E228: Sharon Carroll - "Behavior Mod for Reactive & Hyper-Aroused Dogs"

Sharon joins me to talk about her 10-step process for working with reactive and hyper-around dogs through Offered Durational Engagement. 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Sharon Carroll here with me.

Hi Sharon, welcome back to the podcast!

Sharon Carroll: Hi, it's great to be here. Very excited to talk to you again.

Melissa Breau: Always. It's so much fun to chat. You have some exciting news since last time you were on, I think. Do you want to walk us through who your dogs are and who you are and some of the background stuff?

Sharon Carroll: Yeah, sure. I think the exciting new thing you're talking about is my new puppy. Firstly, who are my dogs. I have a 14-year-old Papillion who does very little. I have a 4-year-old apricot Standard Poodle who does some obedience and has his CDX and his Rally Masters and his trick titles, and we're currently working on nosework. We have Vincent, our 2-year-old Standard Poodle, who has some trick titles and now he has his Rally Novice. He got that last month. And he'll start competing in obedience and rally and nosework and tracking, hopefully. And we have our little baby Kane who is now 11 weeks old tomorrow. He's a little blue Standard Poodle. He's very cute and keeping me incredibly busy at the moment. So that's my dogs.

I think your other question was just a bit about me and my background. For those who don't know me, which is probably lots of you, I have worked as a professional animal trainer now for just over thirty years. I've also got a few academic qualifications. I did my bachelor's degree in equine science, and my graduate in zoo sciences, and my master's in animal science, and I'm about three-quarters of the way through my Ph.D. in veterinary pharmacology. I'm also a certified behavior consultant in both horses and dogs through the IAABC, and a certified professional dog trainer through CPDT. Now I mainly work as a behavior consultant with dogs.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. Speaking of behavior consultant stuff, which is right on topic for us today, I wanted to talk about your upcoming class at FDSA. It's on working with reactive and hyper-aroused dogs, so I figured we would start out with defining our terms. How are you defining reactive and how are you defining hyper-aroused? What's the difference?

Sharon Carroll: It's always hard when we use these labels, but we have to. When we're talking about a class, we have to let people know what the class is about.

Reactive dogs react. All dogs react, but reactive dogs react and it's visible usually with a reactive dog. They have big emotions and they have big escalations in arousal associated with that, and you see the response. You see the behaviors. It might be the licking, the lunging, the barking, those sort of things. That's what we see in reactive dogs.

Hyper-arousal refers to excessive arousal or an abnormal state of increased responsiveness to stimuli, so the dog is always on high alert, ready to respond.

To be a purist, the term hyper-arousal, when it's used in humans, is very specific to those negative valence emotions like fear and anxiety. But when we talk about it in dogs, we're talking about that group of dogs that go to high arousal levels very easily, and they express it in a big, obvious way. But the actual emotions underneath might be frustration, might be excitement, it might be a threat to safety, the same as hyper-arousal would be in humans.

Reactive is those big behaviors associated with specific stimuli or what we might call triggers, so maybe dogs, people, bikes, where we see the dog react to those triggers.

Whereas the hyper-arousal is more those dogs that go to high arousal levels very easily. That could be in training, it could be around the home, it may even be directed at the handler or the situation. When I say "directed," I'm not talking about redirected aggression. I'm talking about things like spinning and barking and just being frustrated or being emotional about a situation.

I think in this class what we're going to see is probably two groups of dogs. We're probably going to see those dogs that are typically high energy and are predisposed to becoming rapidly highly aroused or displaying reactivity, so they'd fall under both banners. They'd be reactive and hyper-aroused.

But I think because a lot of this course is about reactivity, we're also going to see another group of dogs joining us. That subset of dogs would be the lower-energy reactive dogs. These dogs may not routinely exhibit those high energy levels, but they are still predisposed to big physical displays when they're triggered.

Whether it's reactivity or hyper-arousal, understanding and managing arousal is what's key to truly understanding these dogs and modifying their existing behaviors, and that's why we've got both groups in this class.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in passing some of the causes, some of the reasons dogs tend toward hyper-arousal or reactivity. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Sharon Carroll: Sure. Often there's a genetic component or a prior learning component. But when we're really looking at the emotions and the motivations that drive these high arousal levels, and then potentially the onflow to reactivity, we could be looking at things like fear, anxiety, frustration, excitement, being stimulated by fast movement and/or sound, predatory behaviors, state-driven reactivity — that's when we're looking at a dog that performs these behaviors because it's at a high arousal level already; that's where the reactivity comes from to the stimulus, resource guarding behaviors, owner guarding behaviors, property guarding behaviors, and then dogs that have genetically based non-social dispositions. They're not anti-social dogs, just a dog that lacks interest in being in close contact with unknown humans. Those sort of situations as well can drive this reactivity. So there's lots of different underlying emotions and motivations that cause these reactive behaviors.

Melissa Breau: How much does knowing where it's coming from, or knowing the "why" of the behavior, actually matter or impact our training plan when we're looking at modifying some of those behaviors?

Sharon Carroll: Part of this class is helping people look for the "why" in their individual dog. The "why" does matter in the end. If people understand the "why" their dogs do what they do, then they're likely to have more empathy for the dog, and they're also likely to manage the behaviors better.

In a practical sense, the "why" matters because it does ultimately affect the training plan.

For example, with a fearful, anxious dog, systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning is going to be key. Once that's effectively completed, then there's no need to add anything further. Whereas if the dog is performing the behaviors for a desire-based reason — they really like chasing cars, or they like chasing joggers, or whatever it is —then we need to add additional steps. Just systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning alone won't be enough for those sort of cases, even though both those groups display reactive behaviors.

Melissa Breau: I know that you mention in your description this idea of Offered Durational Engagement. I wanted to drill in on that because it's certainly a term that I haven't heard anyone else use before. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is and how it works?

Sharon Carroll: Offered Durational Engagement is about getting an offered behavior rather than a cued behavior. It's about having duration so the dog is focused on us for a period of time, not just checking in and checking back out again. And engagement obviously is a key part of it.

Offered Durational Engagement delivers some components of systematic desensitization, some components of classical conditioning, and some components of operant conditioning. It starts with rewarding engagement. We give our dog options. We do limit those options, because we have a leash on our dog and we're standing in one place ourselves, and we very carefully select the environment to match the dog's existing skill set, but then we really don't tell our dog what to do.

If the dog engages with us, then we reinforce that engagement. They are free to check out whatever is happening around them at any time. We're not telling them not to look. But every time they decide to engage with us, we reward that choice. Selecting the environment carefully throughout the process is important because we really want the dog to choose us.

Then we build. We build to having that engagement sustained, so we build some duration in. That's important because we want the dog to remain engaged, not just flip back to us, grab a treat, and focus all their attention elsewhere again. We then methodically build in non-triggering distractions, then we build in novel distractions, then we build in known triggers. Then we add in some cued behaviors if we need to.

Then we add in varying our dog's arousal level so that they ultimately can compete in high-arousal sports, or go to the park and play at high arousal levels, and do that with the distractions or with the previous triggers nearby. We don't want to be in a situation where the dog has to remain at low arousal levels in order to be able to cope with the triggers. We actually want them to get to that next level.

Melissa Breau: What is it you like about that approach? How did you come to use it?

Sharon Carroll: There's so many reasons I like it. I developed it through different pieces of other people's methods and through watching dogs as I worked with them. And there's so many reasons I like it.

I like it because it doesn't create that yoyo effect that you so often see, where the dogs looks at you, looks at something in the environment, checks back to you briefly, grabs a treat off you, and then disengages straight away from us and gets back to looking around. That might be okay in some situations, but depending on the driving motivators, it's not great in all situations to have that. On top of that, if we're looking at competition dogs, we don't want that. We really want to encourage that sustained duration with us, that sustained focus.

I also like it because it's a ten-step process, so it's methodical. It's easy to follow and it progresses in a really systematic way. I also like it because the key is to help the dog find time between stimulus and response. That's important for those dogs that trigger very quickly and easily and have very fast responses when they see a trigger or see something that's stimulating.

Especially for those dogs that have chase behaviors or prey drive and they go so fast to that reaction that they can't think, they don't have time to think, what this protocol does is it helps them find time between the stimulus and the response. If they can find time, then they can make an alternate choice, and if they can make a decision, then we can reinforce that decision, and then we start to build those behaviors that we want.

I also like it because we label the intensity of the triggers from the individual dog's perspective in that environment at that moment in time. We have very clear categories of very low, low, moderate, high, and because they're defined categories, we can get really good at immediately knowing what steps we need to take.

Can we stay there and keep working? Do we maybe need to move to a different area? Do we need to decrease the challenge? Or is the dog doing really well and it's time to increase the challenge? By defining those intensity levels from the dog's perspective, it helps us to make those decisions or to know when to make those decisions.

Offered Durational Engagement, I think I mentioned before, relies on offered behaviors. That's really important because it takes a lot of thinking for a dog to offer a behavior than it does for them to perform a verbally cued behavior. I feel it's really important that they're thinking clearly enough to offer this behavior, as opposed to they're barely thinking, but we can kind of get a behavior out of them. We want to go one step further than that.

Also I like it because the same protocol can be followed whether we're working on decreasing reactivity in a reactive dog or whether we're working on desensitization for a sensitive or fearful dog, or whether we're working on distraction training for our competition dogs. The essence of the protocol remains exactly the same. We just focus on different pieces of the protocol and we add different pieces in the final two steps.

You asked me why I like the approach. I guess the biggest reason is that it's effective. I've seen it work on lots of different dogs in lots of different situations and lots of different driving emotions and motivators, and I think it's a good system.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the offered behaviors piece again, and I'm curious if you have an example of the type of behavior we're talking about when we say "an offered behavior."

Sharon Carroll: In this particular case, the dog is just offering to give us engagement. In this situation they're offering the engagement. They're thinking clearly enough to remember that if they look to you and stay focused on you, they get a treat. That's all they have to remember.

It doesn't seem like a big thing to remember, but when their head is clouded with other thoughts and other issues, that's a big enough thing, and so we need to quickly reward the fact that they got to the point where they could remember that all they have to do is look at us and they get a treat.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little bit about the dog's piece of things. I want to talk about the handler's piece of things. What handler skills really matter when we're working with dogs that tend toward hyper-arousal and reactivity? What do we as handlers or people need to develop in our own skill set and why? Why are they important?

Sharon Carroll: Observation. I think observation skills are super-important. You really need to respond ahead of time when you're working with a reactive dog or a dog that's capable of escalating to high levels of arousal really fast. If you're consistently waiting until the big behavior occurs in response to that escalating arousal, then you've almost left it a bit late to implement effective behavior modification. So observation skills are super-important, and we will be practicing honing those skills over this class.

Planning is another important skill. With reactive dogs and dogs that escalate rapidly to those high levels of arousal, you need to have a plan ahead of time, a plan for undesirable situations, a plan for what to do when errors occur in training, a plan for what to do when the arousal starts to escalate. Definitely the better you are at planning, the smoother the training goes.

Other skills, I could say things like clean mechanics and great timing, but obviously those skills come with practice and experience. I don't think they're skills you need to start out with, and they're definitely not skills you need to have to take this class.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little more about the impact of arousal itself, both on the dog physically and on their learning and ultimate performance?

Sharon Carroll: Absolutely. Arousal is both a physiological and psychological state, and its purpose is purely to generate alertness, mobility, and readiness to respond.

That could be because the individual needs to perform a goal-oriented behavior. For a native dog that might be chasing down their prey and eating it. But for our competition dogs, often it's performing a goal-oriented behavior that we've previously reinforced. So they've got that alertness, mobility, and readiness to respond quite quickly to our cue.

But alternatively that alertness, mobility, and readiness to respond could be because they need a defense response, fight or flight, so the animal is preparing to fight or flee the situation.

When it comes to arousal with our dogs, we tend to mainly be thinking about

that over-arousal component. In behavior modification, that's mostly what we're always worried about, that over-arousal part, when the dog is what we call "past threshold."

When we see a dog past threshold, what we're going to see is usually a dog that is unable to follow those known cues. When we say "known cues," something like if at home in the kitchen we ask the dog to sit, the dog could sit and they could do it quite quickly and it would be accurate.

If we're seeing a delayed response to those cues, we say "sit," and the dog slowly sits, or we say "sit, sit, sit," and we have to keep repeating ourselves because the dog is looking at us like it doesn't remember what the word means, or the dog is performing the incorrect response, so we cue a down but the dog spins, they're thinking enough to know you're asking for something, but they can't think enough to pick the right thing, or they're not able to engage with us at all to follow a cue because they're so busy focusing on something in the environment, or they're looking at us, but they still can't perform the cue, or they're staring at us and don't have a clue what we're talking about, and that's because even though they're looking at us, their head is somewhere else.

That over-arousal, that past threshold, what we're really seeing is a dog that their brain is now working on instinct and emotion. That's where their decision-making comes from. They're not thinking enough to be able to … the thinking part of the brain is not really there.

Also at that time you probably see them in many cases rejecting treats. That's purely to do with that sympathetic nervous system that's driving upwards and it's making the digestive system start to slow down and making the dog not want to take in treats. So we get this rejecting of treats when the dog is past threshold.

In terms of how it affects performance, you asked that, arousal is really interesting because it can be too low or it can be too high, and then there's this magic we know in the middle. But too low and too high, it's a little bit not defined, because that too high and too low is going to depend on the situation, it's going to depend on the individual dog, it's going to be dependent on what sport they're performing. It's not an actual place in time.

And so if we look at something like attention and focus and concentration, we know that arousal enhances focus and concentration. As the arousal increases, there's a reduction in the number of cues that are able to be recognized and processed, and that's where that increased focus comes from. They start to narrow down all the different stimuli to just the important ones.

If arousal is too low, we have poor focus, lose concentration, poor perception and response to relevant cues, because we're taking in too many cues to really process what's going on.

But when you see a dog where the arousal is too high, they're so focused on a very limited number of cues that some of the relevant cues get missed. When I say "cues," I'm not talking about our cues. It might be cues in the environment, it might be the dumbbell that we just threw out there, or it might be dogs walking by. They're starting to narrow down to so few things are taking their focus that they might miss some important things, or what we think are important, like our cues. We think our cues are the most important, but the dog might not be thinking that our cues are the most important. There might be more important cues, as far as the dog is concerned.

If anxiety and stress is driving that arousal, then what we'll also see maybe is some hyper-sensitivity to what we would consider as irrelevant cue. They're very focused on the person walking past, or they're very focused on the dog. We think it's an irrelevant cue. They don't. They're very focused on it.

I guess the other effects on performance are decision-making. Arousal improves speed of decision-making, but again if arousal is too low, they're not able to respond to the situation quickly enough. But if arousal is too high, then you've got some erratic decision-making, so it's not good decision-making because they're not able to effectively evaluate the situation and come up with the right answer.

So we really need to help our dogs maintain optimal arousal. It's really important to know about arousal, especially in these types of dogs. Optimal arousal is going to vary, depending on the individual dog. It's going to vary depending on the type of task or the sport they're performing. It's going to vary depending on the environment they're in. And it's also going to depend on how fluent they are at the task we're asking them to perform. So it's our job to help them manage their arousal and keep it in that optimal zone where they can think at the best of their ability and they can perform at the best of their ability.

Melissa Breau: We covered a whole bunch of ground, but I wanted to give you a minute to share if there's anything else you wanted to talk through about the class, about what's included, about who it's for. Is there anything else you want people to know?

Sharon Carroll: It's important to remember it is a behavior modification class, so it's targeted at dogs who are having behavioral issues due to their reactivity or high arousal levels. Those issues might include things like reactive displays to triggers when out on walks, running and barking at triggers along fence lines, barking and lunging at triggers through the window from the home, dogs that lose their brain and are unable to think and follow cues when visitors arrive, dogs that struggle to travel calmly, dogs that are unable to settle or follow cues when they arrive at a new location. They're the types of things that we are looking at.

The majority of the practical component is about working our way through that ten-step of the Offered Durational Engagement protocol, but we do have a few other exercises as well. I should add here, though, we do talk about aspects of training that can inadvertently contribute to escalations of arousal and associated unwanted behaviors, like barking at us, or running off and doing zoomies in the middle of competitions, or leaving training to visit dogs and people. But this is not a class full of fun exercises for training high-energy or excitable dogs. This is a behavior modification class.

I do think, though, that Julie Daniels does have a class this term for working with those high-energy, fun dogs. So if you've been listening to this and you're saying to yourself, "I'm not sure that this is the exact right fit for me and my dog," then I would definitely recommend checking out Julie's class and seeing if that's a better fit. I think from memory, and I hope I get this right, I'm pretty sure her class is called Crazy Good, and I think it's in the Foundations section.

Melissa Breau: I'll see if I can pull that up.

Sharon Carroll: I'm pretty sure that's right. While you're pulling that up, what else do we have in my class this term? In the final weeks we do start to look at the "where to from here" part, how to move on from Offered Durational Engagement, how to use this approach to create more focused sports dogs, or how to use this approach to get the pet dog behaviors we want.

It's also important to mention here the human component in these cases. Working with a reactive dog can at times be mentally and physically draining. We sometimes feel judged by others, and at times we question our own abilities with these dogs. Occasionally humans with highly reactive dogs may feel inadequate or incompetent or guilty or frustrated or embarrassed or confused or anxious or isolated or exhausted.

In this class we do lightly touch on the human part of the equation. I want anyone who joins this class to feel supported, and I want them to understand that whatever emotions they're feeling or they've felt, there will be others in the class that have felt the same way.

There's a student Facebook group that I've set up for this class, and I really want students at all levels, whether you join up at Bronze or Silver or Gold, I want them to use that page. I think the support of other people with reactive dogs is invaluable.

Especially if a student is taking a class at Bronze, it can sometimes feel a bit lonely, and I don't want that. I want everyone who takes this class to feel like there's a network of people following along on their journey with them. I want them to put up their progress videos, share their breakthroughs, share their good training sessions, but also share their not-so-good days. And I want everyone to really support each other. The journey with a reactive dog can be really tough, and having a support network, I think, does definitely help.

Melissa Breau: I did pull up Julie's class and you are right: It's called Crazy Good: Self-Control Games For The Wild Child. I think it's fantastic that you pointed out that that's there, if folks have close but not quite the right fit.

Sharon Carroll: Yeah, because you might be listening to this and go, "My dog is definitely a high energy, high-arousal dog, but I don't really have big problems with my dog." Definitely go have a look and see which is the best fit. And remember this is a behavior modification class, not necessarily a sport training class.

Melissa Breau: To round out our chat, one last question for you. If you were to drill down our conversation from today, and I know we've covered a lot of ground, but if you could drill it down into one key piece of information you want people listening to understand or take away from this, what would that be?

Sharon Carroll: Melissa, I think you know me well enough to know I'm not going to be able to do that. I cannot summarize into one key piece. There's no way that I can get this down to one key piece. But I will summarize really quickly.

I think reactive dogs and dogs that are hyper-aroused aren't trying to be disruptive. I think it's important to remember that. They are not trying to be disruptive. Something is driving the behavior, and it's our job to work that out and to help them.

I think it's important to remember that behavior modification is possible in all cases, and I think it's also important to remember that it can be achieved with positive methods, regardless of the underlying emotions and motivations driving the behaviors. I got it down to three pieces. That was pretty good.

Melissa Breau: You did that good, yeah. You got it down to those three pieces, but it was thirty seconds. That's not bad at all.

Sharon Carroll: That's not bad.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Sharon!

Sharon Carroll: It's been great. Thank you.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Barbara Currier to talk about puppies again — puppy foundations and her work so far with her young dog, Fish.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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