Watch the World: Changing Fear or Reactivity

For some dogs, the world can be an overwhelming place. People, bikes, skateboards, other dogs… there’s a lot out there to take in. Whether your dog is frightened, worried, or just overly excited by these things, the Watch the World game is a wonderful way to help her deal with them.

Photo by Lori Greig

The Watch the World game teaches dogs to look at their owner when they see someone or something that would usually trigger them. This game is wonderful for any dog who is overly interested in novel stimuli, regardless of the reason for their interest.

In order to play this game, start with especially delectable treats. While I usually use the dog’s food to train him, this is a case where the “wow” value is important. Choose stinky, slimy treats such as roast beef, chicken, peanut butter, or blue cheese. If you use low-value treats for this game, it will take much longer to work or may not be effective at all.

Bring your dog to a quiet area where he will occasionally see the trigger. For example, a dog who is frightened or overly excited by strangers can be taken to a relatively low-traffic parking lot. The goal is for the dog to occasionally see the trigger with breaks in between.

Sit next to your dog in your car, with your dog crated or on a leash. Sit quietly and ignore him or her until your dog sees the trigger. As soon as your dog sees the person, skateboard, dog, etc, start feeding him treats regardless of what he does. Even if he barks or growls, it is important that the appearance of the trigger predicts good things. Continue feeding treats as quickly as your dog can eat them until the trigger is out of sight. Once the trigger is gone, put the treats away and go back to ignoring your dog.

Repeat this game once or twice a week. Within 2-4 weeks, you should see a remarkable shift in your dog’s body language. Instead of reacting negatively when he sees the trigger, he will begin to light up, turning to you for his reward. Now your dog is getting into the game! Once he starts “pointing out” triggers to earn his reward, you’ll know that he’s got it.

This game is so effective because it reframes the appearance of the trigger for the dog. Instead of predicting fear, excitement, or protectiveness, the trigger now predicts wonderful stuff from you. This is known as “classical conditioning” and is a very powerful means of permanently changing behavior.

Once your dog knows the game, begin gradually moving to busier areas. Eventually you can move out of your car with your dog on leash. When you do this, start back in a quieter area. If you move to a busier location and your dog regresses, you may have pushed the envelope too much: just move back to the last location where your dog was successful, and continue to build on that success.

Have you ever played the Watch the World game with your dog? What changes did you see? Did you encounter any problems? Please share your stories in the comments section!

20 responses to “Watch the World: Changing Fear or Reactivity

  1. My BC rescue was obsessing over cars coming towards her or from behind her whenever we were crossing over a bridge while we were walking. I started this game with her and now whenever we are going over a bridge and a car appears, she immediately looks at me waiting for her treat and no longer watches the cars at all. It’s a wonderful game.

  2. Yes, I have used this game with Oreo. We’ve used it with many things including people & dogs. I have also used it with kids skating, bikes, etc.She is afraid of anything new & novelty. This game has helped SOO much. I worked with a professional trainer and got to practice at home, parks, parking lots, and at reactive dog class every weekend (so helpful!). She now automatically looks at me when she is scared of something (car, people, dogs). We have been able to take more frequent walks without worrying as much. She still has a thresholdwith otherh dogs, but we can pretty much walk right by people and she will be fine (I still carry treats with me!). GREAT for any scared, reactive, or obsessive dog!

  3. Always a fantastic option for helping fearful or over-excited dogs. I love your methods. Takes time, patience and consistency but the results are so worth it. Great post.

  4. I love barking at cats in our lane, but we can’t take the car there. Can you give me some ideas so I can get my person to start playing this game with me? *wag*

  5. This is a great game! I “play” it with all of my dogs, not just fearful or reactive ones. I started the essence of this when I had a puppy who would react to other dogs who were barking or acting exuberantly. Fast forward 6 years… this dog is one of the most stable dogs I’ve ever had. And she’s been in alot of highly charged situations. Her “default behavior” in a reactive situation is to look confidently and happily at me. But as I say… I think this is a great game for ALL dogs. I have a new puppy now, who has a stable temperament. This game works for him, too. He’s going to puppy class now, and one of the puppies alarm barks during class. This can be disturbing to any puppy, so I’m helping him to cope with the game.

  6. Pingback: Training Your Reactive Dog | Paws Abilities

  7. I tried this game, but my dog is not food motivated. I’ve tried everything. She is vigilant the whole walk, but is getting better. I walk her in areas where the likelihood of seeing another dog is low. That is all I have…

  8. disillusionedbuteager how about a very very interesting toy? Keep it just for this training, and just replace ‘feeding treats’ in above story for ‘playing a game’

  9. I have a Basset that is not right. We are going to give this another try… problem is reactivity to other dogs…including the 2 dogs he grew up with as well as any Basset we try to foster. The other dogs he was reactive too are very stable, and social with people dogs and other pets.
    He will be playing one second and attacking the next. He is dominant acting one second and fearful aggressive the next. Been working with dogs for 30 yrs and never met one like this.
    How do you move to the next stage without bringing them into a too high reactive state….. it is so hard when you are working in a house situation and cant have 3 handlers with 3 leashes… it is not a passing car or person.. and he doesnt react like this to other passing dogs unless they are within a few feet… and then we use a leave it and he does great knowing the dog will pass. Sometimes just a housemate dog walking past him causes reactivity and sometimes it doesnt… depends on the dog’s state of mind at that time… Also this dog was raised from day one by itself cuz mom wouldnt accept as part of the litter. He used to react to every facet of life…now we have it down to just this. He turned 2 in April. Our vet told us to euthanize and Prozac therapy for 1 yr didnt seem to work or make a difference as well have tried the sprays, collars and homepatic things with no luck either… Conditioning has worked for us to overcome his other fears…. it is just so hard when it is the dogs he lives with. And with Bassets…unless u dont have ears or neighbors… separating them from each other is not a solution. He wants to be social… just doesnt know how to do so properly.

  10. I had a dog like that – tried everything. Nothing did work well enough til I happened to find Primrval Stressless. I found it on a dutch site but here is it in English
    http://www.dochorse.com/primeval-dog-stressless.html
    Also available for horses but that is not the same recipe.

  11. Is there a point in time when looking at the human is enough with out a reward each time? If yes, how would one know when giving them less often would be enough? Thanks.

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  13. I have never tried this exact method, I really like that it starts out in the car where you have more control. Going to start this today!

  14. I like the concept but my dog is very anxious being in a car – she wants to jump right into the cat but once we get driving she’s overly excited and whining. She’s leash reactive to dogs and sometimes to people, less so than when we got her 5 years ago. We recently adopted a shelter dog – “11th hour rescue” – and have kept them separate in the house nearly 6 weeks because I don’t know how my first dog might react. The new dog is dog and people friendly, not reactive. Thoughts?

  15. I have a duck toller that has general anxiety and reacts violently in situations that are stressful to him (not stressful situations to anybody else). His behavior is similar to that of the basset that ‘sherry’ mentioned although not as extreme. He started his extreme reactions around 6 months (he’s 9 now) and since I was in 4-H and showing him, my mom and I played this game with him so he was less explosive. It worked awesome. We played it a little differently but it has gotten to the point where if a trigger goes by he is still a little stressed but instead of reacting he will look to us. I love how this has worked because you can just tell his trust that you are in control of the situation and he doesn’t have to try to ‘fix’ the trigger himself.
    I will say though that this alone didn’t fix his problems and since I left for college 4 years ago I have not been able to have him with me. He is so attached to a quiet routine that new homes and activity stress him out, he becomes more and more reactive (I tried and he lasted about 9 months before I sent him back to my parents). But he is a good pup and this game helped probably more than anything else we had tried.

  16. Disclaimer: I’m also a trainer. I have found taking a dog on leash to a crowded area more effective. My own dog for example is more likely to react to one person not a herd. With so many people to bark at! She just gets desensitized to the situation. My place is across from a train station. When working on dogs reactive to people we go there when the train comes in or out because people are so busy they aren’t about to approach a dog to say hi. Couple that with your treat system & I think that’d be a great idea. Thanks!

    • I live near a train station so I’ll try this out, take special treats along, and see what happens. I am looking into having a trainer assess and show me one on one how I can work with her.

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