When anything at all is learned it ends up becoming a skill or a habit. This takes place in four stages. In the case of a dog who has learned to react to a scary trigger, the steps below show an example;
In step one the dog acquires an ability to react differently to the trigger. This will take the form of coaching or behaviour modification which we discuss in more detail later on. It is in this stage that the dog learns something else can happen when they encounter the trigger and a good coach ensures that for this part – and the next stages – the dog stays under their stress threshold. Staying under threshold is made possible by maintaining a safe distance during the coaching process and only decreasing that distance when the dog is ready. For example, a dog may be taught that the presence of a trigger at a safe distance leads to their coach delivering a tasty treat, so the act of looking to the coach for a treat is a new behaviour and the dog is learning that they really don’t need to default to defensiveness when a trigger is spotted. After a while, when the dog is kept under threshold, they will feel safe enough to look to the coach for a treat whilst the trigger is far enough away.
Step two occurs when the dog sees a trigger in the distance and instantly looks to their coach for a treat. This is a big step in learning because the dog is now aware that their trigger leads to something nice for them and a brand new neural pathway is being formed.
Step three is the same reaction to a number of triggers in a number of different environments. The dog is generalising their response by looking for something rewarding from their coach, each time they see something that may begin their stress response. This is the stage where the new neural pathway is deepening and becoming stronger than the original response to a stress trigger.
Step four of learning is maintenance of this new knowledge. The old, unhelpful neural pathway is no longer as effective as the new route through the brain. The new behaviour becomes the default behaviour and the dog automatically chooses the new response and will do so into the future.
Whilst this is a brief example of the four stages of learning for dogs that show reactive behaviour, all dogs are individuals. Some have ingrained fears and may never be completely happy or secure, they may always be fearful of their triggers and for their sake we must manage the environment for them. Most dogs however are able to respond positively to scientific behaviour modification, designed to build them up and empower them. Positive change is possible for every dog, it just might not be a complete change for all.