Early in my career, a common suggestion for dogs that exhibited fearful, reactive or aggressive behavior (“behavior problems”) toward strangers was to have strangers feed treats to the dog. The idea was that the dog would form a positive associations to new people. Basic counter-conditioning.
Fast forward fifteen years and this advice is now so widely accepted that it has become Dog Park Wisdom. Which is great, right? It means that positive reinforcement for behavior problems has gone mainstream!
There’s just one problem. As with most mainstream ideas, it lacks a key ingredient necessary for success: adaptability. It doesn’t take into account the needs of each individual dogs.
Training formulas, such as those found in books or learned in a class, are general guides for getting the behavior we want. To get a dog to sit, we can lure the dog’s nose up above their body until the dog sits. But what if the dog doesn’t sit? What if the dog has hip dysplasia? What if the dog has a history of bad things happening when someone reaches a hand over his head?
When addressing behavior problems, formulas aren’t enough and can even be dangerous, such as the advice to have strangers give treats. Here’s what I have seen go wrong:
Dog does, in fact, form positive association to strangers. First chance he gets, he runs up to a stranger in anticipation of food, his body language conveying everything that says “Happy Friendly Dog.” But rather than present treats, the stranger reaches out to pet the obviously friendly dog, when suddenly…BITE!!!
Strangers are given treats to offer the dog. Fearful dog approaches, and strangers give the dog a treat, then take the opportunity to pet the dog on the head. The dog’s association does, indeed, change. Strangers with food = nasty tricksters. Dog begins to flee whenever strangers appear.
Visitors are given treats and entice the dog to come closer. Dog approaches, takes treat…and suddenly finds herself much closer to the stranger than comfort allows and now the food is gone. BITE!!!
In each of these situations, having the stranger give the dog treats created conflict. The dog may have preferred to avoid the stranger, but was enticed by the treat. Conflict is not the association we want to create. So, while the goal of creating a positive association was good, the general advice created the opposite result.
So, what do you do? IT DEPENDS.
It depends on your dog. It depends on what triggers the behavior problem. It depends on the environment in which it occurs. It depends on your goals. It depends on your limitations. It depends on too many factors for anyone, including me, to tell you what to do in an article.
That said, the solution is always a combination of the following steps:
1. Decrease stress through management, which may include restricting access to the front door before guests arrive, either with a baby gate, crate, or closed door. Actually, this
one is a good general rule for all dogs.
2. Increase tolerance through desensitization and counter-conditioning, which might include having visitors give your dog treats, or the treats may only come from you in the kitchen, while the visitor sits in the living room.
3. Teach alternative behaviors using high rates of positive reinforcement, which might include lying on a mat, looking at you, or quietly resting in a crate (to name a few of the many possibilities).
The specifics of each of those steps will – and should – vary with every dog. This is where a qualified trainer or behavior consultant can help you. Reading or watching training exercises is one thing, implementing them with the right timing and rate of reinforcement can sometimes require professional coaching to get just right!
There are some great formulas out there. The best are those which allows you to adapt to your dog's individual needs. Otherwise, individual results may vary.
A NOTE ON MUZZLE TRAINING:
Whether your dog has a history of biting, you are concerned that your dog might bite someone, or you just aren't sure, training your dog to wear a basket muzzle is an important first step in your behavior program.
Visit The Muzzle Up Project for information on how to make muzzle training a pleasant experience for your dog. Yes, they really can learn to love their muzzle!