Dogs make amazing adventure companions. I know that my own dog sparked my love of hiking and backpacking. So when she began to develop more reactive behaviors, especially towards other dogs, I knew that I had a lot to learn so that I could effectively help her reduce her reactive behaviors and continue adventuring with me.
It took me several years to gather resources and learn the best training techniques to help my dog, but she has been on many successful adventures with me. Including a 3-month road trip, visiting over 40 national parks, and spending nights camping and backpacking.
There are have been many helpful pieces of knowledge that have made a difference in helping modify my dog’s behavior. These include becoming more adept at reading a dog’s stress signals, becoming a better advocate for my dog, learning about thresholds and creating distance from triggers, and more. But one of the most useful free resources that I came across was the CARE for Reactive Dogs website.
Rather than making a new training resource here on Pawsitively Intrepid, I recommend heading over to the CARE website and following the protocol there. But for those of you wanting to learn more about how that protocol works, this blog post is an overview of what information the CARE protocol covers.
The CARE Protocol
The acronym CARE stands for Counterconditioning And positive Reinforcement (R+) are Essential.
Let’s take a look at those two essentials.
In the world of training and behavioral modification, there are two main ways that animals learn: by consequence and by association.
When we think of dog training, most of us think about operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which an animal modifies behavior in response to consequences. Aka, if a dog sits, then they get a treat. So the dog learns to sit in order to get the consequence, a treat.
In classical conditioning (which is also sometimes called Pavlovian conditioning), dogs learn a behavior from associating a biological stimulus with a conditioned stimulus. Think Pavlov’s dogs, who learned to salivate when a bell was rung, as they associated the bell with eating a meal.
Counterconditioning is a type of classical conditioning in which you replace an undesirable behavior/response to a stimulus with a more desirable response by means of conditioning procedures.
Operant conditioning can be performed in 4 different ways: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.
The simple way to think of these four types of operant conditioning is to consider whether or not you are adding or removing something from your dog’s environment and whether or not that change is making a behavior more or less likely to occur.
Positive means something is added to the environment. Negative means something is taken away. Reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to occur. Punishment makes a behavior less likely to occur.
- Positive Reinforcement: Adds something to make a behavior more likely to occur. Example: Giving a treat to reward a good behavior.
- Negative Reinforcment: Removes something to make a behavior more likely to occur. Example: Removing pressure from a leash when your dog listens to commands.
- Positive Punishment: Adds something to make a behavior less likely to occur. Example: Jerking on the leash when your dog barks.
- Negative Punishment: Removes something to make a behavior less likely to occur. Example: Removing attention and walking away from a dog who is jumping up on you.
The CARE protocol recommends only using positive reinforcement (R+). There may be many reasons that the CARE protocol recommends an R+ approach, but for me, this approach makes training a better experience for me and my dogs and it has the added benefit of being supported by science.
The Science Behind Positive Reinforcement Training Recommendations for Dogs
When it comes to reactivity, positive reinforcement is the recommended way to train. Don’t believe me? Then just read any of these recent articles on reactivity, aggression, and other problem behaviors in dogs.
- This review study by Gal Ziv, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2017, showed “that using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs. In addition, although positive punishment can be effective, there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement-based training. In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite is true.”
- Research by Stephanie Deldalle and Florence Gaunet, published in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, “results show that dogs from the school using a negative reinforcement-based method demonstrated lowered body postures and signals of stress, whereas dogs from the school using a positive reinforcement-based method showed increased attentiveness toward their owner.” This study also concluded that training methods based on positive reinforcement were less stressful and potentially better for the welfare of dogs.
- A study by China, Mills, and Cooper published in the Frontiers in Veterinary Science Journal looked specifically at using electronic collars vs. positive reinforcement. They concluded that “in many ways, training with positive reinforcement was found to be more effective at addressing the target behavior as well as general obedience training. This method of training also poses fewer risks to dog welfare and quality of the human-dog relationship.”
- Blackwell, Twells, Seawright, and Casey published an article in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2008 that specifically looks at training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems as reported by owners in dogs. Their conclusion was that “there is an association between a lower number of potentially undesirable behaviors reported in dogs trained without the use of punishment-based techniques.”
And honestly, this tends to make sense when you think about it. As briefly discussed in my previous blog post So your dog is reactive? Now what? most reactive behavior results from a state of anxiety, over-arousal, or frustration. And when has the threat of punishment ever made you less anxious or frustrated?
Okay, now let’s take a look at how the CARE protocol uses counterconditioning and positive reinforcement to help dogs with reactivity.
The CARE website breaks the protocol down into 3 steps: prepCARE, CAREmethod, and followupCARE.
In the prep section, there are instructions for considering your dog’s history, analyzing their triggers, helping you know when to give your dog a respite from reactivity, and equipment needed. I don’t want to steal their content, so head over to the prepCARE section of their website for more information.
But the acronym CARE in this section stands for:
- C = consider your dog’s history
- A = analyze and arrange
- R = respite and relaxation
- E = equipment
*Pay extra attention to the section called “Analyze and Arrange.” There is a lot of good information about distance and triggers packed into a few short paragraphs here.
But if you have followed along with the blog posts on reactive dog care here on PawsitivelyIntrepid.com, then you will already have considered some of these items for your own dog. Relevant posts on this site include the following:
- So your dog is reactive? Now what?
- Safe and Secure Harnesses, Leashes, and More
- Just Chill! How to Teach Your Dog to Relax
- Keep Your Dog Calm by Staying Under Threshold
In step 2, the CAREmethod, you will start the actual counterconditioning protocol. The acronym for this section is as follows:
- C = close the conomy on food
- A = Associate the trigger with good stuff
- R = Reinforce desirable behaviors
- E = Eliminate these common mistakes
Again, head over to the CARE website to learn all of the details. But the crux of the CARE protocol is described in the section all about associating a trigger with good things while a dog is under threshold. Take your time to read this section slowly and well.
Reinforcing desirable behaviors is where you get to use your positive reinforcement training skills. All reactive dogs need some new behaviors to replace the old behaviors, like barking and lunging. But remember that teaching new replacement behaviors is operant conditioning and is different than the classical conditioning you are using to create a positive association with a trigger in the association phase above.
As you can see, this is where it becomes important to know the difference between operant and classical conditioning, as it is very important to create a good association with a trigger first.
Let’s take the example of a dog that reacts (barks, lunges, growls) at other dogs. In this case, you are working to pair the trigger of seeing another dog with a good expectation (like a high-value treat) and positive emotions rather than over-arousal, anxiety, or frustration.
When you start working on counter-conditioning to associate a good response to approaching dogs, your dog doesn’t have to do anything in order to be rewarded.
That’s right. Your dog doesn’t have to be calm or sit or look at you. As soon as your dog notices the trigger, you can feed treat rewards just because your dog’s trigger is present.
Counter-conditioning works best if your dog is under threshold, but they do not need to be in order to earn the reward.
For a dog-reactive dog, it would like look this:
- You see a dog turning on to your street. Your dog sees the dog. You start feeding treats.
- If your dog is approaching or going over threshold as the other dog walks past, feed treats as you perform an about face and walk away from the approaching dog in order to help your dog get enough space to stay under threshold.
- Once the trigger dog is out of view the treats stop.
If your dog can tolerate the approach of the other dog, don’t worry about an about-face, just feed treats as the other dog walks past. When the dog is out of view or a “safe” distance away where your dog doesn’t care about the other dog anymore, stop feeding treats.
Again, the goal of classical counter-conditioning is to pair the stimulus/trigger (like an approaching dog) with a positive reward (like treats). Hopefully, as your dog becomes counter-conditioned to their trigger, they also become desensitized.
Once your dog’s reactive behaviors have reduced, and they are pairing the trigger with a positive association, then you can start working n operant conditioning to have your dog learn an alternative behavior to the behaviors they typically display when in a reactive mental state.
The reason I want to stress that counter conditioning is not operant conditioning is that many people feel like they can not offer positive reinforcement (rewards) to dogs who are in a reactive state (stiff, not attentive to handler, barking, whining, etc). These people (and I have been one of them before learning more) worry about reinforcing negative behaviors.
My answer to that is to remind pet parents/trainers to work hard on identifying signals that your dog is approaching threshold and trying to do your counter-conditioning work when your dog is aware of the trigger but under threshold. This reduces the chance of rewarding negative behaviors. BUT it is okay if your dog is occasionally given treats while “misbehaving” when you are focusing on classical counter-conditioning. The reward needs to be presented with the trigger every time, regardless of your dog’s behavior.
I tend to compare dog training to raising children. So first, let’s remember that a high percentage of reactive behaviors are displayed due to anxiety and fear. So let’s use the comparison of taking a child to the doctor’s office. Is it wrong to give a child a sticker or a sucker each time they need a vaccine? What about if that child cries during the vaccine?
A bribe for good behavior would be telling a child they get a sucker if they are calm at the doctors and only rewarding them if they actually are calm. But some children have a phobia of needles. They will never be able to be calm while receiving a vaccine in order to receive some reward in the future. Especially not if you haven’t worked on pairing the vaccine with something good.
These kids need to get the sucker as soon as they know they are at the doctor’s office and they need to be able to enjoy the sucker even while the vaccines are administered, no matter if they scream or cry or not.
Give your dog a positive distraction, don’t deal in bribes until you have helped address the underlying anxiety behind the behavior.
And be aware that you do need high-value treats for counter-conditioning and the closer you are to approaching threshold, the better those treats will have to be. So don’t forget to “close the economy on food” first and find the best treats for your dog!
Have you read the CARE website and this blog post and are still a little confused about classical counter-conditioning vs. operant conditioning when it comes to training your dog? Eileen and Dogs is another website that has a great post on the difference between these types of training.
Step 3 is all about the steps to take after and during your training/ behavior modification journey. The acronym CARE in this section stands for:
- C = Continue to practice
- A = Advocate and Always be prepared
- R = Responsibility
- E = Enrich and ENJOY
All of these are important considerations when working with a dog who struggles with reactivity. You can read about followupCARE on the website. And check back here on PawsitivelyIntrepid as we discuss advocating for your dog in our next reactive dog care post.
So get started!
I hope this overview has helped you get inspired to start training your dog using the CARE protocol. Let me know in the comments section below if you find this protocol helpful.
And as always,