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“I’ve tried giving them treats around other dogs already” is a common concern that trainers hear when helping the owners of reactive dogs. Many people have read articles or seen videos on how using food can help a reactive dog. When they try to use this strategy on their own dog, however, they often miss a couple of crucial components that prevent it from working.
Our goal when using food with reactive dogs is for them to learn that the appearance of the thing they react to means fantastic things for them. We pair the potentially scary thing with a delicious treat, so that the dog’s first instinct when they see they trigger is “hey awesome, an opportunity to earn a treat” and not fear or frustration.
One of the most common mistakes we see is people trying to work with a reactive dog when it is OVER THRESHOLD. When a dog is experiencing intense emotion, their sympathetic nervous system is running the show. Their heart beats faster, their body produces adrenaline, and they are ready for action. When a dog is in this state, the functions of their parasympathetic nervous system are pushed to the background – including digestion! This means that trying to use food with a dog who is over threshold will likely be unsuccessful, as they’re just not interested in food at that time.
Imagine a burglar with a gun had broken into your house; you wouldn’t choose that time to open the fridge for a snack. You’re likely to be focused on fight or flight, and eating something wouldn’t even enter into your thought process. Another example is the morning of a big exam or sporting match; you know you should eat something, but the thought of food makes you queasy. In both of these scenarios your body is reacting to a perceived threat, and prioritising sympathetic over parasympathetic function.
In order to be successful when using food to change a dog’s emotional underlying response to their trigger, you should always try to ensure they are UNDER THRESHOLD. A dog who is under threshold has relaxed body language, responds to the cues they know, and is keen to eat and work for the food. If you dog is hyper-focused on their trigger, isn’t interested in the food, and won’t respond to you, it means that they’re over threshold. You need to make the trigger less intense until they can cope again. The easiest way to do this is ADD SOME DISTANCE. Work far enough away that your dog is under threshold, and then gradually work closer.
Not every dog responds the same way when they’re over threshold; getting to know your dog and their signals is a crucial part of helping them.
If you have a reactive dog, we highly recommend contacting your local positive reinforcement based trainer for assistance. A good trainer will be able to explain all the components of proper desensitisation and counter conditioning, and coach you through each step of the process.