When a dog starts barking and lunging at dogs, joggers, cyclists or other things (triggers) they encounter outside the home, most dog owners feel that making the dog sit and stay while the trigger passes by will solve the problem. After all, the dog just needs to learn to be calm, right?
Well...like a lot of "common sense" approaches, it's not really that simple.
First, a lack of obedience is not the reason most dogs are reactive. After taking case histories for the last 15 years, the dogs I've worked with that display reactivity all have a history of a) early removal from the litter, b) lack of socialization prior to 14 weeks, and/or c) traumatic encounters involving trigger. But there is no consistency when it comes to their level of training.
Second, reactive behavior is an emotional response, motivated by anxiety, fear, or frustration. If the trigger goes away, the bad feelings end. This makes reactivity a distance-increasing behavior. In other words, the goal is to get that other dog, car, or cyclist to go or stay away.
So, when we ask or make a dog sit/stay while the trigger passes, we are asking them to tolerate the trigger moving CLOSER. But, if we haven't addressed the emotion that causes the behavior, we haven't given the dog any way to cope with that proximity.
Think of it this way. You're walking down the street with your friend when you see a man walking in your direction, covered in blood, carrying a machete, and shouting unintelligible things. You say to your friend, "Let's get out of here!" But, your friend says, "Don't be ridiculous. He's on the other side of the street. Just sit here and he'll pass by." Your much-larger-than-you friend pushes you down on a nearby bench and holds you there while the machete-wielding madman draws closer and closer.
Do you feel calmer? Have you learned that machete-wielding madmen are not a threat?
Of course not! Not only does your friend not acknowledge the potential threat, but you also have lost your ability to leave.
While it might feel like you're trying to "get a dog used to" the trigger, the dog is being sensitized. Immersion in a situation that triggers this level of stress has serious risks, including sensitization.
"THAT'S RIDICULOUS, IT WORKS FOR ME"
That might be true. But answer these questions:
1. Can your dog sit/stay around the trigger without any physical manipulation? You don't have to push your dog into a sit or use their leash to physically move and hold them in that position.
2. Is your dog's leash loose and hanging in a "U" while the trigger passes by? That is, if you accidentally drop the leash, your dog's training is so strong that they will hold that position without a leash.
3. Is your dog giving you their full attention as the trigger passes? Meaning, you don't have to do anything special (like hold a piece of food by your face) to keep them from staring at the other dog.
If you answered "Yes" to all three questions, that's great! This is probably a very nice solution for you. Of course, with a little extra training, you could get that same level of attention and calm behavior while walking past the dog, so you could fade out the sit/stay. It also means that your dog's level of reactivity is pretty low and easily managed. Wonderful!
If you answered "No," however, forcing your dog to stay in a situation they want to leave is not going to decrease their stress. If you don't address the stress, you're not changing behavior. And if something goes wrong - the leash or collar breaks or the other dog gets loose - it could make things much worse in the long-run.
Instead, KEEP MOVING and give your dog as much distance as they need to feel safe. For some dogs, it's as simple as crossing the street, taking a few steps into a nearby driveway, or turning down a side street until the trigger passes.
For other dogs, this might not be enough and they need more training to prepare them for these encounters. This is where behavior modification comes in, including desensitization, counter-conditioning, and positive reinforcement of desired behaviors. What that looks like for your dog depends on you, your dog, and your environment.
But, for now, if you keep moving to give your dog the distance they need, you can keep reactivity at a minimum.