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How to Create a Reactive Human in 10 Minutes or Less

"Be nice! Be nice!"

Recently, I was chatting in the classroom with a few of our more experienced students. They mentioned encountering the following scenario quite often while exercising their dogs at a local park:

Individual is walking dog on leash. Dog sees other dog, barks, leash goes tight. Owner pulls dog back on leash, saying, "Be nice! Be nice!" and fumbling with a tight leash until the distraction has passed.

A happy greeting

KPA students Jules Nye and Alyson
Zimmerman initiate a happy greeting.

Sounds like a recipe for reactivity, right? In the scenario above, the sight of another dog becomes a prediction of a negative experience—being corrected and jerked around on a leash. There is a good chance that this dog may develop a leash reactivity problem. The sequence then becomes:

Individual is walking dog on leash. Another dog handler team approaches. The dog sees the other team, anticipates an unpleasant consequence, and reacts in an attempt to the increase distance from the perceived threat, generally reacting until the distance from the trigger has gone to a sub-threshold level.

An experiment in creating reactivity

I noted a similar situation at our play group for dogs. One particular attendee (we'll call her Rachel) always corrected her dog (we'll call him Boo) when he barked. The barks were a solicitation to play, yet they were corrected each time they occurred.

If I had a nickel for every time I explained to Rachel why she should not correct his barking, it would have easily paid for my ClickerExpo registration and all the associated expenses!

tug greeting

The happy greeting of Jules and
Alyson interrupted by a tug.

Boo and I were frustrated; it seemed as though Rachel was just "not getting it," so she was frustrated as well. I did not want to remove the dog from the group, because his continued attendance was vital to his socialization. My only option was to make his owner, Rachel, understand the reactivity problem so that her dog could continue to get the benefit from the group.

I decided to conduct an experiment, one that I hoped would illustrate for Rachel how her own behavior influenced Boo's.

You don't want to play tug?

One Sunday at group, I followed Rachel around the classroom (as she followed Boo). Every time she looked at someone, I lightly tugged on the fabric of her shirt. Every time she tried to talk to someone, same consequence.

It took less than ten minutes and exactly five shirt tugs until I'd created a reactive person.

After tug number five, Rachel's head whipped around to look at me. "What are you doing? Why do you keep doing that to me?"

My only option was to make his owner understand the reactivity problem so that her dog could continue to get the benefit from the group.

Understandably, she was annoyed. Another ten minutes of this experiment might have led to some redirected aggression toward the individual applying the aversive—me! I explained to Rachel that the way she felt was likely how Boo felt about being corrected whenever he tried to approach other dogs for play.

The relationship between stimulus and consequence

Rachel liked the other people at play group. She was not a "reactive human" by nature; her frustrated response was conditioned by the application of aversives. All it took was a handful of shirt tugs (pun intended) to condition her that way. It did not take Rachel long at all to associate the consequence with the stimulus that predicted the consequence.

In Rachel's case, the selected consequence was a very mild aversive, certainly less intense than the physical and verbal reprimands dogs frequently experience when they are on-leash in the presence of their canine peers. For Rachel, I had not paired the aversive with any verbal correction.

My hope was that this lesson would illustrate for Rachel the powerful effect a few seemingly light corrections could have on her perception of, and reaction to, a previously positive stimulus: socialization with other people. Prior to the shirt tugs, I had been a positive stimulus, but Rachel's frustration with me when she was corrected was evident. Like Rachel, many reactive dogs have been conditioned by their owners, albeit inadvertently, to react aggressively.

Many reactive dogs have been conditioned by their owners, albeit inadvertently, to react aggressively.

If one of these dogs lives in your home, do not beat yourself up. No trainer is without her share of mistakes; mistakes are a part of learning. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn more and become a better dog handler, and every dog you ever meet will thank you for it!

Reactivity: on-leash vs. off-leash

In many circumstances, reactive behavior breaks down when the owner cannot administer a correction. Often, dogs that display "leash aggression" are able to play well with other dogs when provided with that opportunity in a safe, relatively large off-leash environment.

In the human example, if I had been across the room from Rachel, I would not have been able to correct her. If my ability to deliver the correction were taken away, she would likely feel more confident about interacting with her peers. Rachel would have been more focused on socialization and less concerned with where I was and when the next tug might be coming.

The experiment continues...toward success!

The experiment continued later in the class. I clicked Rachel for looking at other people, approaching other people, talking to other people. Reinforcements were varied: Tootsie Rolls or nickels.

After a few clicks, Rachel was feeling more positive about me, so I pulled her aside to talk for a moment. I asked her how she felt about the shirt tug experience compared to how she felt about being clicked for correct, socially appropriate behavior.

Rachel said that at first she was very frustrated with me, wondering why I was "nagging." She said she felt silly being clicked later in class, but that she also felt much more relaxed and was having much more fun then.

After having been both corrected and reinforced, Rachel understood how her behavior, even slight tension on the leash or a change in breathing rhythm (sharp intake of breath), could change Boo's perception of a situation.

We went on to talk about healthy play, calming signals, and stress behaviors. Increasing her knowledge of canine body language was critical to ensuring future training success.

Increasing her knowledge of canine body language was critical to ensuring future training success.

Re-trained now

Both Rachel and Boo are happy to have an enhanced understanding of each other, as evidenced by their continued progress in training and socialization. Now that she has "been" Boo, Rachel can modify her own behavior to set Boo up for success. I no longer see the tight leash or hear verbal corrections from Rachel.

Instead, I see a dog happily interacting with his canine friends during play session, a dog that willingly returns his focus to his handler for training activities. I see a dog-savvy handler who recognizes when her dog is engaging in healthy play, and when he's beginning to show stress and needs a break from the action.

I see a dog/handler team set up for success; all is as it should be.

If this experiment helps you, as it helped Rachel and Boo, understand your reactive dog any better, I'm sure even Rachel would be pleased. That kind of growth and progress is worth the ten minutes when Rachel was annoyed with me and my experiment in creating a reactive human.

Note: Thanks to Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) students Jules Nye (in white, www.sitstayandplay.com), and Alyson Zimmerman (in black, www.thefosterdogchronicles.com) for re-enacting the reactivce human experiment for our photos.

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About the author
User picture

Casey Lomonaco lives in upstate New York, where she offers editorial, writing, and behavior consulting services through her company Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training. When she is not working with or writing about dogs, she is knitting, reading, or hiking in a forest—with dogs.

vi assistance dogs's picture

Be Nice, Be nice!

Casey, Brilliant, creative thinking at its best! 


Control Unleashed

I have a corgi who is very over reactive about strange dogs.  Upon seeing a strange dog while on leash (or off) she will bark, growl and lunge.  I started using the "Look at that Game" which is explained in the book "Control Unleashed".  Unfortunatly I do not have the book here with me at this moment and can't remember the author's name.  Basically when I see a strange dog approaching I tell my dog "look at that" as soon as she looks towards the other dog, I click her and reward.  Thsi changes her association with strange dogs from "oh, no I better get ready to fight" to "oh boy, an opportunity to earn treats".  It does require tht handler to be very aware as soon your dog will start glancing at things and looking back to you for acknowledgment and become frustrated if you are not playing the game with them.

Good example

I'm generally comfortable giving corrections as well as positive reinforcement such as treats, but this example does point out how aversions can lead to unwanted reactivity and possible aggression. I do think aversive corrections (P+) have their place when a behavior is dangerous and needs to be stopped immediately, but I can see where it may not be appropriate or even effective when the dog's behavior is relatively benign and natural. In general I agree with Cesar Millan's methods, especially for very willful (or "dominant") dogs with major behavior problems, but frequent physical corrections just to keep a dog in a perfect "heel" position are probably not warranted and may indeed cause frustration and reactivity. I'm very tolerant of Muttley's behavior and rarely feel the need to issue corrections. There is a big difference between rehabilitation and training. You can get a feel for Muttley's temperament and our experiences with punitive training that caused a dangerous reaction in the Muttley Story on his website www.muttleydog.com.

reactive dog

This is a great story. I have the same quandary..my 9 week lab pup wants to jump and play with othrer dogs and people, who of course reinforce this behavior. . So far I just let her lunge and jump until the leash  finally goes slack then step forward and let her say hi. It is an act of frustrattion for her and for me as i dont think she can sit on command yet...what do you suggest. I dont want a reactive dog!!!  thanks, barbara

I love this!

Whenever we have visitors who want to interact with our dogs and take them on a walk, my partner Dave explains that we don't do the leash jerking thing, and what we do instead - somehow it never seems to sink in and I get really aggravated by it. I need to chill and plan a little exercise like this myself!

trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture


I liked this! (I'm surprised it took 10 minutes to get a reaction; I would have aggressed far sooner!) I'm glad Rachel was open to working with you and learning. Good creativity!

Laura &

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