Leash Reactivity Cognition and Memory

Leash Reactivity Counter Conditioning Behavior Modification Memory Learning Cognition


There is a corresponding video for this blog on You Tube at this link


In November of 2012, I asked myself one simple question: “Why do dogs react, orient and attend to the environment in the ways they do?”

I knew enough to understand amygdala functions are to largely signal the safe, unsafe neutral.  This aspect of a dog’s cognitive processes is the central focus of their need to survive events as they occur.  However, that was not enough to fully illustrate why dogs react as a matter of survival or as a part of social interactions.

This simple question led to the two papers this blog entry will discuss.  This information further confirms two significant facts; yes facts about our current dog culture.  One, dogs are indeed innocent and not in any way behaving with a moral imperative to “disobey” or “dominate” humans.  Two, we should not be using fear and pain based approaches with dogs in order to train dogs or modify dog behavior.

The first paper, Leash Reactivity and Cognitive Cognition, is largely derived from Steven R. Lindsay’s Volume 1 Applied Dog Behavior and Training.

The second paper Leash Reactivity – Memory and Learning, is mainly based on the research of Mark E. Bouton, and Erik W. Moody. This research was invaluable for the clarification of how memory in animals (and humans) works, especially when under stress.

It is strongly suggested that anyone working with dogs and doing behavior modification of any kind, read their research papers listed at the end of this blog entry.

Lindsay references Bouton et al. in his Volume 1 handbook often enough for me to have noticed his name and that is how I first heard of him.  Then upon a search for memory, I discovered his research papers and I was hooked.

I could not have released these papers with the assured clarity and confidence that what I am hypothesizing is not only correct, but also scientifically sound without the help from to one of my mentors, Jo Jacques.

Her input during the last few months, editing and holding my feet to the fire when needed was the final step in the 9-month process that became the two papers and subsequent video. 

I want to extend my deepest gratitude and appreciation for her help. 

The hypothesis I came to is something that I believe many of us in legit dog training camps have realized and I would no doubt bet someone has touched upon this or perhaps written even more in-depth than I on the subject.  However, I have not found anything in my travels that connects why dogs react on leash and the cognitive processes and memory functions related to it.  Then, taking said information and addressing the counter conditioning realities of open environments so reasonable expectations can be had by humans with reactive dogs.  One major issue people have is how to approach leash reactive dogs and what to expect as far as results.

I was always left with that question, why do dogs react, even the dogs that have had extensive conditioning?  The answer was simple once I found it.

The hypothesis for why dogs will react at some point no matter how well they have been conditioned or it has been extinguished is as follows;

Extinction alone is not as reliable as conditioning and some extinction in the form of non-reinforced trails and implementing distances in the form of negative reinforcement.   Conditioning over various contexts, helps reduce spontaneous recovery, which is susceptible to “temporal contexts”, known as time passages.  Add in the many aspects of the dogs cognitive functions designed to attend to the environment, be it the hippocampus function that mediates surprise, or the predation sensitive hypothalamus and it’s innate desire to stalk, pounce and chase prey, dogs are hard wired to attend to the environment so they do not die and they find food.  This is why a dog may react at some point towards something, no matter how much counter conditioning has been implemented.  The goal is reduced reactivity to acceptable levels through conditioning new performances.  This is achieved through marking orientations to stimuli with the word “YES” as a retrieval cue, and or issuing operant cues, such as “leave it” and “touch”, hand targeting, as well as luring and promoting the dog to orchestrate movements and proper distances

The canine mind is designed to attend to changes in the environment.  The cognitive aspects related to reactivity and the sudden environmental contexts changes, and marking the dog at the proper time so counter conditioning takes hold has largely to do with the Septohippocampal System (SHS) and the comparator function that we all see when dogs do that “stop & think” behavior over a novel scent, sight or sound, essentially any salient stimulus they attend to.  This is due to the SHS mediating startle and or novelty.

Additionally I found that the ARAS, The Ascending Reticular Activating System, is also dedicated to general alertness and novel sounds.  This is evident every time someone sees their dog come running to me when I let out a loud prompt such as “whoop whoop whoop” repeatedly until the dog comes running… sometimes it takes only two issuances of those novel funny sounds and they fly over.

Dogs like novel sounds that predict safety and that is why when conditioned they are literally lifesavers.

This is nothing new to those that have studied animal and or canine cognition.  I had not really; it was very limited and usually only when it was needed for some sort of reference, which was not all too often.  Or so I thought. 

I admit I had just enough understanding of canine cognition and memory to “get by” as it were.  I most certainty learned quite a bit about it over the past 9 months and I do not see an end in sight as far as learning continually about canine cognition and memory. 

The cognition aspect in paper one, was very illuminating to see just how much the canine brain is dedicated to survival and prey acquisition, which makes total sense. However, that information is rarely if ever detailed for people when they have a leash reactive dog.

The erroneous conventional narrative is it is some how the dogs “fault” they are having such a hard tome with being on leash, when in fact they are quite flummoxed by the containment many times.

Aspects related to memory and learning that I had not known about were the most eye opening. The work of Bouton et al. supplied some fascinating aspects that empirically cemented the counter-conditioning paradigm and it’s crucial role in a dog’s associative learning processes.

The highlights from the Bouton research was the following:


Performance and knowledge is not the same thing.

This is relevant as far too many times the dog’s positive reinforcement is not being delivered or negative reinforcement; distances, are not being implemented. Usually the person is thinking the dog is “fine”.  This is usually based on the adage, “the dog was ok yesterday” or on the last walk, when in fact many things could have been building to the reactivity seen in another context. 


The Allen R. Wagner model of learning called Sometimes Opponent Process.

This describes how animals have active and inactive states of learning and the crucial timing aspect that it involves when counter conditioning. This is something anyone training leash reactive dogs would do well becoming familiar with.


Erased performance after extinction does not reflect erased knowledge.

This translates for leash reactive dogs this way, just because the dog stopped lunging or barking does not mean the dog has a positive association to the stimulus you are conditioning.


Based on Wager’s model, Bouton’s research, Lindsay et al. “Priming” the short-term memory in any context can reduce stress and help dogs retrieve memories. This supports extinction and reinforces conditioning. It is widely accepted in behavioral research that the context itself is a stimulus. The research into “priming” is even further validation for all of us dog trainers that use reassurance, jolly talk, mark & pay for simple orientations, and distances (R-).


The validation for food as a motivator. “The function of reward was not to stamp behavior in, but instead to motivate the animal to perform. A motivational function of reward is widely accepted in subsequent theories. Learning is not the same as performance. Motivation is required for the translation”. (Bouton & Moody)


They go on to state, “learning involves encoding of information” and “storage of information, then “retrieving it”. Performance they say “depends at least in part on successful retrieval”.

After you read this research I have referenced and the papers and subsequent video, it’s plain to see that encoding a dog’s short term memory in the prefrontal cortex is essential for long term memories in the hippocampus to be conditioned soundly is fact, not a fabrication or an “idea”.  It is legitimate neuroscience and it is how dogs encode their memories. Humans can have a major impact shaping those memories by implementing food and distances as needed.

It is my hope this will be one more nail in the proverbial coffin to the cultural memes that the dog is doing it with some moral imperative to be “dominate” or “disobey”, and thus, people will start learning to use non-force methods and learn how to counter condition dogs when they’re in need of behavioral modifications.

Practical Applications

Researching while having dogs at my disposal improved my skills tremendously in the most effortless and symbiotic way thus far in my dog training education.  To say that I was learning at a high rate over the past year would be an understatement.  I could actually watch the development of my skills as I was filming all of my dog walks.

Most days I would dedicate at least 8 hours in some form or other with the materials related to the research as to why dogs react as well as putting the information to use in actual training sessions with clients or working with my own dogs.  The more I studied, the more addicting it became. 

Between filming pretty much every dog walk I have been on in the past year, plus the years of archived footage of leash walks, led to a much more developed sense of “seeing the whole game (on leash) unfold”, as Larry Bird would say when he’d describe how he would move down the court and plan his moves.

Understanding what I now refer to as cascading antecedents in what are considered “open environments” also helped place the leash reactive training paradigm into a clear and more efficient structure for me.  After all, training a dog to stay in a sit position or wait at a gate inside a building is not the same as counter-conditioning a reactive dog while moving on leash through a public space with an ever-shifting context and terrain below your feet.

While I had this distinction firmly grasped and the requisite mechanics and timing to implement protocols in the on leash environment or off leash, they are now demonstrably improved due the subconscious knowledge that acts as the underpinning of real time events and the criteria shifts needed to shape behaviors.

I see the dog walk or a potentially reactive event in real time microseconds now due to having watched so much film and from filming as I walk dogs.  Before I would I say I was viewing it in “seconds” which is still good, but now I’m even more ahead of the play as it were, and seeing things unfold in a more cinematic way as if I am writing the script more so than following one.  This is why skill sets not systems are crucial.  It needs to be second nature for it to be efficient.

My visual acuity and criteria shifts while on leash with dogs are much more efficient as a result of all the studying, writing, reading and viewing videos.  I could see a big change in very subtle ways in my skill sets in a few months into the research.  By the time this is all released it’ll be even more of a symbiotic event between the dog the context and myself.

It is my hope that others will take the info from these papers and the video and will not only improve their skills but also take it upon themselves to then teach people as much as they can about challenges a dog may have on leash.  This way the dog and their people will receive proper help sooner rather than later, thus reduce stress.

It is not enough to read about how to positively train dogs, or write about it. Not even the viewing or making of videos are enough.  One has to put into practice the knowledge they learn and then, if possible, pass it on as best as they can to others.  Otherwise it is simply on the page or in the head, or another video that gets a play, but nothing changed in the person or the dog’s life.  Ripple effects are real and when they are filled with proper, safe information, they change culture and save dog’s lives.

We need the legit info and the proper skills out in the culture being practiced by as many people as possible.  That is the goal with these papers and the video that accompanies them.  The goal is to help people learn and become addicted to helping dogs legitimately by learning and putting into practice daily the proper protocols to reduce stress and help dogs learn and remember what they learned.  Only then will we see the big cultural changes and huge benefits to dogs from those positive changes.


Drayton Michaels, CTC

October 2013


Cognition & Leash Reactivity
Memory and Leash Reactivity
Context, Ambiguity, and Unlearning: Sources of Relapse after Behaviroal Extinction :
Mark E. Bouton
Memory Processes in Classical Conditioning :  Mark E. Bouton & Erik W. Moody
Corresponding video for this blog on You Tube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iyjdBKYRGY&feature=c4-overview&list=UUKQ...