The trigger becomes the bell (Week 1, Reactivity Class)

Notes from Week 1 of the Feisty Fidos class
Deven Gaston, Canine Campus

Put herself in time out. #pyrrha #gsd
Our feisty fido, looking demure.

Our first class, as with most of Deven’s first classes, was dog-less. She gave us an overview of her training philosophy, the goals for this class, and particularly focused on getting us humans in the right mindset. Her teaching style reminds me a lot of what I’ve seen of Suzanne Clothier; she’s very frank and funny and clear. Deven always tells it like it is.

The phrase that’s stuck in my mind after our first class is: The trigger becomes the bell.

We’re going back to classic Pavlov in this reactivity class (the “bell” referring to the sound in the classic experiment, signaling that the reward was coming). This means that this is going to be a long, slow behavior-modification process. We don’t have labs where we can knock this thing out and create new neural pathways and associations. We have to practice this in real life, with real-life interruptions and mistakes and uncontrollable variables.

Training dogs out of reactive behaviors will take weeks and months, maybe even years. “This is not an exciting class,” Deven told us. “You are going to need tons and tons of patience and repetition and consistency. But it will work. If you stick with it.”

Key takeaways

  • Distance is always the biggest factor in intensifying fear. Dogs get into the fight/flight zone when they are too close to their triggers. The leash keeps them from flight, which is why so many dogs have on-leash reactivity; they don’t have the option of running away, so they decide to put on a “fight” display.
  • Distraction training (“look at me”) doesn’t really work. It doesn’t change the dog’s feelings toward the trigger, and in many cases, it can often make it worse.
  • Before implementing a new technique, always ask yourself, “Would this work for ME?” If this was how someone was trying to modify my behavior toward a fear trigger, would this tactic help or hurt?
  • With reactive behavior, be aware of the “audience effect.” Reactive dogs are embarrassing. We tend to treat them differently than we know we should when people are watching (e.g., a smack on the head, a jerk on the collar). Be mindful of this. It’s just making your dog more scared and confused.
  • Reactive aggression is NOT a character trait, and it’s NOT a choice: It’s a REFLEX. This is just the primitive part of the brain firing in the fight zone; the frontal cortex is not even engaged. Decision making is too slow for a dog confronted with a fear trigger, so they just react.
  • Remember that dogs start learning these displays over time. They will begin to generalize eventually. A man with a baseball cap scared me once? OK, I’m just going to react to all men with baseball caps from now on, just to cover my bases.
  • In classical conditioning, always remember that food is NOT a reward here; it’s a way to form an association. Remember with Pavlov: The dogs didn’t do anything to get food. The bell rang, regardless of what the dogs were doing, and out came the food. With this training, your dog’s fear trigger becomes the bell.
  • In this class, you are blazing a new path of associations. The old path (reactive behavior) has to grow over and become unused for the new path to remain intact.

As Deven reminded us, “The goal of this class: Your dog is comfortable in the presence of her triggers. This does not mean that she is comfortable interacting with her triggers but that she can remain in their presence without a display.”

It’s a lot to take in, but, wow, I am already really thankful for this class, and I am committed to the long road ahead!


15 thoughts on “The trigger becomes the bell (Week 1, Reactivity Class)

  1. Hmmm… You know, reading through this today was good for me. It makes me wonder exactly what we’re dealing with with Morgan. I’m not sure that I’m dealing with a reactive dog. I suspect that we’re dealing with just outright aggression. I say that as I sit here with scratches and bruises all over my arms and legs after she went after Bunny last night, and I am a lot less sure that I have answers for her.

    1. 😦 I am so sorry, Carrie. How stressful and frustrating. I know you have done everything in your power to help Morgan. It’s hard to know what to do after you’ve tried so many things. I hope that you will have a breakthrough soon, or at least know what to do with her next.

  2. This is a great post Abby! Having a reactive dog sure does give one a different perspective about dog ownership and dog behaviors. Avery and I have definitely been given the side-eye and angry glances while out and about when he has an episode. He’s getting better but I have a feeling he will always be at least slightly reactive. I’ve definitely had to step up and make sure that I constantly am supporting him verses defending him. He is what he is and we’re working on it as best as we can.

  3. I totally agree with Andrea’s comment about different perspectives after you love a reactive dog! A lot of those notes seem similar to what we’ve learned over years of reactive dog classes, research, reading, and so on. I’m curious about the “look at me” note. We’ve worked really hard on that… you see something that scares you, you look at me, and I will not only guide you past this scary thing but I’ll give you cheese, too! Did she expound on what it can make it worse?

  4. Sounds like an excellent class! I like the idea of no dogs in first class because the humans need to be prepared for what to expect and understand what the goal is. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to following your progress.

  5. Thanks for the post I’m really interested to learn more about this as I had never heard of the issue (well other than sometimes seeing it on an episode of Cesar Millan) and yet recently it has become a bigger and bigger issue for Tala who is not an aggressive dog so I am sure it is more fear based but it is quite extraordinary to see her suddenly change her demeanor when she sees a dog on a leash – hackles up, barking, lunging. It started first only with little dogs I think perhaps because she was once unexpectedly attacked by one but now she will do it to any dog on a leash. As soon as the dog is not on the leash however her behavior changes. It seems impossible to distract her when she goes into that zone and she is not food motivated at all (at least when outside with distractions) so really looking forward to hearing more about how to deal with it.

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