Dog-Dog Issues Series Part Two: Treating Leash-Reactivity

by | Dec 13, 2011 | 7 comments

Yesterday I posted about defining dog-dog aggression and reactivity, and we discussed how common leash-reactivity is and some potential reasons for that.  Today we’ll get to the good stuff; actually healing these dogs that don’t know how to act in a socially appropriate way.  Here are the common ways to deal with this behavior problem, as well as my opinions on them.

A lot of dog trainers, and I mean A LOT of them, like to meet leash-reactivity with extreme corrections, usually via some sort of corrective collar.  This might mean as soon as the dog engages in reactivity the trainer hits a button, delivering electric shock to the poor dog, or it could mean that the trainer yanks on the dog’s leash which is attached to either a prong or choke collar.  These trainers see an immediate suppression of the behavior they are trying to eradicate which makes their owners feel good–in the session.  The trouble with using these methods (besides the fact that they are just plain nasty) is threefold:

  • First, all that is happening is suppression of poor behavior which actually means that the reactivity is still lurking inside the dog, building up, getting ready to burst out–often much bigger and with more violence than before.  If you’re into the scientific jargon, this phenomenon is called “spontaneous recovery” and it is always a risk when using punishment to eliminate a behavior.
  • Second, the emotional component to reactivity is that it is caused by fear or frustration–add some aggressive corrections and now you’re mixing pain into the mix.  That seems like a cocktail of stress hormones that can’t contribute to a relaxed animal (our goal), if you ask me.  So the dog might look like he isn’t reacting, but inside he is a churning vat of stress, which can create a classical conditioning effect that is the opposite of what you’re going for–the dog will begin to associate other dogs with painful corrections, and this can turn reactivity into severe aggression in no time flat.
  • And third, this method doesn’t actually teach the dog anything.  Scientifically speaking, if this method is “successful” (meaning the absence of reactivity has been achieved) then the trainer has invoked a state of learned helplessness in the dog, which basically means he has decided that the safest thing to do is nothing.  This is the same thing that happens to lab rats when you shock them at random intervals no matter what they are doing.  Yuck? I think so.

A lot of trainers use counter conditioning (counter classical conditioning, if you want to get technical) to change the way the dog in question feels about other dogs.  This usually looks something like this: new dog appears, trainer shovels tasty treats into dog in treatment’s face, new dog disappears, trainer ceases delivering food.  The goal is to make the dog in treatment anticipate the appearance of new dogs, associating them with yummy food. Classical conditioning is always happening, it is impossible to avoid.  (For non-learning-science-junkies, classical or Pavlovian conditioning just means that a paired association is made creating emotions about a previously neutral stimulus–it’s why certain songs, smells, foods, or places make you feel the way they do).  That’s why it is a great idea to make it work for you in dog training; if you aren’t it is probably working against you.  I have never found this method to be helpful for me in leash-reactivity (though I do like it for other things, like phobias–for instance, my dog Kelso is afraid of the toaster so I have started to give him a cookie every time I get the toaster out to try to counter act his fears).  In fact, I think the widespread use of this method amongst “positive” dog trainers (trainers who claim not to use any aversives in their training) has contributed to the “balanced” dog trainers’ (trainers who fall into the “whatever works” camp–they use corrections, food, whatever, to get the job done) opinion that you can’t treat dog-dog issues without corrections.  Sigh.  That’s a terrible opinion to be contributing to!  Here’s why counter-conditioning isn’t my go-to method for leash reactivity: 

  • It simply takes more skill to carry out correctly than the average pet owner has.  For me to consider a method of behavior modification in my practice I have to have faith that the dog’s owner will have some success in carrying it out when I am not around.  Most of what I do is teach and coach dog owners in the healing of their own dogs; if I have to do it myself it isn’t working.
  • It takes a lot of repetition. Ok, realistically, all good dog training takes some repetition, but the amount of repetition it takes to counter condition something is a lot more than it takes to classically condition something in the first place, and I am simply too impatient.  And if I am too impatient, you bet your average pet owners is WAY too impatient. 
  • The risk of plateau effect is too great.  “Plateau effect” is what I call training that has some success in the beginning, causing dog owners stop progressing their training because they think they are “done.”  Getting away from using food in this method takes a lot of hard work past the initial stages of training, and owners often get stuck in the initial stages for this reason.  This is why so many good, well-meaning dog owners who have been taught this method for their reactive dogs have to pull of the trail and shovel food in their dogs’ faces every time a dog passes FOREVER.  That just isn’t success, in my opinion. 

Whenever a problem behavior is in question, good dog trainers think of a behavior to replace it with.  This, in my opinion, is the mark of a good dog trainer.  Replacing old behaviors we don’t like with new behaviors we do like is the best way to modify behavior problems–turning them into behavior solutions.  Leash reactivity is no different, but what behavior you insert in the place of the reactivity is going to determine your success in many cases.  Here are three common ways to do this:

  • The first and oldest method is to teach the dog to look at the owner whenever he sees another dog.  This is simple to teach and often very successful.  Reactivity is now replaced with dog-owner eye contact.  It is successful by this measure; reactivity is gone.  There is often a nice side effect of classical conditioning, meaning the dog sees the appearance of a dog as an opportunity to earn cookies which is great.  I have no problem with this method, but I don’t use it anymore.  I always felt it was missing something, and that something is that the dog didn’t learn how to talk to other dogs.  The dog’s reactivity is gone and his emotions about other dogs are probably improved but he still doesn’t know how to speak his own language and I do take issue with that.
  • The second and slightly more revolutionary incompatible behavior to teach was popularized by Leslie McDevitt in her book Control Unleashed; teach the dog to look at the other dog.  McDevitt calls is the “Look at That” game, and it is a great skill for all dogs to have, not just reactive ones.  Now the dog sees another dog, looks at his human, looks at the dog, looks at his human.  It is acheived quickly and easily and put on cue.  I teach this to all my dogs, I teach them “where’s the puppy?” when I want them to look at another dog and I teach them “look!” when I want them to look at anything else they might find concerning.  The Look at That game is great, but it still isn’t enough in my opinion.  It’s a great skill, but not the only skill. Which brings me to the last method I will discuss, and of course I saved the best for last. 
  • Behavior Adjustment Training or BAT is a method for treating fear, aggression, and reactivity developed by Grisha Stewart (owner of Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle).  BAT is off-the-handle successful, and once I tried it I never looked back.  This method actually teaches dogs what to do with other dogs.  It shows them how to act appropriately when they interact with dogs.  The replacement behavior is actually a functional behavior–a non-threatening dog-dog language kind of behavior.  With BAT all the marks of success are achieved: absence of reactivity, replacement behavior occurs reliably, the dog’s owner is able to apply the method on her own, and the dog is actually rehabilitated in the end.  No more pulling over on the trail for the rest of your life! No more taking cookies everywhere you go! The dogs I have treated with BAT (including one of my own) can go on walks and hikes and respond appropriately when they see a dog without prompting from the owner.  It is brilliant. 

For more information on BAT check out or


  1. Kathy Fischer

    Sarah, I would be worried that the average owner wouldn’t have good enough timing to click at the right moment for BAT to work for them. Isn’t there a chance that the owner would click when the dog is actually aroused by the sight of the other dog, hence rewarding arousal?

    • cogdogtrainer

      Good point, Kathy. Two things, first, I would have been with you on the timing thing, but my clients are doing great with some coaching. Second, if the owner did click arousal it would not reinforce arousal, since arousal is an emotional state therefore making it impossible to punish or reinforce. Operant conditioning (punishment/reinforcement) does not affect emotions, classical conditioning does. So, I have never worried about “accidental” reinforcement of an emotional state (i.e. don’t pet your scared dog you will reinforce fear, another myth). If the owner can’t get the clicker timing down we switch to the clunkier verbal marker and everything works out fine. Good thinking 🙂

  2. Kathy Fischer

    Interesting … you can’t reinforce an emotional state?!! It seems though that emotional states are very easy to condition ??? !! I still haven’t wrapped my brain around this yet – still thinking about it.

    • cogdogtrainer

      You can condition emotional states, but when you do you are using classical conditioning, not operant. Reinforcement and punishment are properties of operant conditioning, not classical conditioning. Make sense?

      • Kathy Fischer

        I’m just trying to understand and convince myself that you can’t reinforce an emotional state. And your statement “don’t pet your scared dog, you will reinforce fear” – so, would that be more like conditioning? Every time the dog is fearful, he is petted, so he starts to associate the fearful thing with something pleasant – petting … that is assuming the petting is pleasant.

        I’m guessing then that it is the physical response to arousal that you don’t want to reinforce, i.e. the dog gets aroused, hackles go up, and the dogs starts growling and barking. You would want to be careful not to click the growling and barking, correct?

  3. Hannah

    I have no idea if this is the right place to post this but…

    I want to do BAT training with my extremely leash reactive dog (maybe a couple CAT repetitions thrown in there too). However, I do not have an extra dog to use at my disposal. So I was wondering if I could go up to a dog that she fence fights with and start from there, of course at the point where she just barely starts to get alert and what not.

    I was also wondering how many repetitions and sessions it would take to get this new behavior down pat, for I am on a time schedule. I am going to college soon, and I need my dog to be walkable. My family is perfectly happy to let my dog sit and rot if they feel she isn’t a breeze to walk.




  1. Dog-Dog Issues Article | Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) - [...] Sarah Stremming of the Cognitive Canine has written a nice article series on dog reactivity issues. There is a…

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