I know some trainers working with behavioral issues feel it’s irrelevant to know the motivation of the dog. You only need to know two things: what you want the dog to do and how to train him to get there. While I agree with this and truly believe you can rehabilitate a dog knowing only those things, I think you might see quicker results if you understand the whys.
My current foster dog, Gibbs, loses his mind when he sees another dog. He begins to bark non-stop, pull and lunge on the leash. His visual behavior is not unlike the behavior I used to see in Risa. The mere sight of another dog, even at a distance, sets him off. It turns him into a crazed, barking maniac.
What makes him completely different from Risa is his motivation: the reason why he exhibits this behavior. Unlike Risa, Gibbs is not afraid of other dogs. He is not trying to increase his distance from them by carrying on like a loon. Instead, he’s expressing his frustration that he cannot go over there right now and meet that dog. Gibbs absolutely loves other dogs and thinks they are all potential playmates. His behavior is similar to what you may see in a dog-reactive dog but the complete opposite when it comes to motivation.
The techniques I use to work with a reactive dog work very well with fun-loving party-starters too. It’s all about teaching self-control, having a plan to get out of Dodge when you step over the dog’s threshold, learning to read your dog, and setting up a lot of trials where the dog is able to practice the desired behaviors. Where things can differ, however, is in the use of real-life rewards. While a dog barking and lunging out of fear can be rewarded for calm behaviors by increasing their distance from the trigger, a dog who wants to make friends can be rewarded by decreasing the distance. Ultimately, you can even reward a dog who loves other dogs by letting him greet the other dog when he’s calm. With reactive dogs, meeting the other dog is not really that dog’s goal. (I certainly do recommend working with reactive dogs so that they become more comfortable with greeting dogs but that’s my goal, not the dog’s. I’m pretty sure, at least at the beginning, Risa would have been totally fine not meeting another dog ever again.)
Having these two very differently motivated dogs in the same household has been a challenge. Gibbs is practically head-over-heels for Risa; he wants to meet her so badly. Risa, however, is afraid of his behavior. He scares her with his constant barking and inability to read her signs of discomfort. Having both dogs in the same room causes a lot of stress for everyone. So I’ve had to play the “crate and rotate” game while Gibbs is here to keep everyone relatively happy. Gibbs cannot be frustrated that he cannot greet Risa if she’s not in sight. Risa cannot be scared of Gibbs’ barking if she is in the other room. And I don’t have to listen to Gibbs barking non-stop or watch Risa be scared of his gregarious behavior. It’s not a perfect situation and I would find it very hard to own a dog like Gibbs while I still have Risa. The two are in constant conflict. Risa wants to stay far away and Gibbs wants to get closer. It’s certainly possible to have two dogs like that coexist and, eventually, even get along. However, he’s a foster dog and it’s just not worth the time and effort to get to that point knowing he won’t be here long. 🙂