While I find no need for positive punishment in my training bag, I’m willing to accept that many people do. That’s fine. However, I disagree about using corrections with a reactive dog. In fact, I think that is one instance when you should never ever use corrections. (Keeping in mind that, when I say “reactive,” I am specifically talking about dogs who bark/lunge/etc. out of FEAR not out of party-starting.)
You have to keep in mind that reactive behaviors are not thinking behaviors. Behaviors like “sit” and “down” originate in the front part of the brain. The mammalian brain. The thinking brain. Reactive behaviors like running away from a scary thing come from the hind brain. The lizard brain. The reactive brain. A dog who is reacting is NOT thinking. It’s pure instinct. They are in survival mode. This also means that, even though you say “sit” and they know what “sit” means, they are incapable of responding to your cues at this time. At the very least, a correction is not going to do anything. You cannot train when the dog is not in a thinking mode. At the very worst, you’re going to pair another negative event with an event that is already negative. You could accidentally associate corrections with the presence of the scary trigger making it even more negative for your dog. Just because your dog isn’t thinking doesn’t mean he isn’t learning.
It’s also vital that you separate a “bad” behavior and the reward for a good behavior with time and distance. Otherwise, you are essentially rewarding the bad behavior as well. I’ll use the example trainer Tracy Sklenar mentioned at the seminar I attended this weekend. If your dog runs off to eat horse poop and you call them back to you and reward them for returning, you’ve effectively rewarded them for “going off, eating horse poop, and coming back when you call.” You haven’t simply rewarded the recall but the entire sequence! So if you correct a bad behavior (no matter how you choose to do it) and then cue another behavior and reward that, you’re keeping the behavior chain alive. React, correct, sit, treat. The “react” will still be there because you haven’t broken the chain. If your dog reacts, you step backwards 10 steps, cue an alternative behavior, and reward compliance; you can break the chain.
You need to work a reactive dog below threshold. At that fine line between a full blown reaction and “I am stressed but still okay.” You cannot train a new behavior if they are not in thinking mode (aka reacting). If they react, get outta there. Plain and simple. You messed up and got too close. Reset and try again. It’s a delicate balancing act but it does pay off.
There is NO EASY FIX. You can use corrections and eliminate the outward signs of the reactions but you will not create a more confident dog. Addressing the barking/lunging/spinning/snapping will not change the way your dog feels about the things that bother him. He might learn not to do those behaviors, but he still feels incredibly uncomfortable. And, if he doesn’t show outward signs of his discomfort, you could put him in a situation where he feels in over his head and, instead of barking, he reaches out and just nails someone instead “without warning” because you took all of his warning signals away.
Working with a reactive dog is HARD. It’s hard on the dog and it’s hard on the handler. I cannot tell you how many nights I cried and how frustrated I was working with Risa at the start. How much I sometimes hated being with her and that I didn’t think she liked me at all. We had no bond together. I was completely lost. . .and even later when I did know what I wanted to do, it was hard. I spent about 4 years carefully managing situations to set her up for success. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve been able to relax more knowing Risa has the ability to cope in stressful situations. I still have to be on my toes but it’s so much easier now!