Reactivity was not one of the topics of the seminar. There was no power-point presentation, nor was there an official outline on the matter. Despite that, I'm still going to write about Jane's comments on reactivity. The reader should understand that this is not a comprehensive training plan. Although I have some ideas of how Jane approaches reactive dogs based on what she said, this cannot be taken as her entire method. This post is being put together based on off-hand comments and responses to audience questions, so please, take it as such.
With all that said, my impression was that Jane does not alter her approach to reactive dogs that much. It appeared that her work with all dogs- reactive or not- is based on getting the dog operant, teaching stellar attention skills, and then expanding the dog's “envelope.” Again, maybe this was because of the constraints of the seminar, but I was disappointed and uncomfortable with her approach. Let me explain why:
Get the Dog Operant
According to Jane, reactive dogs (and their aggressive counterparts) need to be operant, maybe even more so than “normal” dogs. She said this is true because reactivity and aggression come from the same area of the brain as frustration, and frustration results from not knowing how to solve problems. By creating an operant dog, you get a dog who understands how to solve problems, which will reduce his frustration levels. In turn, Jane told us, you will reduce reactivity. At the same time, getting an operant dog is vital because it helps the dog and human learn how to communicate with one another. Of course, you'll still need to work on what, exactly, you communicate, but having an operant dog who understands how to communicate with you will go a long way towards reducing reactivity.
I can certainly see the value in this. Having a dog who understands he can control his environment with his behavior is a beautiful thing, and is at the heart of many of the training protocols available- like CAT, BAT, Control Unleashed, etc. Of course, the great challenge is harnessing that ability in a way you like. Early on in my work with Maisy, I inadvertently taught her that she could offer the behavior of barking and lunging at other dogs. This was the exact opposite of what I wanted her to learn, and indeed, was the fault of my own poor training. Getting an operant dog will not solve a behavior problem; it only gives you a chance to solve it.
But this emphasis on operancy also overlooks a huge area of training: classical counter-conditioning. I firmly believe that counter-conditioning is very important when working with reactive or aggressive dogs because it gives us a solid foundation upon which to build. Classical conditioning cannot be the sole answer- there will come a point where it's impossible to maintain, requiring you to switch to an operant technique- but I think it is often overlooked all the same. Now, Jane did recognize that “Pavlov is always on your shoulder” (that is, that classical conditioning always takes place alongside operant conditioning), but I felt she gave short shrift to the power in classical conditioning. Again, this was probably because it was outside the scope of the seminar, but if she uses it in her work with reactive dogs, I wish she would have at least mentioned it.
Teach Stellar Attention Skills
I've already alluded to the fact that Jane believes strong attention skills are vital for dogs. She stated that pretty much every problem you have with your dog is because he doesn't understand the concept of attention, and what's more, that reactive/aggressive dogs “need to have unbroken attention on me.”
To this end, she showed us a video of her then-18-week-old cattle dog, who was very sensitive to the environment. In the case of this video, the environment in question was a dog show; Jane was there to film a specialty, and during one of the down-times, she let her puppy come out to explore. The video showed the dog entering an area, straining at the end of the leash and scanning. The dog's tail was straight, vertical, and stiff as it stared. At one point, the dog erupted into barking. Throughout this, Jane's only response was to capture and click/treat eye contact. In the next segment, taken after some time had elapsed (but no further training had occurred), Jane and the dog entered the area. The dog immediately reoriented to her, and gave her some excellent eye contact, virtually ignoring what was going on around them.
The video was impressive. The change in the dog was dramatic. And yet... I didn't buy it. Not that I don't believe the events occurred as she said they did- I'm sure they did- but I don't believe this would work with every reactive dog. At any rate, I know this would not have worked for Maisy, because I have tried similar things. I figured this must be because Jane's dog was simply environmentally sensitive, while Maisy has a diagnosed anxiety disorder that required medication to resolve. Convinced this was the case, I approached her after the seminar to inquire if she would do things differently with a dog like mine. No. She would not. The technique probably didn't work for me because my skills are not as good as hers.
Expand the Dog's Envelope
Environmentally sensitive dogs, Jane told us, must be trained to work despite the spider (or whatever) in the room. They need to learn to ignore those distractions. Basically, reactivity is one big “proofing” exercise (except Jane doesn't call it that because she thinks proofing implies correction). As a result, she works with a reactive dog the same way she works with any other dog in this regard: she finds the envelope and gradually increases it.
The only difference is that she said with a reactive dog, you much work much slower, and push on the envelope much more gently. If you allow your dog to go over threshold (a word she does not use, because she said everyone understands it differently), you have made a mechanical error. Dogs who go “outside the envelope” end up with a cascade of chemicals releasing in the brain, which sidelines your training as the dog recovers from the stress.
I agree that you should not let a dog go over threshold; the resultant cortisol release means that you're stuck with an edgier dog for the next 72 hours (or longer- pre-medication, Maisy often needed up to a week to recover). But I am confused by Jane's idea of what going over threshold looks like; in the video of her cattle dog, the tight, tense body language and eruption of barking seemed like a reactive response to me. When I asked her about it, though, she said the barking was an alert barking, not reactive barking. Certainly, she knows her dog better than I, but I was uncomfortable with this response.
What about Stress?
Many seminar participants noted that some of the dogs looked stressed while working. Jane's response to this was that you don't know what your dog is thinking or feeling, so it doesn't really matter. She encouraged people to let dogs think through their stress (probably okay with a “normal” dog, but a bit worrisome for me with a reactive dog). For the more stressed dogs, she encouraged the handlers to select and reinforce relaxed body language (looking at ears, mouths, etc.).
Again, I was uncomfortable with this. Although she did adjust criteria/the environment for some of the dogs, for the most part, she pushed them far beyond their comfort zone- as demonstrated by body language- than I would do with my own dog. She believes this is where learning occurs. I agree that stress is inevitable in life, and that we need to help our dogs learn how to think through stress. At the same time, if a dog is too stressed, he cannot learn. Jane did emphasize that you need to skim the edges of stress for reactive dogs, but it seemed we had different ideas of where that edge is.
So is Jane wrong? No. Her techniques are clearly successful; she has a dog-aggressive dog of her own, and that dog was nationally ranked in APDT rally. But I don't think that means I am wrong, either. I, too, have a dog who was nationally ranked in APDT rally. And while my skills aren't even close to Jane's, I am proud of my accomplishments with Maisy, and I believe that in time, I will develop better training abilities.
In the end, I think there is enough room in the world for people to train in different ways, and to have different beliefs about how to approach the same problem. Jane has chosen a strict behavioral view. She trains the dog and the behavior she sees in front of her. I have chosen to follow a more emotional, relationship-focused method. Neither of us are wrong, even if we are uncomfortable with the other's views. Indeed, it is in these areas of discomfort that the most learning takes place.
Jane's seminar forced me to confront my own views and to examine them. Although this post concludes the official seminar recap, you can be assured that there will be many posts to come exploring my own thoughts and ideas on reactivity, training, and dogs in general. And perhaps that is the most important thing I took away from this seminar. Even if I didn't agree with everything I saw, I sure did learn a lot.