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Beyond the Bribe: Why Coercion Doesn't Work in Reactive Dog Training

You've seen the video: a girl contorts herself into a pretzel, forehead wrapped in plastic wrap like a hostage, all to smear peanut butter in a desperate attempt to keep her dog occupied while she clips his nails. Sounds...sustainable, right? 😳

Or maybe you've been there yourself, the valiant owner wielding a brush against a tangled mess on your reactive dog's fur.  A trusty LickiMat, slathered in some culinary bribery, seems like the perfect solution to distract them through the ordeal.  

Woman uses a spoon of peanut butter to lure/coerce dog into staying with her

But here's the honest truth: this approach backfires more often than not, and sometimes with consequences that go beyond a frustrated sigh.  (Think: teeth!)

Even if things don't escalate to that point, you can bet your bottom dollar your dog's learning to hate peanut butter, LickiMats, or whatever temporary solution you've conjured up.  In fact, coercion often creates negative associations, worsening the very behaviour you're trying to address and rendering past rewards worse than useless.

Whilst the allure of a quick fix is tempting, building trust and helping your dog to feel comfortable around scary things are far more effective methods for creating lasting change with reactive dogs.

What is Coercion and Why Does it Fail in Reactive Dog Training?

Coercion, while similar to bribery, goes a step further. Bribery offers a reward for a desired behaviour, while coercion uses a reward to entice a dog into an uncomfortable situation. Attempting a nail trim and using a treat to distract your dog? That's coercion.

Here's why coercion can be counterproductive for reactive dogs:

  • Broken Trust:  If we continuously bribe our dogs into situations only to inflict something they don't enjoy, they're going to lose trust in us. They no longer feel like we give them the option to say "no", and our relationship is going to go down the toilet - which will only bring detriment to all of our training.

  • Bypassed Communication:  Reactive dogs often rely on warning signals like yawning, panting, or growling to express discomfort, which is typically demonstrated by a concept called "The Ladder of Aggression". When we use coercion, we're often surprising our dogs with the "bad thing" - meaning they're much less likely to give us any of these warning signals and are far more likely to jump straight to a snap or a bite to get us to move away.

The Ladder of Aggression is a crucial aspect of reactive dog training and understanding your dog

  • Negative Associations:  When a dog consistently experiences something pleasant (treat) followed by something unpleasant (nail clippers), that "something pleasant" becomes much less appealing. It's kind of like us biting into a delicious burger, only to be left with a particularly foul aftertaste - we're not gonna go biting into that burger again anytime soon. This means you're not going to be able to use those treats in training with your dog, as they're no longer valuable (and, in reality, are now really quite stressful).

In essence, coercion might offer a temporary solution, but it can ultimately backfire. Building trust and a sense of safety is far more effective and sustainable when working with reactive dogs.

Trust & Safety As An Alternative in Reactive Dog Training

This approach focuses on building trust between you and your dog, whilst also creating positive associations with situations that might otherwise trigger anxiety.

Here's the gist of it all:

  • Small Steps, Big Wins: Don't jump straight into the deep end!  Break down overwhelming situations into tiny, manageable steps.  For example, if your dog hates having their nails clipped, work on them being calm when you simply get the nail clippers out of their drawer first. Gradually, this will extend to approaching them with the clippers, holding them to their paws and, finally, clipping their nails.

  • Happy Pairings:  This "counterconditioning" technique is all about changing emotional responses. In the case of the nail clippers, it's turning a negative emotional response into a positive one. We do this through the power of anticipation - the clippers should start to predict great stuff happening (i.e. getting one of their favourite treats). The secret to this lies simply in the order you do it: show the clippers, THEN reward.

  • Listen & Respond: It's essential, in all areas of life with your dog, that you understand your dog's body language and respond accordingly. If they show you signs that they're feeling stressed, ease off and take your training more slowly.

By focusing on building trust and a feeling of safety, you can create a foundation for success in your journey with your reactive dog.  Remember, this type of training is a marathon, not a sprint, but with patience and dedication, you can help your dog overcome their anxieties and build a stronger, happier bond.

The Importance of Management

Because this kind of training can take time, especially with a reactive dog who tends to feel their feelings more intensely than most, it's important to have a back-up strategy when things needs to get done.

Let's say your dog splits a nail, or develops a matt that needs sorting ASAP, and you've not finished the training yet. What do you do?

A good way to handle this is to chat to your veterinary team - they may be able to prescribe some situational medications to help your dog get through the situation much more calmly.

It's also always worth muzzle training your dog, just in case a situation arises where you need to do something uncomfortable for their longer-term benefit.

In Summary

The road to a calm and confident dog requires patience, consistency, and a positive approach. While coercion might seem like a quick fix, it ultimately undermines trust and worsens anxiety.

By focusing on building trust and positive associations, you can create a lasting positive change in your dog's behaviour. Techniques like counterconditioning, desensitization, and setting your dog up for success can empower them to navigate potentially stressful situations confidently.

Ready to embark on this rewarding journey with your reactive dog?

We offer personalised training sessions designed to address your dog's specific needs and equip you with the tools to build a stronger, happier bond.  Book your consultation today!

Alyssa Ralph training with a reactive dog

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