If you have a dog classified as ‘reactive’ or ‘aggressive’, you probably are either working on better obedience or on a counter conditioning program.

Obedience training programs

This program helps you keep your dog’s attention as you pass other dogs, as children run by, as dogs bark ringside etc. We see a lot of sport dog people using this approach and you might hear them say “watch me” or “right here” a lot.   This program teaches your dog that there is a lot of value in YOU and they shouldn’t look at the other dog, scary/fun person, squirrel or whatever it is that causes the lack of focus.


The Geeky Stuff This is what we call Operant Conditioning based on the work of B.F. Skinner. We create value in voluntary behaviours such as giving eye contact, sits, downs, doing tricks, etc.

The problems?

Tension, stress, and frustration are often built into the obedience behaviours. This usually is a side-effect of working too close to the triggers and trying to coerce the dogs to pay attention.   Coercion can come in the form of leash pressure and a stern voice, or even as a high value treat or toy lure. For more on food as coercion, check out Cog Dog Radio Episode about coercion

The second problem I commonly see is that the dogs don’t know how to actually interact with other dogs, people etc. We sometimes see these dogs behaving seemingly OK, then BAM! the offender is too close and the dog in training explodes in fear, fury, or extreme exuberance.  Your dog can only ignore the trigger for so long, or until they actually touch or sniff him.

Counter Conditioning Programs

Do the Look At That Game or BAT sound familiar? Have you been told to feed your dog while he is under threshold and looking at the trigger?  The basic premise of these games is that you feed, pet, or otherwise reinforce your dog for looking at or being near the trigger, moving away before your dog goes over threshold.

The Geeky Stuff This is what we call Classical Conditioning based on the work of Pavlov. You remember him? The guy with the bells and the drooling dogs.  In classical conditioning programs, we use food to create new reflexive/automatic responses in the presence of a trigger.

The problems?

Sometimes we accidentally train our dogs to stare at the triggers. Oops!  I may be guilty of doing this.

Secondly, the world is not generally designed with your reactive Fido in mind. People come around corners, dogs are off leash where they shouldn’t be, and sometimes we misjudge what our dog is capable of and they go over threshold. You DEFINITELY need a management plan to get you and your dog out of trouble when this happens. Oh hey.. you know what might work? Some of that obedience and ignoring triggers from that other plan!

What do we do?

Part 1

Being able to manage our dogs by walking them past triggers, even if they aren’t up for interacting with them is a great tool that would improve the quality of life of many people and many dogs.   When we teach these obedience skills, we cannot simply focus on the behaviour our dog is doing. We must also consider how the dog is feeling.  The emotions we see in the dog while training become a part of the behaviours. 

How do you know what your dog is feeling? At best, we can take a guess.  If you watch your dog performing known behaviours at home or in low stress environments, are they fast? Is there any delay between when you ask for the behaviour and when they do it?  For your dog’s skill level and personality, what is ‘normal’ response time?  Be sure to work from far enough away that your dog is able to respond just as quickly as at home. If your dog can perform the behaviours fluently, you know you can move a little closer.

Part 2

Allow your dog to look at triggers, but from very far away. You will likely do this piece from a greater distance than you were in Part 1. If you notice your dog hard staring or becoming too excited/alert, BEFORE they meltdown or start lunging/barking use some of those skills from Part 1 to get their attention and move away. We don’t want to practice staring or having a tense body in response to the triggers.   The behaviours we see the dog offering while training become a part of the end behaviour.

The Geeky Stuff As much as there are two camps about Classical or Operant Conditioning, Pavlov and Skinner are teammates. You can’t have one without the other. In an operant training program, as long as you believe dogs have feelings, they are feeling something. Those feelings are being woven into the behaviours we are training.   In a classical conditioning program, unless he is dead, your dog is performing behaviours. We usually are reading those behaviours to take guesses as to what our dogs are feeling.  Those behaviours are becoming a part of the program.

In Summary

When training always consider how your dog is feeling AND the behaviours they are actually doing. Behaviours and feelings go together – you cannot have one without the other. As trainers, we will be much better if we keep our minds open to the larger picture.


If you have more questions, hit me up.  Also, check out Sarah Stremming’s blog and podcast.  Sarah was instumental in helping me wrap my head around this concept.  Another great resource covering this topic is Hannah Brannigan’s Blog and Podcast.