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Using Positive Associations to Create Positive Dog Behavior

Woman sitting on the grass handing a dog a treatAssociation, or classical conditioning, is one of the two ways dogs learn, and a large part of how dogs experience the world. Dog walkers tend to be a source of positive associations. Think about how excited dogs get to hear their walker’s vehicle pull up or their key in the lock, or at the sight of a leash. And nothing trumps the walker him or herself!

Dogs love leashes because leashes predict walks. They love the sound of your vehicle because it predicts your arrival. But you—you are the ultimate positive association. You make all the fun happen. Without you, the sound of the car is a false alarm and the leash is useless.

Unfortunately, dogs make negative associations just as easily as positive ones, if not more so, and they can come in just as many forms. Consider dogs who bark, lunge, or growl at other dogs out of fear, who do the same at strangers or children for the same reason, or who startle at loud noises like a car backfiring.

Negative associations are not only distressing for the dog, they’re potentially dangerous, too. Fear of dogs or people can lead to bites should the fearful dog feel cornered. A loud noise can lead to a dog bolting and becoming lost—a dog walker’s worst nightmare. What to do?

Be proactively positive
First, know you have a great deal of power to help dogs form positive associations to new and novel things and situations. Never miss an opportunity to help dogs decide that the unexpected is cool. Imagine you’re walking along as a loud garbage truck rumbles by. It’s much more challenging to undo a negative association than to form one, so don’t wait to see what the dog thinks about this—whip out a treat and get excited. Look to influence their reaction. Same with a skateboarding teenager or a passing stroller or anything else you may encounter.

Tackle negative associations
Undoing a negative association is no small task. The success you meet will depend on many factors, including the depth of the fear and your training skill. What follows is a very summary description of counter-conditioning. Deep-seated fears will likely require systematic desensitization, too, and in these cases we recommend requesting the client hire a positive reinforcement dog trainer. Ideally the trainer will pull you into the training so you can reinforce their work during your walks.

For more moderate fears, you may be able to help by simply influencing the association enough to tip it positive, or at least toward neutral. You’ll do this by forming a new association. If you’re walking a dog who tends to bark at other dogs out of fear or discomfort, for example, you’ll work to convince her that seeing other dogs is actually quite lovely. The easiest way is to show the dog that other dogs predict treats—just like leashes predict walks.

Cookie opps
In short, every appearance of a dog is a cookie opportunity. By cookie, we mean something seriously good—no dry biscuits for this exercise. Find out what the dog loves most in the world and arrange so that the only time she gets it is when another dog is in site. It goes like this:

The two of you are walking along when another dog comes into view. You get excited. “A cookie opp!” you might even say. You whip out the crazy good stuff and give bits of it to your companion until the other dog is past. Then you put it away and go back to normal walk mode.

With consistent repetition over time, the dog you walk slowly begins to realize that the appearance of other dogs “causes” her favorite treat to flow. Dogs predict fab food. Perhaps dogs aren’t so awful after all. As this learning takes root, you’ll see the dog’s behavior change. The telltale sign is her seeing another dog and turning to look at you expectantly for the good stuff.

Respect threshold
For this nearly miraculous event to occur (it really does feel miraculous when it happens, though really it’s just the science of classical conditioning), it’s critical to respect and work at the dog’s level. Always keep the fearful dog as far from the trigger (in the case of our example, other dogs) as needed to help keep her calm. Keeping the dog under threshold—i.e., far enough away that her fear is not actively triggered—allows her learning brain to make the new association.

If you aren’t seeing progress over a few weeks, it’s most likely a threshold issue. Calling a professional trainer in to adjust training criteria and other parameters can make a world of difference. And if you walk in highly congested areas where you can’t control distance, you’ll definitely benefit from a trainer working in a more controlled environment.


Interested in learning more about how dogs think and learn, and how to use that knowledge as a professional dog walker? Become a Dog Walking Academy certified dog walker.

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