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Is Feeding My Reactive Dog Treats Just Rewarding Their Reactivity?

It’s no secret that we utilize a lot of positive reinforcement, usually in the form of high value food and treats, to address reactive behaviors with dogs like barking/lunging at people, dogs, bikes, or other triggers. Current scientific research points towards positive reinforcement-based training being an effective way to change behavior in dogs with a lower potential of negative fallout, and we see the beneficial results of this form of training with our reactivity clients every day! However, sometimes it’s a bit difficult to decipher what is going on in a training session, and to the outside eye, it may look a bit counterintuitive to be feeding treats to a dog who wants to react or bark in the presence of their triggers. Let’s look into the different reasons why we utilize this training and go deeper into the “why” behind our methods to address reactivity.

Reactivity Vs. Demand Barking- What’s The Function Of The Barking?

If you’re worried that you might be “rewarding” your dog’s barking by feeding them treats when they are reacting or have just had a reaction, it’s important to examine the root cause of the barking to understand why this isn’t the case. When a dog is barking, lunging, growling, etc at a person, dog, or other trigger, this is a response that is often rooted in either stress, frustration, or some other negative emotion. When looking at this emotion-based display from your dog, ask yourself: what is the FUNCTION of this behavior? You’ll quickly realize that this behavior is either to create or reduce space from the trigger in question, and has very little to do with the treats in your hand. So, adding treats into the equation at this moment isn’t satisfying the actual function of the barking, and therefore isn’t reinforcing it. All these treats would do in the moment is either help the dog lower their arousal levels, or help the dog start building different, more positive associations with the trigger in question.

On the opposite side of the coin, say you were sitting at your dining room table and enjoying your favorite chicken dinner. Your dog, sitting at your feet and watching you enjoy your meal very intently, decides to start barking at you. At this moment, the function of your dog’s barking is to acquire a piece of your dinner. If in this moment as a response, you were to cut off a piece of your chicken and hand it to your dog, congrats! You have just reinforced your dog’s barking by satisfying the function of the barking with the food he was looking for, and now will likely make the behavior of barking at you for food stronger in the future. This is commonly referred to as demand barking, and serves a different function than reactive barking at triggers that stress your dog.

Using Treats To Manage Reactive Dogs

We often arrange the environment and setup of a structured training session to keep your reactive dog as under-threshold as possible to promote the best environment for learning. This may look like working with sounds of triggers first before moving up to the real thing (like the jingling sounds of dog tags before working around real dogs), starting training at a far away distance from the trigger so the dog is less stressed, working on skills with familiar people first before introducing a stranger for stranger-reactive dogs, etc. However, we understand that life still happens between these training sessions and exposure to triggers at higher intensities while working through your dog’s reactivity is going to happen sometimes even with the best prevention tactics. So, we will also help with giving you some management strategies to try and reduce how often your dog is reacting. Some of these strategies may involve strategic or continuous feeding of high value treats to help give your dog an alternative behavior to focus on while passing a trigger, or may be in the form of helping you feed your dog to lower their arousal levels after a reaction has happened to mitigate their stress. In these situations, we’re using food as a means of prompting behavior instead of as a consequence to behavior (like if you were cuing your dog to sit, the dog sits, and they get a treat afterwards as a reward). It’s just one of the many different dynamic ways that we can use food to help us achieve our training goals!

Using Treats For Desensitization And Counterconditioning

When working together in previously mentioned structured training setups with a reactive dog, we will be using food as a means to change your dog’s association to their triggers. This is called classical conditioning, and food is a really accessible means in training to help with this process. We present triggers at low enough intensities that the dog is still feeling somewhat calm and minimally concerned. We then pair these low-level presentations of the trigger with food, which elicits a positive emotional response from the dog. We then, going at the dog’s pace, increase the intensity of the trigger gradually and as the dog is successful while continuing to pair these triggers with food to further build a positive emotional response to the trigger. When we can use food to change a dog’s association of a trigger from negative to positive, the “problem behaviors” like barking, growling, and lunging will reduce and continue to go away.

If done well, we then end up with a dog who sees their triggers and knows that this is a context clue to check in with their handler, because something really special and tasty always follows! Not only do you now have a dog who is less stressed by their triggers, you also have a dog who is learning how to disconnect from those triggers and instead stay engaged with you. Once this has happened, further training around triggers like loose leash walking, relaxation work, or other useful manners skills can follow.

It’s Okay To Feed Treats When Your Dog Is Reactive

There are multiple different psychological processes at play than what meets the eye when it comes to training with food and addressing behavior concerns like reactivity. While we always recommend these kinds of behavior concerns are addressed under the guidance of a certified and experienced professional trainer, it’s also important to understand the psychology behind the processes that these trainers will likely ask you to implement with your dog. When the barking and lunging is rooted in stress, high value reinforcers like food can be your best friend in helping address that stress, and systematically replace those behaviors with something more appropriate. Happy treating!


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