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Why I don't do food redirection when walking a reactive dog?

“Why don’t we keep using treats on the walk?”

“Why don’t we allow the dog to keep sniffing on the walk?”

These are very common questions that l would like to take a moment to address here.

Dogs have a lot of “drives” that motivate them to make the decisions they do. There are things that are very important to them that do not really work the same way with humans. These drives will dictate their behaviours. These drives are genetic.

If we only try to communicate with them superficially (eg bribe them to follow us with a treat when they want to lunge at a dog), we are failing them. We are making it harder for them to understand how to thrive in the human world with peace and joy when we are going against their genetic instinct.

Please allow me to elaborate.

When a dog keeps sniffing, the dog is in “hunting mode”, which some call “prey drive”.

Studies have shown that 70% of the nose is tied to the brain. Dogs use their noses before they use their eyes (eg dogs may not recognize someone they have not seen for a while from a distance but once they come close enough to sniff, they will suddenly become really excited).

When they glue their noses to the ground, they are into finding and tracking scent. They are in predatory/hunting mode, which is very self rewarding for them.

Imagine a pack of dogs (e.g. beagles) going to hunt, do they all stay behind the human calmly and submissively? No, they don’t. They will be way ahead of the human. That is what dogs in “hunting mode” do.

When we ask a dog who is in hunting mode to follow us submissively, we are asking for two very contradictory behaviours to happen at the same time.

It is like asking someone to study for an exam very attentively in a pub that is playing the Super Bowl match of his favourite team live.

When we keep doing things like that, it tells the dog we have no idea what we are doing (ie if we understand the dog, we won’t be putting the dog in that position and expect him to succeed); not only that, we are bound to create a lot of confrontations when we put the dog in that position, hence why so many “leave it” “look at me” “here is the food”…etc.

If we just leave the dog alone to keep sniffing, the dog will not choose us over the environment — how could he when 70% of his brain is engaged in a very highly rewarding behaviour — are we actually teaching the dog engagement then? If not, what are we really doing?

People who want to work WITH the dog rather than AGAINST the dog will not put the dog in that position.

How can the dog think that we truly respect them when we are so clueless in front of them? How can we expect the dog to respect us when we are not showing him the respect he deserves? Without respect, how could there be trust?

When there is no trust and respect, all that the human has left are lots of micro-management and desperate attempts to compete for the dog’s attention. Management will ultimately fail; the human will eventually lose the competition no matter how hard one may try.

That is why we don’t let the dog choose to sniff whenever the dog wants. We put sniffing on cue so the dog will only sniff when he is given an invitation to. That way, the dog can study in the library for the exam and enjoy the Super Bowl in a pub separately. It is more fair and will make much more sense to the dog.

When our guidance makes sense, and is something in line with the innate drives of the dog, the dog will want to listen and follow us motivationally.

We can then have a dog who is one with us without a lot of conflicts (ie no more constant leave it, dropping treats all over the floor, running away and hiding behind a bush…etc).

When we use a lot of treats during the walk, we can invoke the hunting desire in the dog as well.

A lot of dogs are very food driven. They will become very stimulated when the human is holding some food. For an everyday walk, especially when it involves a dog who is used to be really aroused and reactive once outside, why do we want to pour in more arousal when the arousal is already overflowing?

When the dog needs one thing but we keep giving him the opposite, are we a coach that is leading this dog to victory; or someone who keeps bringing him to defeat?

If the dog is always losing while following us, why would he respect us? How could he trust us?

Our job with behavior training is, first and foremost, to empower the dog to succeed under our guidance. We want the dog to view us as an amazing coach who can always bring the team to win even against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Last thing we want is to keep getting a dog in the inappropriate state of mind before a match so the dog will keep failing even in seemingly easy situations.

When an aggressive dog reacts, there are basically two drives that are in play.

The first one is the "hunting mode" described above.

The other drive that will cause the dog to react is “protection mode” or some will call it “defense drive”.

Usually, this defensiveness will be made worse by some kind of barrier (eg fence barking), or a very strong obsession to something (eg resource guarding).

A leash is a barrier because it restricts the movement of the dog. A car window, the door of your home, a baby gate…are all barriers that can agitate a dog to become more defensive. A human who is always indulging a dog with a lot of “motherly love” can also cause the dog to get into protection mode (ie guarding this human).

If we let the dog keep pulling on the leash (especially on something like a flat nylon collar or a harness, which are tools trainers use specifically to agitate a protection dogs to bite), the opposition reflex during the pulling will cause the leash to feel like a barrier that can definitely invoke defensiveness.

Food can cause some dogs to get into this guarding mode as well.

If we are dealing with a dog with a guarding tendency of the human and guarding of food from other human/dogs, using food on the walk can escalate the dog’s tendency to guard, hence making the dog more aggressive towards other human/dogs.

That is why we don’t just use treats mechanically all the time without thinking. We need to understand the dog and give the dog what he needs in order to thrive. Food is not always the solution.

Another problem about “protection mode” is the sense of “helplessness” the dog feels when he believes he is the one who must shoulder the task of defending the entire pack all by himself.

When a dog is in such a state, the dog is in survival mode, he will feel extremely stressful, and he cannot analyze the situation with a clear head. He will very likely ignore the human completely and may even bite the human in the heat of the moment (ie redirection).

Again, if we truly understand our dogs, why would we do something counterproductive like that when we are supposed to do everything we can to keep our dogs safe and help our dogs to succeed?

What should we do then? What kind of drive should we tap into so we can empower this dog to succeed? How can we lead the dog to victory?

We need to get this dog into “follow mode”, which some will call “pack drive”.

Imagine a pack of wolf walking in the snow in a single formation. The leader does not need to keep competing for the pack’s attention with treats or verbal commands, they are all following one another and moving in the same direction purposefully. That is what “follow mode” looks like.

“Pack drive” is a very strong drive that is unfortunately not often encouraged in domestic dogs. A lot of people like to let the dog free roam all day as the dog spends his entire day barking at the fence, barking out the window, barking at the door, chasing squirrels in the yard, stealing food, demanding attention whenever…which are all activities that tap into protection mode and hunting mode but not follow mode.

Follow mode is actually very self rewarding. It alleviates the dog from the “helplessness” of having to defend the entire pack. Not only that, the dog can relax as he knows he will be safe and have what he needs when he simply follows. He does not need to worry and no longer feels stressed the way he used to.

But a dog will not understand how good something feels if he has never experienced it.

Many dogs have never experienced being in “follow mode” with their human. In a lot of cases, the human is actually in “follow mode” around their dogs (eg the dog is whining/barking for his run in the park at 3pm everyday and the human will make sure they take him there every day at 3pm sharp).

Teaching a dog how to walk on a loose leash is a big part of nurturing “follow mode”.

When the leash is loose, there is no opposition reflex in play. This absence of tension takes away the need to feel defensive from being restrained and will therefore greatly reduces the chance of the dog going into “protection mode”.

When the dog is walking next to us without sniffing, he is not constantly looking for scent to chase, he is not in a predatory mindset — we can therefore greatly reduce the chance of the dog going into “hunting mode”.

With both hunting and protection modes out of the equation, the dog is in a “follow” mindset which is a state that allows the dog to handle triggers successfully without constant conflicts.

When he is in a “follow” mindset, it is very natural and logical for him to count on the human to protect him and handle the situation for him.

When he chooses to follow the human rather than fight or flight, he is developing better engagement with deeper trust and respect on his human.

As he experiences positive outcomes over and over again from making this decision (ie he is always safe and feeling peaceful), he will see this as the best and most sensible solution.

Following the human is both self rewarding and much easier to do than to constantly scan, lunge, bark, drag, bite…etc, so “follow” will become something he wants to do on his own.

That is how we can create a dog who will choose to follow us willingly, attentively, and submissively even without any treats or constant commands.

And that is why we don’t always use treat and don’t encourage constant sniffing on the walk.

Hope this makes sense.

Thank you.

Reactive dog board and train dog training with Vancouver dog trainer behaviourist Richard Chan

1 Comment

Aug 30, 2023

I LOVE YOUR POSTS!!!! Thank you for taking the time to write such important and truthful information. I have referred past clients to your services (not sure if they followed through but I do make the referrals) and I have found your information quite sound. Keep up the GREAT work!!!

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