Is Avoidance in Dog Training a Cop-Out?

Posted on March 6th, 2019 by FetchMasters in Uncategorized

There are several scenarios in dog training when you might hear the advice, “Avoid the trigger.” This becomes a sticking point for some who are evaluating modern dog training. They feel that this avoidance is a cop-out rather than a fix for the behavior. What is commonly misunderstood is that this should be the first step in a multi-step training process. You just have to hang in there long enough to get to the later steps.

When Do Dog Trainers Recommend Avoidance?

Here in Denver, we see lots of dogs who pull, lunge, bark and growl when they see certain stimuli. That stimuli is what dog trainers often refer to as “triggers.” The trigger could be another dog, a person, a bicycle, or anything else that causes the dog to behave this way. The motivations for this could vary from being overly excited to being fearful or anxious, but the result is the same: the dog loses its composure when the trigger is present. In dog training terms, we call this “reactivity.”  As modern dog trainers, we focus on changing behavior instead of suppressing it with harsh corrections. Reactivity is one of the most common behavior problems where a trainer might recommend avoidance of the trigger as a first step. Whenever we see reactivity, the first step in our treatment methodology usually is avoidance.

Why Should We Avoid Triggers?

Have you ever watched a scary movie, when suddenly you hear a noise and nearly jump out of your seat? That is because you are sensitized to noises based on the information you are receiving from the screen. Reactive dogs feel the same way when they are in the context where their triggers could appear. If the trigger is not predictable, the dog can be living in a constant state of tension and arousal. That state-of-mind lends itself to outbursts.

This is not a prime state in which to teach the dog an alternative behavior, which is our end goal. By avoiding triggers, we can allow his mental state to return to a state in which it can learn. Even once we provide training to counteract the reactivity, avoiding triggers remains a good idea if supporting the dog proves impractical in some given situation. Avoiding the need for your dog to practice unwanted behaviors goes hand in hand with teaching desirable behaviors. Avoidance and training alternate behaviors are two sides of the same coin, if you will.

How Do We Avoid Triggers?

One of the challenges of being a dog trainer in a metropolitan area like Denver is there are a lot of potential triggers surrounding us! We can’t control when or where our neighbors walk, or when a dog will appear. But we can control where we walk our dogs, and how we respond when we see a trigger. By changing where you walk your dog to somewhere quieter, triggers are less likely to present themselves. When that is not possible, we can change our behavior when we see a trigger by walking the other way.

Or if your dog’s trigger is someone coming into your home, you can put the dog in a separate room or outside when the person arrives. These approaches communicates to dogs that, even if the trigger is present, they aren’t expected to interact with those triggers. Since dogs fundamentally are animals that avoid what they fear, avoidance is actually speaking their language.

In Conclusion

It is important to remember that using avoidance is just the first step in changing a problem behavior like reactivity. It is not the entire method. Avoidance returns the dog to a mental state where learning is optimal. Avoidance prevents the dog from practicing the problem behavior in situations where you are unable to support it in making good decisions. By changing the environment for the dog, we create space for them to learn. This is where proper dog training begins.

Avoidance in Dog Training