Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Let's start this out by stating that dogs don't rationalize or reason like humans do. Sure, they're super smart and great at figuring things out, but they can't reason or "talk" themselves through a situation that they're uncomfortable with. Based on the science we have out there on canid thought processing, they don't have the brain function for it.
No, seriously! Don't huff at me and say "BUT MY DOG...."
We won't get deep into this otherwise we'll both be here all day, but let me elaborate a bit.
Let's start with this question: "What is the function of the behavior?"
Your dog has a function to every behavior they do, ever. This includes the dogs that have out of character reactions to things in our ordinary world: other dogs, strangers, kids, cyclists, cars, motorcycles, etc. The list can be endless. You can ask this question about any living organism on the face of the planet - the only time it gets complicated is when you dive into homosapian learning because our opposable thumbs, ability to rationalize, and evolved channels of learning give us advantages. This question can be used to simplify a dog's thought process to the simplest, most logical form.
Spoiler: the function is never "dominance" or "rebellion."
Because most mammals can't mentally rationalize their way out of a scary situation, they have three panic modes referred to as "The Three F's." These are flight, fight, or freeze. Why does this matter and what the heck does it have to do with money or cookies or whatever?
Dogs don't rationalize, so therefore, if we put our dog into an uncomfortable situation with the intention of "exposing them to this situation/thing will help them get over it," we are wrong. We are simply putting our uncomfortable or scared dog into an uncomfortable or scary situation where the function of their behavior becomes creating space. In addition, we are likely furthering their negative associations with whatever their triggers are.
This is where The Piggy Bank Theory comes in handy.
Imagine a piggy bank. Training in healthy situations with a proper rate of reinforcement (how often cookies make it to your dog's mouth) and enough distance to keep your dog comfortable and readily engaged with you will add money to your bank account. Exposing your dog to a situation that they are not equipped to handle deducts money from your bank account.
There are a lot of variables that go into the way your dog reacts to things on a day to day basis: trigger stacking, value of the reinforcer you're using, reinforcement history, the amount of stimulation in the environment, distance, how long you choose to expose your dog to a trigger(s), how you handle the situation and react, etc.
I don't know about you, but I'd like to walk around feeling like this:
And not this:
As people who love our dogs and want the best for them, it's our responsibility to equip them with the tools they need to handle the real world. Of course there will always be those few dogs in the world, like my own dog Kaiser, that could not be convinced by the biggest piggy bank in the universe that the world is not a terrifying place. If you believe you have one of these dogs, check out my Reactive Rover's Course.
However, the majority of people do not have a dog like this. They simply do not focus on filling their dog's bank account in a way that is conducive to success. When a real life situation hits them unexpectedly and they think that with the exposure their dog has had, they should be okay... and then it is not okay... they're working with a negative balance because they did not set controlled training situations up to fill their bank account.
Example: Your dog has started barking at strangers on walks. Your piggy bank balance begins at zero.
What is the function?
For purposes of this example, we'll say the dog has started barking because they are becoming fearful of strangers. The function of the behavior (barking) is to create space between itself and the "scary thing."
What To Avoid
-You take them out for walks and move them closer to the strangers, verbally reassuring them that they're safe and they never used to do this and that they're fine.
-The dog will 1) fight, they bark louder and begin to lunge and growl; 2) flight, they will show avoidance, run away, or hide behind you; 3) freeze, they do nothing and their motor system is at a forced brake.
-You have chosen to spend "money" you haven't saved yet and now have a negative balance (i.e. furthering the negative associations that have been made to strangers on walks)
The outcome: You take your dog out the next day and get surprised by a stranger coming around the corner. Your dog is in a negative balance and reacts with one or all of The Three F's with more tenacity than they previously did.
Do This Instead
-You take them out for walks and observe their body language. If they seem comfortable, you stay put. If they are being avoidant, you take a few big steps away from the people.
-You give your dog a lot of high value treats while the people walk by you, ensuring that it's still easy to get and keep your dog's attention.
-You have chosen to use a public situation as a real-life training opportunity to increase the value in your dog's piggy bank.
The outcome: Your dog is still a little fearful of that stranger that surprised both of you by coming around the corner, but they are able to withdraw from that positive piggy bank balance. You have taught them that engaging with you while the "scary thing" happens creates a safer space for them.
When life hits you, you want to be working with a fully loaded savings account. If you're not sure how to implement these things, reach out to a trainer near you!