that counters a previously undesirable behavior, the dog is rewarded. If he chooses negative behavior, he is quietly removed from the situation until he is in a place where he can learn again. 

The only way Sadie knew how to deal with a scary situation was to lunge and aggress.  Suppressing that behavior with punishment would have probably worked momentarily, but as in most cases, punitive suppression does not change the way a dog feels, but merely puts a bandage on the problem, which is likely to resurface again in a similar situation.  Not only that, it is simply wrong to punish a dog for being nervous or insecure and only serves to make the insecurity worse.  I changed Sadie’s behavior by showing her that not only was there another way to behave, but it actually made her feel better.

 I began by teaching her a variety of actions she could use, such as sit, walk on and watch me and paired her success with rewards she loved, which ensured that her learning process was a fun and enjoyable one.  I then taught her a combination of actions.  Whenever she looked at a dog in the distance, I said look and rewarded her for looking but not reacting.  I then asked her to watch me and when she turned her head towards me, she got another reward.   After many repetitions (and a very kind friend who brought her dog along and worked with us) she was eagerly looking at the strange dog and back at me because the action was now reinforcing for her.  I then faded out the food reward I gave her for looking at the dog and used it only at the end of the sequence – when she looked back at me.  As the dog came closer we continued with the sequence.  At no time did Sadie have her back to the approaching dog.  If Sadie reacted negatively at any point, I turned her away and took her to a place where she felt safer and learning could continue again.  Because Sadie is highly motivated by food she easily learned the process.  We quickly got to the point where she could watch the other dog walk past with no reaction whatsoever.

I repeated the sequence with a number of different dogs and then when I believed Sadie was ready to make her choice, faded my cues out of the picture.   Would she used the series of alternative behaviors I had taught her or revert back to lunging and aggressing?  I gave her a loose lead and stood still, as a dog that Sadie had never seen before, approached.   Saying and doing nothing I waited for her to make her choice.  Each time she looked at the dog and back at me I smiled and quietly praised her, but at no time did I issue a cue or do anything else.  When the dog walked by, Sadie watched him and then looked back at me.  I could see in her eyes how happy she was and rewarded her for her bravery.  She knew she had accomplished something that day, and as we continued over the next several weeks, her confidence increased and her new ‘choice’ behavior became fixed. 

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to see a dog learn, think for themselves and grow in confidence through success.   It is what makes my job so rewarding.  Of course, I start the process by giving dogs’ alternatives, but at the end of the day they are the ones that make the final choice.  The beauty of this training is that it encourages dogs to think for themselves while gaining confidence from the choices they make, without being pushed, punished or physically manipulated in any way.  My presence was still important for many months, as it gave Sadie confidence, but she was gradually able to walk with other people and is now even greeting other dogs successfully on and off the leash. Lunging and barking was not only stressful for her, but exhausting.   Her ‘choice’ in comparison, requires little energy and the rewards are much more satisfying for her.   Sadie will never be a highly social dog because of her past experiences, but she now has a group of canine friends that has made her life infinitely more rewarding.

Choice teaching is a great method for teaching all kinds of reactive and fearful dogs, but can also be useful when teaching pups and adults simple cues.  For example when I teach a dog to ‘sit’ on cue, all I do is find out what motivates the dog, be it a toy or treat, and hold the motivator in front of them.  The dog then has to work out how he is going to get the reward out of my hand.  He might try a variety of actions such as pawing, licking or nibbling at my hand but the reward is not given until he puts his bottom on the ground.  As soon as he does so, he gets the reward and this is repeated again and again until I am ready to put a cue word to the action of sitting. 

For so long dog training has been about force, fear and physical manipulation, which renders the dog into some kind of performing robot and doesn’t allow for the dog to think for himself.  It might sound strange to those well versed in the more dominant style of training, but all dogs, regardless of breed and drive, have evolved to have excellent problem solving skills, and therefore have the ability to think for themselves, be guided to listen, take direction and make the right choices.  



16 Comments

  1. Katie

    June 18th, 2013 at 11:38 am

    How do you approach leading the dog away from the stranger, while he is lunging and barking? Do you just pull on the leash until you've dragged him/her to the safe place to try again? My dog will continuously be looking back at the strange dog, and continues to bark at him. Even after the line of sight is broken, he will continue to look at the path he would take to get back to the other dog (staring at the door, at the corner of the building, etc). The first step is always the hardest, but I need an in-case-of-failure technique so we can even HAVE a first step.

  2. vivien eales

    June 18th, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    This is interesting reading, and one I wish more people would look at and adopt. In my classes I try to get people to understand that force, anger, frustration and lack of general understanding are likely to cause more problems with their dogs. Many people think they only way to get their dogs to do anything is to behave in an aggressive and dominant manner, yet often when I take the dog to work myself, and show them how easily their dogs want to please them by using force free and positive rewarding methods, the penny often drops, and you get that 'light bulb' moment. So though, sadly still don't get it, and their dogs get progressively worse!
    Thank you again, it is always a pleasure to read your blogs.

  3. Aleta

    June 19th, 2013 at 4:26 am

    I would like to ask the same question as Katie, although my dog is motivated by food he will ignore it to lunge for the other dog, the last time he snapped his collor lunging for a small dog, he is a very muscular dog, very strong, cross between a staffy and ( we think ) a boxer or labrador. Please can you help.

  4. Frankie Asbell

    June 19th, 2013 at 6:14 am

    Thank God for Victoria!!! I've been so angered at all the 'Man must be dominant in the pack' mentalities out there. My dogs know d**n well that I'm NOT canine, they don't poke their butts in my face, but they do insist on some laptime which I allow but make brief and strictly on my terms. My wife and I share our home with Maggie the Westie who flirts with every man who comes to visit, and Angus, a 57 mix who came as a mercy rescue to keep him out of a shelter. Angus has some behaviors that we have had to make adjustments for, but nothing that we can't overcome with patience and loving guidance. And the looks and sighs he gives when he's nestled belly up in the crook of my arm makes me believe that he's glad we're a family. Then he snoozes and snores until my arm aches and I have to put him down.

    We enjoyed the 'It's Me or the Dog' shows on AP for years. I particularly thought it amusing that Victoria was clearly not in agreement with certain changes that were made. When I saw the gift packages that were presented to the clients as a follow-up, her cute nose wrinkling made me chuckle. I'd be in favor of donating to a shelter, but not to obviously well-to-do families.

  5. melissa evans

    June 19th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    my dog is 1yrs female boxer/rottie mix. she is always jumping on people when they come in my house and when i go for a walk. she jumps on people. she pulls some times to. and once in a while she pees in the house and now she is pooping in the house. what can i do.

  6. Tanya

    June 19th, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    It always sounds so harsh when bloggers write off Appropriate leveled corrections as 'Harsh' or punishments. TheREAL REASON Sadie changed is her owner was a calm leader that Sadie never had before. ANY dog that is aggressive on or off the leash is Very scared & insecure! If a Dog has been reacting a certain way for some time, it is UNFAIR for yhe dog to even have a physical correction. They don't know that they are wrong! So I am not impressed. Sadie just needed to be desensitized & have her confidence built up.. AND THAT'S WHAT HAPPEND!

  7. Sarah western

    June 20th, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Hi I've just rescued a 8 month old border collie and he chases car, lunges at people and dogs he doesn't know. A lot of training at home with watch me and taking it outside has been great also finding his critical distance when he won't react and just the other day he has started to watch me when traffic goes buy yippee.all the hard work has been worth it and it really is hard work. He reacts to some people and not others, like this morning I was talking to a lady and he wasn't bothered then someone else will walk passed and he kicks off. Lots of hard work to go but he's really worth it so reading what other people are going through really helps.
    Sarah

  8. Kirsten

    June 22nd, 2013 at 8:13 am

    Hi Victoria
    What is your Best advise my newfoundlænder 9weeks old is snapping after mé and when I turn my back to it it Will snapping my leg. I keep sayng no but it Will not helt
    Kirsten

  9. Zoe Sayers

    June 23rd, 2013 at 9:57 am

    I too have the same problem as Katie and Aleta, i have a large german shepherd who does the same thing but cant always get him to walk away without pulling me backwards. My worst time was last night actually a cat in front and a dog behind whilst trying to pick up poo. was very nearly a 'messy' situation.

  10. jane

    June 23rd, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    I have a reactive dog but only at agility trials where so many people bleive that becasue their dog welcomes another into his space that mine should as well. Just too many peo;e do not understand when my dog growls and or snaps at their friendly dog we could be sanctioned from the trials. I have had a handler approach with 4 of her dogs off leash running directly at my dog. I had to drop the leash and hope he did not fight or run. he did neither but simply lay down and turned away from them. i tll people to please do not let their dog be frienly with my dog and now my dog is labble "the prince" by those friendly dog handlers becasue I protect him both physically and verbely

    I now have a 15 month old BC pup who is a classic "oh it's okay my dog is friendly" she can hardly wiat to introduce herself to every person and every dog with in 100 yards . I will not allow her to approch another dog at a trial without being invited by the dog/ not the owner. I would hate for her to cause another dog to become reactive. I ask people not to interact with her and they always say "it's okay I don't mind" BUT I do.

    Yes it is my responsiblity to let my dog know I am there to protect him at all times b ut when walking through a crowded trial venue I am not always aware of the "freidnly dog" who is about to sniff my dogs rear.
    I can walk my dog past any dog on the street or in the park but man why do the agility people feel their dog has the right to invade his/my space

    so yes I agree with yo but lets not put all the responsiblility on the handler of the reactive dog. Keep your so called friendly "rude" dog on a shorter leash and teach him some manners.

  11. Deborah

    September 26th, 2013 at 11:10 am

    I have the same problem as Aleta and Katie. How do you start the first step?

  12. Caroline

    September 26th, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    It's great to read that other people are having the similar issues with their dogs and are using fantastic techniques for trying to change their dogs behaviour. I had similar issues with my Lab X Staff. She was a rescue and had issues with other dogs whilst walking in her territory, although away from home she was an angel! We have spent a long time working on this, using the methods outlined above and it has been very successful. I still can't walk her too close to another dog but as long as we create space she is happy.

    Jane - you mentioned issues at agility competitions? I have a similar problem when competing mine, I always create space but someone always seems to insist on jumping in her face and then shouting at me when she reacts! Here in the UK we have something called the Yellow Dog Coat. This is a way of notifying owners that your dog needs space. They are either yellow tabard type coats or you they supply yellow Velcro bits to go on your lead/harness which just states give me space. It's being promoted in the UK, and is working, so you know that any dog with yellow on it, either lead, harness or one of these tabards just needs extra space.

  13. Doggycoach

    September 26th, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Great article Victoria, Thanks for sharing ! :-)

  14. Joanne

    September 28th, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    thanks Victoria for all your help and dedication. I bought your new book " Training Your Dog Positively". I love it! It's so informative and helpful. I too have a rescued dog named Coco that I adopted 2 yrs. ago from a rescue group. Coco was a mess when I got him. He was afraid of every moving object that passed by (cars, bikes, people, kids, skateboarders, etc.). I started out with some other famous training methods that were very forceful and domineering before I found you, but the more I tried to use them the more aggressive he became. You were a God sent. I started watching " It's Me or The Dog" series, reading your books and Patricia McConnell's books and slowly his behavior was turning around, but the one behavior that I am having a problem still is the fear aggression towards other dog's, people, and especially kids. I am working on the methods that you describe, but I'm still having problems and It's been 1 1/2 yrs. Could you give me some other suggestions. I know calmness is the big issue, but I try to stay calm as best I can. When he starts barking and lungeing. I do turn around and walk the other way, but he still turns his head and continues to bark. I have been working on this with him for 1 yr. with little progress.

    I also rescued another little Shih Tzu yesterday and him and Coco are doing really well together, but this dog has a humping problem. I have not been able to find any information in books about this. Can you help?

  15. Michele

    September 29th, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Aleta, Katie, Deborah - I'm CERTAINLY not Victoria, but I am a dog trainer. Before I start the training that she has outlined above, I always teach the dog a "Let's go!". You need to teach the dog how to quickly follow you when you want to leave a situation. You can do this by running with your dog and changing direction, each time saying "Let's go" in a cheerful voice, and praising/rewarding for the change in direction. If you make it a game, your dog will associate the command with good things happening and thus be more apt to go with you in a tense situation.

    You can use any phrase - it can be "This way" or even "Kibbles", it really doesn't matter. What matters is that it's fun for the dog to obey.

    Hope this helps!



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