While many people swear by “motivational training,” which uses treats in the shape of toys or food (both of which are external to the dog’s handler), we firmly believe that obedience training without rewards is the best approach to solving aggression and leash reactivity. Here is why.

Solving Aggression and Leash Reactivity with Obedience Training

To us, good obedience starts with engagement – and a dog performing behaviours for external rewards is not engaged with his handler. Dogs think by association. Motivational training subsequently tells a dog that HEEL means TREAT, SIT means TOY, etc. Even if his trainer eventually phases these external things out, the result is usually that the dog’s obedience and sustained attention to his handler are cheapened into disconnected individual behaviours.

Motivation is nothing like engagement – and when you are using obedience training to deal with anxiety, aggression, and so on, you NEED handler engagement. Food cannot replace feeling safe. A bit of sausage cannot stop a dog aggressing or tell him “You must pay attention to me now”. So how do you get that all-important, real engagement? It’s simple: THROUGH OBEDIENCE.

Heeling and Movement

People rarely teach their dogs to heel now. Heeling seems to have become a “competition ring behaviour”, and people frequently assume that ‘the heel’ always means a highly stylized behaviour complete with head cranked. Yes, this can be a fantastic look – but it’s as far removed from working heels in the real world with a dog who has behavioural issues as it gets.

You will often see trainers start dogs in a distraction-free room, dog on leash and the handler using toys/food to motivate the dog to pay attention or perform tricks. There are a few problems here:

While the idea of reducing distractions has its value in certain scenarios, we don’t live with our dogs in distraction-free training rooms, we live and walk with them in real life.

Dogs don’t get enough clarity in this kind of setting, so you will often see them milling around aimlessly, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

Movement is vital, because training can, especially to begin with, be stressful for dogs. Movement allows dogs to discharge this stress – and the ability to discharge the stress allows them to concentrate more on the handler. It is a cycle that will build on itself. Your dog WANTS to please you. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise or that love, affection and praise are not enough simply does not fully understand canine behaviour or how to effectively work with dogs’ natural motivations and inclinations.

Movement, especially in the form of a heel, also helps build self-control and confidence (the right kind) in dogs – because they know exactly what it is they are being asked to do. Requiring sustained attention to their handler, it also helps to foster real engagement: while you walk, your dog heels, and when you stop, he sits.  When you have attention to the handler at this level, anything is possible: training dogs to ignore external distractions/environments when necessary; snapping them out of drive & into a calm state, and more.

Remember that a dog thinks by association: leash means WALK, bowl means FOOD – and when training with food, sit means SAUSAGE or CHEESE. When using obedience, on the other hand, heel means PAY ATTENTION AND INTERACT WITH ME. By using obedience commands, we can successfully interrupt problem behaviours. It really is quite simple: Wherever the body goes, the mind will follow.

Obedience, the Language of Engagement

What we are talking about here is essentially “engagement on command”. This is a level of communication and control many people fail to understand. It is also a BOND at a level most people can at best dream of – because your dog wants to please you, and you can please him, too, by giving him love and affection. Put simply, obedience is the one and only language of engagement – and if you are fluent in this language, you can successfully work with your dog through most behavioural problems.

“Loose leash walks” can never achieve the same as a heel in obedience training without toys or food. When people teach a “loose leash walk” instead of the heel, they are forced to look for outside solutions to get real engagement, resolve aggression or relieve anxiety, because with this, they simply do not get the same engagement level. This, of course, is among the reasons for there being so many counter conditioning protocols, which usually involve standing in front of some sort of trigger and feeding dogs treats (no movement there, then).

Dogs’ Power of Choice

Dogs are perfectly capable of making their own decisions. Obedience training has the role of teaching them to make choices that are right. More than this, good obedience training will make dogs WANT to make these right choices. Engagement forms a massive part of this, although how that engagement is trained through obedience also has an important role to play.

Many dog trainers use forms of negative reinforcement like, for instance, sustained leash pressure, spatial pressure or “low-level” e-collar stim as a go-to. In practise, this means they apply pressure and when the dog does what he is asked to do, they release that pressure. The dog is essentially motivated into performing the desired behaviour because of this release of pressure.

This can, however, be an intimidating, potentially counterproductive form of coercion for dogs who just need a bit of training – and, as it can build frustration, downright dangerous when dealing with cases of aggression.

Quick, gentle corrections, on the other hand, mainly function as attention-getters. Dogs subsequently not only make the right choices/decisions, but actively take part in making them. I cannot stress enough what a huge differentiation this is. This approach works toward improved engagement, as well as a better relationship.


Solving dogs’ problem behaviour dogs is by no means a “walk in the park” and teaching your dog to heel will not solve all your woes. It takes time, energy, a great deal of work and learning to pay your dog the same kind of attention he is paying to you. When everything is properly put together, however, obedience always was and always will be the single best way of resolving behavioural issues.

One of obedience training’s biggest advantages is consistency. Down always means down, sit always means sit, and heel always means heel. Doing things the same way over and over wherever you are, whatever the situation, means they will eventually become ingrained and function as anchors, something he understands, for the dog. Any number of behaviours can be counter conditioned in this way.

Many disconnected systems currently in use appear to be the opposite of consistency. Walking nicely on leash, for instance, is considered to be one behaviour, but counter conditioning for dog reactivity is done completely different. No, you should teach your dog the heel and then change underlying emotions by redirecting his focus back onto yourself. You do not correct your dog for reacting to another dog, you correct him for not maintaining the heel – which is much faster, much clearer and much more effective in the long run.

I successfully solve anxiety, aggression and leash reactivity with the help of obedience training every day – and I can help modify your dog’s aggressive behaviour, too. Call me on 07776761289 or contact me online today to find out how.