Reactivity On The Human Side Of Dog Training

I just read a post on Medium about how people – and I mean everyone at some point – reacts to something that happens in their lives or something someone says, or does. The point of the article is that when you are reacting, you are not ACTING. You are also not learning or changing or growing. You are just reacting from an emotional standpoint.
This applies to how we relate to dogs as well. Training a dog in particular, or in fact NOT training a dog is how human reactivity most often happens. Reacting to a dog’s actions in a negative way does nothing except to be a release for your emotions. Not only this but it often causes some reactivity in the dog you are trying to train. Let me explain.

Imagine being somewhere and a person walks up to you and starts yelling at you, within a few feet of you. You don’t know what this person is saying because you don’t understand the language. This person is reactive to you for some reason. There is no attempt to fix things or calmly change your behaviour, just yelling.

There are likely two things that you could do. One is try to get away. Barring that you could yell back or be reactive back. When there is emotion and heated argument happening, a common response is that you feel emotional yourself about what is going on. Reactivity produces the same in others. It is a natural response.

Because this is an emotional response and not something that is under complete control by you or the other person involved, it cannot always be changed or stopped unless you are consciously aware of what you are doing. So when you are simply reacting, you are not really doing anything except releasing emotions.


How this relates to dog training is as follows:

Dogs don’t really understand us until what we say or do has been sufficiently repeated. When a trainer corrects a dog, it is a most often a reaction to something the dog does that the trainer doesn’t want.

It is extremely difficult to not escalate the corrections one makes during training especially if some training skills are lacking. And trust me, almost every one except the very best trainers are lacking in some skill. And everyone makes mistakes.

When this happens a dog can become reactive or even aggressive in a particular situation if corrections escalate and the dog doesn’t know what to do. If the dog is not being shown WHAT TO DO, rather than always what NOT to do, frustration often sets in.

The reality is that to train a dog well, and not be reactive, it is often necessary to make changes in how one relates to others, including dogs. This is a fact that is not very well communicated by the dog training industry. Frankly, it scares people off. Very few people really want to make changes in their lives and in who they are fundamentally in order to be able to relate better to dogs. Unfortunately this is partly what is happening when you choose to train a dog. You have to change a part of yourself to some degree.

If you can’t do this you will have difficulty being able to sustain a behaviour change in your dog.

This is what makes it so difficult to train a dog to change his behaviour even though the steps are simple.

This is also what happens when correction based training is used. If a dog doesn’t “comply” or submit to the trainer or “listen “, it is easy to escalate the corrections to try to stop the unwanted behaviour by the dog.

This is the main reason that I changed to training without corrections years ago. When things didn’t go my way I got mad at the dog. I was just reacting to the result of my crappy training. I wasn’t teaching the dog anything except to fear me and my stupid leash corrections. I got sick of being frustrated and correcting the dog by reacting.

In order to fully convert to correction free dog training, I had to become a different person in some ways. This is very difficult. I had to examine why I got upset when something wasn’t going right. To train a dog without corrections, you actually have to understand that the dog knows nothing and isn’t “misbehaving” to piss you off. He just hasn’t learned it yet.

When I changed to food reward training, there was no anger involved because I was focused on actually teaching the dogs something rather than stopping them from doing something by reacting to them. So much more productive.

So, what I am getting at is that by being reactive towards a dog in training, a human may encourage reactivity in the dog as well, and at the same time not actually get much training done. Making it a priority to ACT instead of react and making a few “adjustments” in the way we communicate to others (dogs mostly) might go farther than we once thought.