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Reactive vs Active Solutions: How utilizing the same ingredients can lead to very different results.

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Let's begin with clearly describing the difference between a reactive vs. active behavior.

A reactive behavior depends on something from you: you do something, the dog responds. Making it "active" means the dog shows it on their own, and the behavior becomes very strong. Perhaps proactive would convey an even more accurate picture. With an active behavior, the dog seeks the behavior out. When people talk about a "trial wise" dog, they're referring to behavior the dog doesn't want to do on his own. Maintaining a good heel position, gripping firmly on the dumbbell, and outing properly are common ones. Those handlers haven't figured out how to make the dog active in those behaviors, i.e. have the desire to show them.

This might entail making the dog feel excellent in proper heel position, creating a desire to clamp down on the dumbbell, or enjoying the guarding more after the out.

Since it's such a common issue, I’m going to use the process of fixing forging as the example.

Reactive training to fix forging: This often involves using a tool or method being used in a constant way. That could be a heeling stick, pops backward, leash popping up, or leash slapping in the face. The reason this is reactive training is because the emphasis is on delivering the aversive whenever the dog does the wrong behavior instead of creating a dog that WANTS to do the right behavior. It can be effective when used severely (that’s another discussion) but obviously isn’t as trial solid OR humane. Why do I say humane? Because YOU and only YOU (or maybe the last handler) taught the dog to heel improperly. You’ve done the equivalent of teaching Chinese to me and once you see I’m fluent, you change the meaning of all the words while delivering an aversive.

It’s not really cool. And it also tends to be weak on trial day, heavily reliant on the prior days preparation.

Now let’s take ALL of those same methods but change how we mentally approach solving the issue. We might use any of those tools, but the goal when getting the dog to WANT to do it in the new and different way is:

A. TEACH (I know, crazy right?) the dog how to respond to the tool before using it and

B. Capture the brief moments where the dog shows the behavior THEMSELVES, not only as a reaction (hence the description reactive) to what you’ve done.

Let’s break down how that would look and let’s use two possible methods for fixing forging:

The heeling stick and pulling the dog forward (opposition response).

- Heeling Stick with an emphasis on the dog showing the behavior themselves (getting the dog “active”)

A. Teach the dog how to respond: This is done in basic position. With the heeling stick already across your lap, it’s pushed into the dog (not a correction, just as a way to get them to take their head back). The moment the head “reacts” to the stick pulling away, your marker is given and a reward follows (ideally from the BACK not the front). Many reps of this and you can do it in movement, BUT only doing a few steps at a time!!

One step, two step, stick pushed in, head goes back, mark and reward.

VS Reactive- Meanwhile, on the reactive type of training, we see long heeling, no thought given to the moments when the dog made the choice to be more back and is only based on when they fail. Most handlers have a very hard time rewarding at the right moment if that moment comes “too early” in the rep. It doesn’t feel like training to them Muuuuuuust keeeeeep goooooing. Rewarding at the right moment is easily the most important thing yet most handlers reward in heeling based on how long they’ve been heeling, NOT when the dog showed his BEST heeling.

This way of approaching it not only tends to be lost in trial very quickly, but also changes the emotion to one of distaste towards the heeling.

B. Capture the brief moments- Now, going back a more “active” method (the emphasis on rewarding the right moments to get the behavior stronger). We don’t just wait for the dog to make a mistake then bring the stick up, we more importantly capture the moments where the dog chooses to be further back. This is the most important thing. Anything you attempt to do without nurturing the dog’s desire to do it, is at risk during trial. Anything. Sometimes, we may not have a choice, or haven’t figured out how to make something “active” (the dog seeks out the proper behavior because it feels comfortable and enjoys it) but we should always be striving for this since that’s what creates the most consistent obedience picture.

Now, on to the other method I'll use as an example.

- Opposition Response method...Before vs. after training clip shown HERE.

A. We first teach the dog to respond properly to the leash pull forward. This is done by first making sure they know exactly where the reward is and can release reliably to it from basic (we often use a magnet ball hight on the back when fixing forging). Second, a very slight amount of leash pressure on a flat collar is added, but not enough to change the behavior at all. We just want the dog resisting the pull slightly. The release word is given during the dog’s opposition response. The dog is then placed ever so slightly forged (in basic) and upon the handler’s fuss or “back” command, is expected to back up into position. The pull can be incorporated there however the dog MUST understand already to back up straight and get into the proper position. We are ensuring that they understand the road map to getting back into position once we use or newly created tool in movement.

VS. Reactive- In reactive methods using a leash pull forward, we tend to see zero education given to the dog. The only focus being to pull the dog out, make it uncomfortable then let it back in. Besides often creating tons of panic pushing on the handler, it tend to lead to a more closed picture, mouth hanging open, tail slack, and ears back.

B. Once or tool is created, we can use it in the movement. Again, we don’t just wait for the dog to f#%k up, we are VERY careful to mark and reward when the dog does it on their own. Heeling reps will likely be from 3-10 steps for the first month of fixing things.


3-10 steps? For a month? Look you let your dog do thousands of steps not looking at you, forged and unfocused. It not going to be change overnight while at the same time not creating other issues. Just enjoy the ride :)

Here’s the deal: most of us get into a problem because we allowed it for a long period of time. We moved too fast and accepted behavior because we wanted to move forward before the pieces were in place. Heeling is without a doubt, the most common place we see this. Then, at 2 years old when the handler has gotten their precious duration, they want to fix it, changing the language on the dog.

If that’s what you’re going to do, at the very least, be fair about it.

After all, you taught them to do it wrong in the first place.

** This article is not intended to help you fix forging, only visualize a more effective path when fixing previously taught behavior. Please understand that particularly when fixing something, your dog must have a high desire for whatever you are using to motivate them.

Using a ball to reward backing up into basic position from a forward pull won't work if the dog doesn't really want that ball ;)

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