Tell me if this feels familiar - you're walking down the street with your reactive dog, sickeningly nervous about running into one of your dog's triggers. And then there it is - inevitably, you've encountered the thing that makes your dog react.
Instead, you try to make something else happen (excellent, great job).
"Sit!" You cue your dog. Oh no. It might be too late. Your dog has spotted the trigger and is slow to respond to the cue. Their body is tense, and you can see they're about to have a big reaction.
You cue them again, "Sit!" this time more insistently as your heart starts to pound.
Maybe you put a treat to their nose or move your body to block their view. Maybe your dog sits; maybe they don't. Either way, the tension hasn't left their body. In fact, it seems to increase.
You cue them to sit repeatedly, knowing they'll probably jump out of that position soon to bark, lunge, or pull toward the trigger, but trying all the same (which is excellent, it's fantastic that you're trying to support your dog!)
You might observe your dog panting from an elevated heart rate or with a tight, clenched jaw. Their forehead and the sides of their eyes or lips may be wrinkled. You might see dilated pupils and shaking or excessive dander.
As the adrenaline floods their muscles, it takes more and more energy to go against what their entire nervous system strongly suggests they do. Your cookies can't beat that - the digestive system is going offline. Punishment might suppress it - but only if you can be much scarier than the scary thing coming (and they'll still be stressed).
Your dog's body is ready to move - fight or flight - and their flight option is blocked not only by their leash but now by your insistence on their seated position.
So what should we do instead?
Take as much space as your dog needs to feel safe before doing anything else.
Training a flight cue ahead of time - a fun cue that tells your dog, "we're going to go the other way, and we're going to go fast" helps immensely with this process. Move away until your dog is under their stress threshold.
This isn't always possible, of course! Sometimes the best we can do is squeeze off to the side and hold onto the leash. It won't be enough space to relax your dog, but perhaps we can minimize their stress response.
A common go-to strategy in this situation is a scatter feed.
Cue your dog with a well-rehearsed "find it!" and toss small, high-value treats onto the ground. If your dog is too stressed, they may struggle to find food because their ability to process smells and sights is not great. They may only be able to find more significant pieces, stinkier pieces, or pieces on an accessible surface like cement instead of tall grass.
This activity is great because it takes your dog's eyes off the trigger and helps them engage in an activity that will actively support calming their nervous system. As they sniff, their heart rate and pulse will slow.
If your dog can't find the food or isn't interested in it, this is a clue that they are too stressed.
This might be an appropriate time to use the Circle Method for some dogs in some environments. This movement allows your dog to respond to the call of the adrenalized muscles to move, but in a way that helps them self-soothe rather than become more aroused.
Signs the exercise is helping include relaxing body language, calming signals, and increased ability to respond to known cues like their name or a marker,
I love this exercise for dogs who also tend to pull when aroused!
Pattern games are another fantastic option for helping a dog cope with a stressful situation. Part of Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleased Program, Pattern Games provide predictability in a changing environment.
Depending on the space that is safely available to use and how your dog responds to various components of the games, there are many good options. The 123 Pattern Game, Ping-Pong, Up-Down, or Two-Cookie, are some of my favorites here.
Engage-Disengage is a pattern game with the bonus of counter-conditioning, teaching an alternative behavior, and changing where in the brain the dog processes the trigger (soon-to-be environmental stimuli that cues the dog to check in with you vs. a trigger.)
You can find additional resources on these exercises in their alphabetized categories in our Live Google Document.
So back to the sit - asking our dog to sit when their body tells them to move isn't helpful. But should we tell them to sit when our dog is far enough away to be under the threshold?
I guess it depends on why you want them to sit! Sometimes there is a reason to ask your dog for that position; ideally, that reason promotes their well-being and quality of life or someone else's.
I almost never request a sit, even with a calm dog.
First, many reactivity cases involve pain or discomfort. I am cautious about asking dogs to sit, knowing signs of pain or discomfort with this movement would have to be significant before I would notice overt signs.
Because we reinforce sitting so often, our dogs sometimes offer a default sit - or sitting before they've been asked. This is fine until they have bad hips or knees, and you would rather they didn't - like Spock and Cyan in this (adorable) photo.
I love good default behavior and prefer reinforcing a down position through capturing.
Sometimes I see another issue pop up. The learner may have a super solid sitting behavior with golden reinforcement - and nothing else. And sometimes, this interferes with their ability to learn new things.
Of course, this can happen with anything if we forget to generalize learning, but I see it most often (exclusively, perhaps) with sitting.
Finally, in most cases, we do not need the dog to sit.
That's an important question before we cue our dog's behavior as part of our efforts to be least intrusive and minimally aversive to our animals.
For example, I may need my dog to wait at a crosswalk for our safety, but it doesn't really matter if they're sitting or standing. It doesn't matter if they turn around while we wait to see what that noise is, take a moment for a nice stretch, or wander to my other side to sniff the fire hydrant.
There may be situations where this does matter, and sometimes as part of reactivity management, we may try to limit what our dog sees or hears, but the vast majority of the time, we do it because it seems like the thing to do. There are no absolutes, and I don't suggest asking your dog to sit is always detrimental.
However, I wonder what behavior we might see instead if we held off - might we see them make a choice that surprises us? Might we learn something new about our dog? About how they see the world? Might we be able to see them do something impressive, hilarious, or brave?