The way a behavior consultant approaches a case is dependent on their education and background. As an applied behavior analyst, I approach my work as a behavior consultant with a bias toward that science. I want to understand the antecedent-behavior-consequence sequence at work. I want to understand what the behavior means to the animal. To unpack what this looks like, I’m going to present you with three case studies. All three dogs started training with me in the same week and they were all described as “leash reactive.” What did that mean for their training plan? Well, that depended on the dog and the owner.
Case 1: Cora
The first dog I met was Cora, a petite, 90-pound, spayed Great Dane. At 5 years old, she had been with her family for about three years and was living in an apartment in a densely populated urban environment. They had access to the woods, where she loved to run, but the majority of her exercise was leash walks. They also had to take her out many times per day on leash to eliminate in the area allowed by their landlords. This meant she encountered a lot of on-leash dogs in her building and in the immediate outdoor vicinity. She belonged to an adult couple who were planning to move within the next six months to a house in the suburbs. Cora’s stress level was their primary concern, but they were also worried that due to her size she might pull them down.
Usually once I build some rapport with the client and hear their dog’s “story,” we build a diagram of the antecedent-behavior-consequence (ABC) sequence for the problem behavior. But in Cora’s case there were several important pieces of information that didn’t fit into an ABC diagram. In this case, those details were key in developing the plan. Cora would not take food outside of the apartment during training. She was completely fine with dogs off leash and enjoyed playing with them in the woods. Even on leash, the only place she displayed any type of aggressive response was close to their apartment building. And if Cora was already too stressed to eat when she stepped outside, could we train an alternate behavior around dogs? And did we have to? The behavior was very setting specific, and they were planning on moving. How much effort should they put into finding appropriate reinforcers and setting up training opportunities if this would all be irrelevant in six months?
We decided to pursue a very simple plan and see if we could get acceptable temporary results until the move. Given how stressful it was for Cora to even step outside the apartment, I suggested that they feed her for simply existing when outside their door. No demands would be placed on her behavior. They would not ask for so much as a nose touch, but would carry very high-value food with them and feed her for being outside with them. Given her low interest in food, we also reduced her daily kibble serving slightly to make her a little hungrier for the good stuff. At this point, I did not give the owners any instructions to tackle the dog interactions. We needed to wait and see if she would eat outside the apartment and what impact that would have on her general stress levels.
The results? Well, two weeks later I received a follow-up email from the clients. Cora was accepting food from them outside the apartment and they had experienced no reactions from her around other dogs at all. Including when they had to walk past the dog yard by their apartment building. She was generally more relaxed and was paying attention to them instead of the dogs. The absence of a specific alternate behavior plan or any direct intervention hadn’t hindered her success. For this dog, it would seem that reinforcing for “existing” was enough. What did that mean? Well, if we unpack “feed for existing,” what they were doing was:
- Reinforcing calm behavior outside of the apartment (since that’s what she was offering when they first exited the home and they were feeding her)
- Counter-conditioning her response to the hallways, elevators, and exterior of the apartment
- Increasing the reinforcement rate from her owners for her calm behavior
It’s always interesting to see when such a low criterion for reinforcement can create such an immense difference. Sometimes we don’t need to do much to make a big impact.
Case 2: Jax
The second dog that week was Jax. Jax was a 40-pound, sleek, black, mixed-breed dog with handsome pointy ears and a curly tail. He was close to 3 years old and had been with his owner since 8 weeks old. He lived in a third-floor walk-up near a busy, downtown area with shops and restaurants. He had fun playing with some dogs when he was off leash but he could not handle dogs at any distance on leash. If he saw them while leashed he would launch into a flurry of high-pitched barking, while lunging with his hackles up, at the dog in question. Jax had some other behaviors that were causing some problems, too. He startled with some people on the street and had a distinct distrust of people that behaved “oddly.” Any type of funny walk, odd headgear, or strange item in their hand could cause him to tuck tail, back up, and start shaking. If pushed further, he would lunge and bark. He had recently bitten a person for the first time. Despite these other issues, the one that had become the most unmanageable for his owner’s lifestyle was the on-leash dog reactivity. It was a problem every time they had to leave the apartment.
Jax’s general lack of responsiveness to his owner was problematic. Clicker training can be a good match for this as it may cut through the noise and clarify cues. His owner was mostly naïve to positive reinforcement training practices and was using aversive techniques to get Jax to follow commands. These included using a prong collar, jerking on the leash, and raising his voice. This meant that I would be asking the owner to change equipment, methodology, and walking strategies all at once if I went straight to teaching Jax an alternate behavior in the first session. I decided that the best way to be “least intrusive and minimally aversive” for the human learner in this scenario was to ease into these changes. I skipped the clicker training for this first session. Their initial homework was to order a harness for Jax and find high-value treats that he liked and would eat on walks. I instructed the owner, whenever they saw dogs while out walking, to tell Jax “good boy!”, throw treats on the ground in front of him, and then run away. Sloppy, but functional.
By the time I saw Jax two weeks later, the owner was thrilled with his progress. While the changes had been small, Jax had started to acknowledge his owner’s existence when they were out on walks – turning to him when he said Jax’s name. He felt like he had more control and a plan of action when they saw another dog. He had gotten used to carrying the treats with him on every walk, but he wasn’t sure how to also handle the leash, and balked when we added the clicker. For this second appointment, that was what we tackled: how to hold the new equipment (double leash from the Freedom harness, clicker, and treats). We worked outside on sits, downs, and saying Jax’s name. We touched on always treating Jax on the same side to start to prepare him for loose-leash walking skills. We also added a treat for responding to leash pressure.
Through our next appointments, Jax continued to make progress. In the third appointment we added a click for looking at dogs without progressing into lunging, barking, and whining. In our fourth appointment we added loose-leash walking.
To date Jax has had six appointments and is now walking on a loose leash most of the time. He is checking in with his owner when he sees another dog—to the point that they can approach gradually and he can then greet the dog successfully (a skill he had all along if he could approach slowly!). They are beginning to work on checking in even at a distance on a long line. And they have begun training a “look-back-at-dad” response to startling stimuli. His owner is happy with the progress and is comfortable handling the leash, clicker, and treats. He can manage a long line without getting tangled and even makes his own treats for Jax using Eileen Anderson’s silicone tray method. While I am very happy with Jax’s progress, for me this case was much more about the owner’s learning and an appreciation for the risks he took in doing so.
Case 3: Ice Cream Legend
Ice Cream Legend was 2-and-a-half years old when I met her shortly after Jax and Cora. She had come to her home at 6 months old and was her owner’s best friend. She was spunky, cute, and loved her ball more than anything on the planet. A joy to hike with and easy to train, her leash manners had been declining in the presence of certain other dogs. Some dogs she approached loose-bodied and wagging, and others she would lunge at, bark, hackle, and look generally vicious. But this 40-pound mixed-breed dog lived in the same crowded urban environment and needed to be able to walk on leash past any dog.
Unlike Jax’s owner, Ice Cream Legend’s owner had a history of successful clicker training. He also already had Icy on a harness and was aware of the potentially damaging effects of punishing a behavior. He spoke to those dangers in his intake form and wanted to avoid punishment if at all possible. He said he wanted to learn how to “respond in a way that [wouldn’t] further scare her, reinforce negative behavior, or teach her not to give warnings before attacking (such as by teaching her not to growl).” I was dealing with a human in a very different place in his training journey. During their first session we were able to diagram the ABCs. We even headed outside to start working on leash handling and training the alternate behavior.
Ice Cream Legend already had passable loose-leash walking skills, but she didn’t respond to leash pressure. When she pulled forward, if her owner pulled back, she would fight even harder to make progress. The first skill we worked on was teaching her that pressure on the leash meant she should turn back to her owner. I like this skill to be foundational in this type of training since people tighten up on the leash when they’re nervous about their dog’s reaction. The second behavior we began to work on with my fake, stuffed dog was that dogs mean “look back at your owner.” To teach her this she got a click each time she looked at the dog and then the owner treated her.
That was more than enough for the first session, but both the owner and Icy seemed to understand their roles. I left them to it for a couple of weeks and when I returned they had made nice progress. They were ready to start closing up the distances between Ice Cream Legend and other dogs. In later sessions we moved to clicking for the look back and practicing on the long line. We also started to clean up her “drop it” so we could use her much-loved ball as a reinforcer for good behavior around other dogs.
Each of these cases presented to me in the same way, but like everything in behavior the solution to their problem was “it depends”—on the dog and on the owner. What we started with in the first session, how many sessions each dog needed as follow-up, and what would work for the dog and human combination was a little different for each of them. When people email me and ask for an appointment for their “reactive dog,” I need a lot more information before I know exactly what I’ll be walking into, before I can determine how long we’ll need to work together, and what the training will look like. But good behavioral work is like that. It’s individualized and maximized to be least intrusive and minimally aversive to both the animal and to the human in the scenario.
Adria Karlsson is an applied behavior analyst and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She works primarily with dogs but also with the occasional bonus cat through her company, Dog Willing, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can reach her via her website, www.dogwillingma.com, or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.