Why getting the order of events right is the key to progress when training fearful and reactive dogs.
When you’re working with dogs that are afraid – whether it’s of unfamiliar people or other dogs - the go-to approach is to use the appearance of the scary thing to predict the arrival of something they love, usually a tasty treat. This is classical conditioning in behaviour science terms. The goal is to associate something they fear with a really good experience so that, over time, they develop a positive emotional response to the object of their fear. So far so simple.
But while it sounds (and, in theory, is) very straightforward, it can be a little trickier to execute in practice.
The difference between gradually building a beautiful, positive emotional response and achieving nothing comes down to two things. Firstly, keeping the dog below their fear threshold so that you can train – if you are so close to the object of their fear that they are extremely agitated, they won’t take a treat, however tasty, so walk away and create some distance. Secondly, but as importantly, focus on the order of events. For a dog to develop a positive response to the first event (the scary one), it must predict the second (the treat). A must predict B, not come at the same time and definitely not afterwards. The treat shouldn’t be offered or delivered before the dog actually sees the object of their fear.
Getting the order of events out of whack is easily done. Let’s say your dog is afraid of other bigger dogs and you see a couple coming towards you down the road. The adrenalin kicks in and you reach into your pocket for treats so you don’t fumble when they get closer. Your dog notices and looks up at you. He hasn’t actually seen the other two dogs yet – he was sniffing that fencepost - but he has seen you reach into your pocket. If you slip into doing this regularly, all you could be doing is forming an emotional response to you putting your hand in your pocket.
It's also tempting to use the treats as a distraction so, again, you start delivering before the dog sees whatever makes them afraid. Totally understandable. But it won’t eliminate the fear.
To get your dog feeling positive to what scares them using classical conditioning, the order of events must be: dog sees scary thing > start treating now > keep treating while scary thing is in view > stop treating when it disappears from view.
If you get the order of events wrong often enough, apart from not making progress, there’s a chance that the treat begins to predict the scary thing, rather than vice versa. The dog may become suspicious of the food because the treat is tipping him off to the imminent arrival of something he fears, rather than building a positive emotional response to it.
If you’ve found that your training doesn’t seem to be getting traction over time, take a breath and think about your order of events. Are you pre-empting the dog seeing the feared thing? Is your dog making an association with a different event such as opening a treat bag or putting your hand in the pocket. The occasional fumble is only human and out in the big wide world not everything is predictable so cut yourself some slack. But work on consistency in order of events as much as you can.
And rather than trying to distract from the scary things with treats, you could use what in behaviour science is called operant conditioning and teach an alternative obedience behaviour like a formal ‘look at me’ walk to heel. You need to train it in low stress, quiet environments until it’s really solid. But when you do, you get more bangs for your buck in addressing their fearful behaviour. You’ll have more control in the presence of the scary things. You’ll be able to judge effectively how comfortable your dog is because frightened dogs tend not to perform behaviours or eat (and if they do take treats, they grab). And you’ll get a classical conditioning chain of events side effect. From the dog’s perspective, it goes: “I see scary thing and do my behaviour thing and I get paid a really great treat so the scary thing is good because I get to do my thing and I get paid.” But, and you’ll be anticipating me by now, you still need to orchestrate the order of events to begin with: dog sees scary thing > you give the command for the behaviour you’ve trained e.g. ‘look at me’ > dog gives behaviour > you treat and praise > scary thing disappears from view > stop treating.
Classical conditioning isn’t rocket science, though it was certainly a humdinger of a breakthrough in behavioural science. And it does need a cool head and some hard concentration so keep training sessions short. Eventually, you’ll see the signs of the conditioned response – the dog will see a scary thing and glance up at you for the treat. And when you see that, you’re on your way.
Quick tip: If you find it hard not to go for the treats in pocket or bag before you’re sure the dog has seen the scary thing, get a treat bag, wear it around the house for a few days, occasionally putting your hand in, but not treating from it. When you then use out in the world, it will have become dull and familiar for the dog and less likely to predict treat delivery when you’re training.