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Being Reactive vs. Proactive in Dog Training

We use the word "No" a lot in our daily interactions with our SideKicks; and we use it to mean a whole bunch of different things:

  • Get off the couch!

  • Don't eat that dead squirrel!

  • Don't pee on the living room rug!

  • Don't pull on the leash!

  • I asked for a Sit - not a Down!

  • Stop barking!

And these are just a few examples! Using "No" with our dogs is a perfect example of being reactive in our training.

What does it mean to be reactive in our training?

Being reactive, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means that we are "acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it."

In most cases, being reactive in our training means we are trying to stop unwanted behaviors. Our training becomes focused on those behaviors and we find ourselves stuck responding to them as they occur.

In the short-term, reactions may seem effective; you might be able to get your dog off the couch or stop them from jumping on you, but, in the long run, reactions don't promote prevention and the same unwanted behaviors will keep happening.

What does it mean to be proactive in our training?

Training in a proactive manner, on the other hand, means "creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened" (thank you, again, Merriam-Webster dictionary).

This means that, instead of waiting for undesirable behaviors to occur, we take charge of the situation:

  1. We takes steps to prevent an undesirable behavior from happening.

  2. We make it easier for the desirable behaviors to occur.

A really good example of proactive training is management of your dog's surroundings - setting the stage so that your dog is successful:

  • Don't want Fido to chew on your chews? Put them where he can't reach them or gain access to them; this will completely prevent him from chewing on your shoes.

  • Don't want Fifi jumping up on the bed when you're not home? Close the bedroom door or put a baby gate in front of the doorway to restrict access.

  • Not a fan of 9-week-old Fritz peeing on your living room rug? Take him outside to go potty after eating, drinking, and play time.

How else can we be more proactive?

So, what do you do when managing your dog's surroundings doesn't work or isn't possible? I mean, it's pretty unlikely that you'll be able to control everything your dog sees and encounters for their whole life, so some kind of plan needs to be in place for when your dog does perform unwanted behaviors.

When creating a plan of attack, remember that dogs do what works; they do what gets them the attention/petting/praise/contact/food that they're looking for.

Sound familiar...? It should! This is positive reinforcement at its finest! If the undesirable behaviors get your dog any of the things they want, they're going to repeat those behaviors and the cycle will continue.

Instead of focusing on those undesirable behaviors, then, focus on the "good" behaviors, the stuff you like to see. Try to "catch" your dog doing things you like - and reinforce those behaviors with something your dog likes or wants!

  • Ignore the jumping Maggie does when you get home from work and reward her with praise and petting for keeping four paws on the floor (or, even better, for sitting!).

  • Offer a tasty treat to young Molly when she relieves herself outside in her potty spot (instead of making a big, exciting ruckus for a pile of poop in the middle of the kitchen floor).

  • Lavish Max with praise, petting, and the best treats for responding to a Leave It cue (with eye contact and coming to you) - instead of snatching that tempting dead squirrel off the road.

When we reward our dogs for the behaviors we like to see, we're proactively giving them a repertoire of behaviors to fall back on. The next time your dog has a choice between an unwanted behavior and one we like, they're going to be more likely to choose the one we like - because it gets them what they want!

Moral of the story: be proactive in training your SideKick by managing their surroundings and reinforcing desirable behaviors!

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