Counterconditioning Leash Reactivity, the Hybrid Approach

Jan 4, 2018 | Animal Behavior, Learning Theory, Training

In leash reactivity, the variable that can be controlled the most is the human’s behavior; once that is the focus all other areas become easier and stress is reduced. Photo: (c) Can Stock Photo

In leash reactivity, the variable that can be controlled the most is the human’s behavior; once that is the focus all other areas become easier and stress is reduced. Photo: (c) Can Stock Photo

Leash reactivity towards dogs, humans or traffic, is one of the most challenging training endeavors. This is simply because there is no consistency in the appearance of the stimuli, and there will most assuredly be at some point, an over threshold event for the dog due to “criteria pile up”. More than one piece of criteria at a time combined with a lack of sufficient distance, too much duration, and or both, then add in the stimulus entering the environment with intensity of both the visual and auditory components known to cause the dog to react “over threshold”, and there will be more likely at some point a dog reacting by lunging and barking or attempting to flee and thus ends up flailing around while the handler tries to maintain control.

Handlers of leash reactive dogs, be they large, medium or small dogs, have numerous mechanical and timing challenges. The variable that can be controlled the most is the human’s behavior, once that is the focus all other areas of leash reactivity become easier and stress is reduced.

The good news is this, once the handler has a better idea of what to do and starts a proactive protocol that consists of distance and high value food reinforcement, the dog will start to have less and less reactivity. There is no 100% reduction in leash reactivity, but if the handlers of the reactive dogs implement the following protocols in this blog and the video links, 90 – 95% reduction can be achieved. Humans are the variable so here we go…

The humans that walk leash reactive dogs must have focus on the following areas

Hand and Arms.

Legs and Feet.

Awareness in 360 degrees.

The ability to move quickly and or run.

Leash shortening and lengthening skills.

Bending and reaching, and twisting and turning.

The training challenges that many humans face with leash reactive dogs is they are approaching it as though they were training some sort of basic cue such as a sit or a down, they are attempting to cue the dog with a directive. This slows down the process of creating a better association to the stimuli that has just caught the dog’s attention.

Once the handler of the dog is aware the dog may react at stimuli, the handler must focus on positioning themselves so they can issue the “YES” Marker for the initial orientations, and deliver the food reinforcement within 2 -4 seconds, after the dog has oriented to the stimuli.

The leash mechanics of positioning for marking and paying comprise the following;

  • If the handler is “ahead or the event”, meaning they have noticed the stimuli, shorten the leash by walking up the leash. This makes getting the food to the dog easier, also “less leash less dog” (to control).
  • If the handler is noticing the stimuli seconds after or as the dog is orienting to the stimuli, shorten the leash, by walking up the leash. (This shortening leash move by “walking up the leash” is best practiced when there is nothing much occurring, so when the time comes, there is a smooth transition to shortening the leash, Remember the handler does not want to startle/stress the dog with the leash).
  • Once the leash is shortened to 1 – 2 feet or less, or as you are shortening the leash, reach for the food reinforcement, and deliver the food.
  • The handler can “pre-load” the food in the hand provided the dog is not looking at them reaching for the food. By having 360-degree awareness and practicing the various moves of shortening the leash and reaching for the treats, the handler can have a much more efficient delivery thus more success.
  • Delivering the food reinforcement is crucial for the association to be made as soon as possible. The longer it takes for the food to be delivered the lower the rate of reinforcement is. The rate of reinforcement for dogs within 100 feet or less of stimuli known to cause reactivity should be roughly every 2 – 4 seconds or less if needed.
  • Foot work is also crucial for the handler of leash reactive dogs. Having good footing and a solid center of gravity is essential. Many times, handlers of leash reactive dogs may have a large dog that is strong, and they need to be able to hold the leash with one hand and deliver the food reinforcement with the other, they may have a dog that is medium or small and need to bend over the dog to deliver the food, this is going to require back and legs to be worked out daily.

Ideas to improve your mechanics and timing

  • Clip the leash to a fence or something similar and practice the leash walk up for shortening and lengthening, do your best to not pull the leash but walk up the leash.

When the dog is standing still, or moving forward and the handler “walks up the leash”, the natural pressure will keep the leash taught, and makes it easy to shorten.

  • Work out and stretch. You do not have to join a gym, but if you have a dog, any dog that is prone to react by lunging and barking, you will need to move, bend down, use your arm and hand strength, and possibly run, get in shape, your dog’s behavioral improvement depends on it.
  • If the handler has any experience in athletics dance or movement that is a good place to “center” oneself for the leash walk with a leash reactive dog.
  • Watch videos of yourself doing the work needed for leash reactivity reduction.
  • The Mindset – stay focused, pay attention, and stay in the game, dog training leash reactive dogs is a matter of seconds and inches and if you have your mind else where the protocols will not be as efficient as need be for a reduction in leash reactivity.

Counter Conditioning – The Hybrid Approach

Why there is no “systematic desensitization” in the counter conditioning of leash reactive dogs.

The scientific definition, from an ABA model, Systematic Desensitization does not have any reinforcement component. When gradual exposure is used with reinforcement, (food), it’s a hybrid of respondent and operant procedures.

This is one reason why pure systematic desensitization is not going to occur nor should it be a stand-alone approach to reducing leash reactivity in dogs. Any desensitization on leash for reactive dogs comes as a byproduct of proactive counter conditioning,

When doing pure systematic desensitization, a gradual exposure of the fearful/stressful stimulus should be so gradual so it does not illicit any fear response. This is not always and rarely possible within the context of leash reactive dogs. At some point, and depending on the environment and the stimuli that has the dog potentially reacting, it is almost assured that there will be an exposure that elicits fear to some degree. The procedure of systematic desensitization when done correctly produces no fear responding. Again, this is not possible for the leash reactive dog especially in heavily populated or trafficked areas where stimuli are appearing rapidly and in the dog’s view or ear shot for various durations every time there is an exposure, it is different.

With systematic desensitization, the first step is build a hierarchy from no fear to extreme fear, again, this is not an option with leash reactivity. Then expose dog to that trigger, while the animal is relaxed/under threshold, and maintains that class of behaviors for duration of the exposure. This will not occur with a leash reactive dog.

This is where the hybrid approach assists in helping the dog make a better association to the potentially reactive event.

By marking “YES” and paying high value food reinforcement at a distance the dog will stay under threshold, that under threshold label is defined for each individual dog based on whatever suite of behaviors the dog displays other than the “reactive” suite of behaviors, the dog will at some point stay under threshold, provided there is sufficient distance and a high rate of reinforcement from the food, as that combo or hybrid is more reinforcing, less stressful, less energy expended, and the payoff is higher than expending the energy of reacting at whatever had the dog lunging and barking or even barking and trying to greet people and dogs out of frustration, this is the crux of the hybrid approach to counter conditioning leash reactive dogs so they have less stress, the behaviors that map to that will be apparent.

With pure systematic desensitization we would raise criteria, increase level of trigger strength (Fear/Stress), always under threshold of getting fear response. Gradually present trigger, until proximity is closer, if it is volume we make it louder, if it is duration, needed level of time exposed, all with no fear response. None of this is going to occur on leash walks. None of it.

However, when the handler has their 360-degree awareness on point, and can either create distance for better results, or avoid events, the dog over time will learn that exposure to the fearful/stressful stimuli will pay off, and it will pay off big time in both food rewards and distance reinforcements. This is all predicated on hander skills, but then again s is all dog training.

The mechanics and timing of the reinforcements (food and distance), will at some point, override the “traditional parameters” of systematic desensitization, for leash reactivity, when doing other fear related desensitization, follow the golden rule, with leash reactivity, provided the dog is under threshold 95 – 98% of the time, the dog may be feeling some fear or some stress, however, if the dog is taking food and not reacting over threshold, the conditioning is being done in the right direction towards a better association and less stress. 

While all the practitioners of pure systematic desensitization will advise, care must be taken so there is no level of fear at any level of exposure, this is not going to occur on leash walks with reactive dogs, or dogs who are fearful and shutting down, which this hybrid procedure can be used for as well. The take home is, focus on the process, the protocols, the human behavior. Do the work and the dog will in time have better associations and more reliable training.

Why the handler should not be concerned about the “operant outcomes” at the start of the protocols.

What is most crucial with dogs that react on leash, is the CER (Conditioned Emotional Response) of a Fear/Stress elicitor. This needs to be replaced with the opposite response/feeling. This may or may not occur on leash with reactive dogs right away, time and patience towards the process helps.

Some variables related to the dog that is being worked with are, are types of stimulus known to cause reactivity or fear and shutting down, age, younger more plasticity I the neurons, and history of dog, how long has the dog been conditioned to react at the stimuli, how much rehearsal? For example, a dog may never feel great about loud trucks, but if the loud trucks predict food rewards and the dog disengages from the truck and looks to the handler the event will be much easier to commandeer for both the dog and the handler.

What will occur is a class of under threshold behaviors that map to the endorphin reward systems, this is a sign the dog has a new response. It may be subtle, it may be dramatic, but the dog will in time, if the protocols are implemented properly, have a new set of more desired behaviors. We can label it relaxed, happy, taking food, gathering scents, sitting, laying down, if it is the opposite of lunging, barking, and what we label “reactive”, that class of behaviors are incidentally conditioned by simply marking YES and issuing food reinforcements.

  • Food, and high value food at that is the pairing stimulus (US), that is counter conditioned to the fear elicitor, stress elicitor. Not all dogs that are reactive are “fearful”, some dogs are just This label of “frustration, is typically placed on dogs that have a very good social history with dogs and or humans and are simply stressed they cannot go greet them. This “frustration” is handled that exact same way as the fearful dog, with the exception that we know the dog is not fearful so the chance of sensitization is dramatically lowered.

However, frustrated dogs that are met with aversive approaches (choke/shock/scolding) can develop a fear of the humans or dogs that they were originally frustrated by. The advantage of the frustrated dog is that the handers can set up greetings with dogs and humans to reduce the stress of not getting to meet all the dogs and humans the dog desires to meet. Typically, 90% of the people and dogs an average dog handler will come across they cannot and should not meet so this YES&TREAT/MARK&PAY routine for the frustrated dog will in time teach the dog that seeing dogs and people predict getting paid a food reward and the dog will develop an operant response (Jumping the Marker) and be triggered by the stimuli to disengage and look to the handler. Once that is occurring the training is very easy as the dog is looking to the handler for a directive.

Again, obtain the better associations first through distance mitigation and high value food reinforcements for orientations and any subsequent disengages the dog does from the stimuli. Bear in mind, the distance, duration and saliency of the stimuli can be in your favor at times as well, and it may not yield too much interest from the dog, or just the right amount of attention, mark and pay for that criteria as well. This puts another good memory into the dog’s associations and rehearses “relaxed behaviors”.

When the dog is met with Fearful/Frustration stimuli, provided you have proper distance, mark “YES” and feed upon orientation of the stimuli and issue a rate of reinforcement every 2 – 4 seconds for a sustained event such as a passing dog or a bicyclist.

Then the fear stimulus predicts food / new emotion / behaviors. This is how it occurs. The variables are the distance and the rate of reinforcements for all levels of exposure. The human is the main variable through which all other variables are mitigated.

When counter conditioning leash reactive dogs the pairing of the stimuli and the food reinforcement is crucial. This is where the handler must have all their skills working in concert for the best results. Many times, reducing leash reactivity is a matter of inches and seconds, and that is fully predicated on the handler’s skills.

One of the challenging aspects in counter conditioning is prior experience with a stimulus can inhibit it from becoming a conditional stimulus. Therefore, another reason counter conditioning leash reactive dogs is challenging and something that all dogs should have to some degree, as at some point the dog had some prior experiences on leash that were stressful.

When conditioning a stimulus, a novel stimulus is best. Therefore, puppies need to have a YES&TREAT routine for all stimulus they encounter on leash walks. Many dogs have had lots of prior experiences on leash with fear and stress with no reinforcements or worse met with leash jerks and scolding.

This can make reducing leash reactivity challenging and why there is no 100% reduction in leash reactivity as there is always a chance things could occur too fast and the dog reacts. It is also why the sooner the dog is reinforced the proper way on leash, the less chance they will develop leash reactivity and the easier a time the leash handler will have.

When new or novel stimuli is presented and counter conditioning is implemented, the behavior change is stronger. The behaviors also map towards what all leash handlers want, reliability and soundness. This is due to the paring of the stimuli with a food reinforcement and distance, “fleeing” / flight, as reinforcement.

Even for a dog that has had prior experiences on leash, every shift in the environment is a context shift. This maps to generalization of fear and stress. It also could be considered a dog having to learn new behaviors in the moment while contained on leash, feeling fear/stress. Therefore, it is prudent to mark “YES” and pay the dog that is on leash for all stimuli that catches the dog’s attention and focus. Predictive value is what this is all about.

Compound Stimuli is also called a criterion pile up, this is also another reason reducing leash reactivity can be challenging and takes great skills of observation, awareness and efficient mechanics for food and distance mitigation.

Let’s look at a typical example of a behavior sequence for the leash reactive dog

Sound of wheels on skateboard (CS1) appearance of the skateboard (CS2) then the US and then the CR. To condition CS1, a new stimulus, you must consider overshadowing, between CS1 and CS2 the one that is more “intense” (salient) may overshadow the weaker one. This is common with leash reactivity counter conditioning because much of the stimuli comes in “packages” and delivered in stages.

Traffic has sounds that often precede the sights of the cars, trucks etc…

Skateboards almost always have sounds before the sight.

Strollers and push carts etc…all have sounds, and sounds at ground level are more salient as they are more like predatory sounds at that level.

Humans may have voices attached to their stimulus package, and in the case of small children often the voices are high pitched and suddenly chaotic, which adds saliency.

As described above dogs can have sounds of dog tags and or barking before the sights, or sounds of tires and wheels, that precede the sightings of stimuli. This is about predictive value in inches and seconds

It is advised to mark “YES” and pay high value food rewards for all sounds that the dog orients to when on leash walks, as these could in time start to trigger reactivity or perhaps are already the lead antecedents in the sequence, either way do not discount the sounds that precede the sights of stimuli that is known to cause reactivity.

It is not always possible to “get away from sounds”, as sound travels differently than mass, dogs will be subjected to sounds all the time. By paying, (YES&TREAT) for sounds it will help reduce the saliency of them and help to counter condition the entire stimulus package more effectively when there is visuals along with the auditory stimuli. When the trials include both sounds and sights the dog will have more conditioning to the sounds which typically occur first in the chain of events. This will be helpful for successful trials.

Blocking is also a concern when counter conditioning leash reactive dogs. When there is an established CS, based on prior experience, (history), CS2 for example, may block CS1, if it is too “intense”, salient, and there is history with that CS.

Feeding the food reward non-contingently, is often part of counter conditioning, feeding food contingent upon “relaxation”, a suite of behaviors that maps to the dog being under threshold, is an operant procedure. This is also referred to as The Gordian Knot. Which is the simultaneous convergence of both associations and sequential learning that always occurs for dogs.

One distinction that should be made is that when the handler of a leash reactive dog issues a marker (YES) then reinforces with food the dog will have a suite of behaviors that we can classify as “under threshold”. Essentially any behaviors that are not lunging and barking are considered “under threshold”.

Remember, a dog does not have their flight response when on leash. This is a huge factor as to why most if not all dogs are a bit more alert and have at least some level of stress when on leash. Fight, Flight Freeze, are the classic three responses that all animals may have when faced with stimuli, when dogs are contained on a leash they cannot flee. This is one reason a remedial counter conditioning protocol should be part of all dog’s leash walks for general stress reduction as well as a conditioned response to flee with a cue like “let’s go”, then run for 10 – 20 feet and then issue a marker YES and food payment for the “fun run”.

The most common behaviors that are reinforced incidentally are standing while observing stimuli that is known to cause reactivity, dog’s head turning back to handler to either left or right side depending on where the handler is feeding the dog. Remember, the dog is marked for behavior paid for position.

The Hybrid Approach is what most people are doing when they are counter conditioning leash reactive dogs with food reinforcements and distances. Hopefully this blog and the video links will provide you with some insights and better your skills.

It takes skills and awareness, but dramatic results can be achieved when the handler is focused and committed to the process. I have counter conditioned a dog from lunging and barking at motorcycles to disengaging from the sound to obtain food, I have counter conditioned many dogs to disengage from dogs, people, traffic etc…all for a small food reward.

The mark and pay or get away approach is a very elegant way to obtain behavior and reduce stress for dogs on leash.

I often equate leash reactivity counter conditioning to playing a sport, where the dog and the handler are on the same team and the environment is the opponent. While we could plausibly apply that view to all of dog training, nowhere is it more applicable that when doing counter conditioning of leash reactive dogs in public spaces when anything can occur at any time.

The Hybrid Approach will yield the best results as the dog will have the least required of them to obtain maximum reinforcements. Many handlers of leash reactive dogs fail because they require too much of the dog in the face of stimuli too close or too intense. Many of my clients have reported that their stress was lowered and they felt relived not to have to do too much to get the dog to focus on them.

When the handler of leash reactive dogs start to proactively counter condition the dog to as much and as often as they can, they will be conditioning both sub and main criteria and thus the dog is learning that SEC (sudden environmental contrasts) predict food rewards and or distance. The dog also learns to really trust the handler which makes commandeering a dog out in public much safer and more reliable, which is the whole point of having dogs socializing in public, for them to feel safe and be reliable, so everyone can have an enjoyable time.

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