The Weekly Q&A: Ask Way of Life™ Dog Training
Exposure Therapy to Triggers Not Working

Weekly Q&A

Q: I have a two-year-old neutered German shepherd who absolutely freaks out at motorized vehicles and, believe it or not, darts being thrown at a dart board. He becomes a different dog – very aggressive – and has even nipped a family member who was throwing a dart. He has also bitten a worker at our home who was using a gas-powered leaf blower. I have tried “exposure therapy” to the power tools, and he is relatively calm only if I am physically there talking him down. I have tried the same with the darts, but he was scaring me a little bit, and my gut told me to just stop because I felt he would escalate and the result would not be favourable for him. I don’t know how these two scenarios are connected, but they elicit the same response from him. Any ideas would be appreciated!

A: Thank you for contacting us about your German shepherd. Clearly, his reactivity has escalated to the point where you require assistance, and I am glad you reached out. In my response, I will touch on the objects of your dog’s reactivity, the limitations of exposure therapy, and how these behaviors are connected to their root cause: the dog’s way of life.

First, it is natural for us to think that whatever the dog is reacting to must be the issue. If the dog reacts to dogs, dogs are the issue. If the dog reacts to cats, cats are the issue. If the dog reacts to certain noises and sounds, these noises and sounds must be the issue. The Way of Life Method, on the other hand, sees behavioral issues as manifestations of a deeper concern and reactivity that ultimately reflect an underlying state of agitation. While mainstream trainers would work on identifying triggers and desensitizing your dog to those triggers, we would instead explore what makes your dog so easy to trigger. 

This leads to my point on the limitations of counter-conditioning and desensitization protocols. You appropriately refer to this as “exposure therapy,” since it involves more exposure to the triggers the dog is reacting to. The world of dog training is dominated by an approach that modifies surface behavior by conditioning a different response through various kinds of reinforcement. You have seen for yourself that this approach has limited effect.

All your dog’s behaviors are related, and they reflect a dog who is agitated and reacting to certain triggers as a result. If you work hard enough, you can desensitize your dog to one trigger, but soon enough your dog will react to other triggers because the underlying cause is not being dealt with. Ultimately, it is the way of life that explains the behavior of any living being, and when we work with way of life, we change our dogs from the inside out. As a result, reactions such as those you describe ease and eventually disappear. 

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