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Buddy's Rehab 6 - The “Experience Bank” and its importance in Dog Behavior Rehabilitation

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

What is the basis of dog behavior rehabilitation? I have always said it is all about the “Experience Bank”. I can’t remember if I made this term up, or read about it somewhere during the 20+ years I have been studying dog behavior and rehab, but I think it does help to explain why I do rehab the way I do, the value of using reward based methods in rehab, and why aversive methods don’t give real, reliable results. Let me explain:

Piggy Bank

What is the “Experience Bank” and why is it important in Dog Behavior Rehabilitation?

The experience bank is just what it sounds like, the collection of experiences a dog has had over his lifetime. There is a bank of “good” experiences, and a bank of “bad” experiences and whichever bank is larger is the bank of experiences the dog will be most likely to draw from when encountering something. If a dog has been properly socialized and raised in a positive way and has not had many scary experiences, abuse, or trauma, then they will have a large bank of good experiences and a small bank of bad experiences. As a result, they are more likely to draw from the good experience bank and become “wired” to expect that everything will be fine and no harm will come to them when they encounter things, whether new or something they have encountered before. As a result, they will tend to have a neutral or positive reaction to things they encounter. However, if a dog has had many bad experiences, abuse, or trauma, their bank of bad experiences can outweigh their bank of good experiences and they become wired to expect bad things to happen when they encounter things. As a result, when they encounter things, they will be more likely to draw from the larger bank of bad experiences, causing the way they react to more likely be negative. The longer a dog has been experiencing the “bad stuff”, the larger the bank of bad experiences is, and the more likely they will be to default to a negative reaction. This causes it to be even more difficult, and take a longer amount of time, to undo the mental damage done to the dog and rehabilitate the behavior.

How does this relate to Buddy? If you have read my first blog post, you will know that Buddy was isolated for the first 6 years of his life and basically neglected (this is a form of abuse, certainly not the intention of the person involved, this person didn’t know any better). After that, for the 7th year, he was continually forced into situations he was not comfortable with and when he tried to communicate he was not comfortable, they continued to push him and flood him with what he was afraid of (they thought this was what they were supposed to do to help him). When he continued to tell them he was not comfortable, they resorted to aversive, punishment based methods, in an attempt to make him accept the things he was not comfortable with (again, they thought this was what they were supposed to do, however, all of these actions in the 7th year are also considered abuse, whether or not this was the intention of the people involved). Of course, this did not work. As a result, Buddy had 7 full years of “bad experiences” and very few good experiences, so his bank of bad experiences was very full. As a result, Buddy really only had a bank of bad experiences to draw from when he encountered things and people, so he came to expect only bad things to happen. He became “wired” to feel the need to fight for his life when exposed to people, things, and situations.

To rehabilitate Buddy, I have been tasked with changing Buddy’s perception of people, things, and situations so he will view them as something good, and therefore have a positive response to them. I do this by building up his bank of good experiences so that they eventually outweigh his bank of bad experiences to the point that he starts to draw from the good experience bank when he encounters things, people, and situations instead of the bad experience bank. This is not a small task, and this is why it can take so long to undo the damage done to Buddy over the first 7 years of his life (some say for every year of abuse, a year of rehab is needed). If Buddy was much younger and only had a year of “damage” done to him when I started working with him I could have completed his rehab long before now. But since Buddy had 7 years of abuse, it just takes a great deal of time to build up the good experience bank to the point that it will start to outweigh the bad experience bank. Couple that with some serious setbacks we have had as the result of several “pet professionals” who have mishandled Buddy due to them not being educated in animal behavior and fear free handling, and my job got even more difficult as I have to undo the added damage these people have done (again, not intended, but a result of their lack of education on the subject of behavior).

What does it mean to say the dog is “Wired” to react a certain way?

Now for the medical explanation of what is going on. In the brain there are neural pathways. Some exist at birth, and others are formed during life. These neural pathways are directly responsible for how a dog reacts to a situation or stimuli. Read on for some explanations from two experts:

Here is a medical explanation from Doctor Orion the Veterinarian which was in the comment section of one of his videos on his youtube channel: . Doctor Orion is an extremely knowledgeable Veterinary Behaviorist, who Buddy and I were very fortunate to have been able to work with:

“You can't eradicate aggression. You can reduce it and you can learn how to manage it. But aggression tends to be unpredictable and to come back when the animal feels "cornered". The thing is that the old neuronal pathways don't disappear. We might create and strengthen other pathways but because the old ones are there, they might still "work" at one point or another.
Biologically speaking you need a new alternative pathway. You do that by reinforcing the alternative behavior and avoiding the unwanted ones. And yes, exactly because aggression is also a normal behavior, you can't eradicate it. Normal behavior can't be eradicated. When someone promises the dog will not be aggressive ever again, he is lying because every dog can attack in specific situations. Dogs with anxiety and fear are even more likely.”

To give some more information on neural pathways in the brain and how this relates to rehabilitating dog behavior, this is an excerpt from an article written by Lindsay Porter, who is a Certified Pro Dog Trainer in Canada. You can view the full article here:

Neural Pathways
Our dogs can learn new things because of neural plasticity, which is the ability to form new pathways for neurotransmitters to follow within our brain. The more a behaviour and response occur, the more efficient the synapse between the neurons in the brain will become, and the more this neural pathway will get used in the future. The repetition makes the synapse stronger making it easier for nerve impulses (both positive and negative) to travel along it. Dr. Tom Mitchell, in his book ‘How to Be a Concept Trainer’ describes these neural pathways as tunnels in the dog’s brain that each represent a choice that the dog can make. The more a choice can be made, the more likely it will occur in the future and so ‘dogs will do what they’ve always done’ if the behaviour has led to a desirable outcome for them. Strengthening the neural pathways that represent good choices and positive behavioural outcomes is what we need to help our dogs with in order to decrease the likelihood of poor behaviour. Dogs who repeatedly show aggressive responses to people or other animals have strengthened the neural pathway in their brain that reinforces this behaviour. They will continue to respond in the same way unless a new pathway with a different choice is not only created but made to be deemed more desirable by the dog.”

So how does this relate to reward based training vs. training methods that use aversive tools and methods?

In reward based training we are giving the dog a positive thing and/or experience when the dog responds in the way we want them to. When they are responding in an undesired manner, we don’t punish them, but we also don’t provide the reward. By providing the reward when they do the desired behavior, we are strengthening the neural pathway to the desired behavior. By not punishing them, we are ensuring they do not consider the training or rehab sessions to be a negative or unpleasant thing – we want them to look forward to the sessions. By not punishing, we are also ensuring we don’t inadvertently strengthen the wrong neural pathways. To put it another way, we are only filling the dog’s bank of good experiences, which is exactly what we want.

In punishment based/dominance based training where we are using aversive tools and methods, the dog is being punished for the undesired behavior by pain or some other unpleasant thing. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it makes the session unpleasant for the dog, so that the dog does not look forward to being trained. Second, it does nothing to strengthen the neural pathways to the positive response, but instead causes the dog to have a negative experience due to the pain and discomfort the corrections and aversive tools cause. This causes the dog to have a negative perception of the person doing the training and of the situations encountered in the training. While the use of these aversive tools and methods may cause the dog to stop the undesired behavior, giving the illusion that the methods work, this is only an illusion. What is really occurring is that the dog has learned what is called “learned helplessness” because the dog has learned that when they do the undesired behavior (which is often their way of communicating they are not comfortable with the situation), they get hurt, so they may stop doing the behavior (communicating) at the moment to avoid the pain, but the dog still has a negative perception of the situation they are reacting to (they have learned that they are helpless in being able to get the thing they fear to stop). The use of the aversive method has actually heightened the negative perception because now, not only is the situation something they are not comfortable with, the pain they feel when they try to tell you they are not comfortable with the situation compounds the negative perception. As a result, the neural pathways to the behavior we are trying to correct with the aversive tools are actually strengthened, but temporarily muted due to the pain the dog feels. To put it another way, this method only serves to fill the dogs bank of bad experiences. Unfortunately, there will come a time when the dog feels sufficiently stressed, and does lash out. When this happens, because the neural pathways the negative feelings created by the use of the aversive methods will have been strengthened, those are pathways his brain will follow to the undesired behavior. Said another way, the bank of bad experiences has been filled and therefore that is what the dog will draw from when he does react. If you are dealing with an aggressive dog, this will most likely result in someone getting bitten, or worse because when that happens, because the dog was corrected for trying to communicate he was not comfortable, he most likely will skip the attempt to communicate and go straight to a bite. This is why using aversive tools and methods results in creating more aggression that is unpredictable.

One other thought about the aversive tools and methods. If you are someone who studies history, you will be able to relate to this. These aversive tools and methods remind me of the way slaves, servants, and women were treated in historical times. Think about some of the tools and methods that were quite abusive, but during that time period were openly discussed as being necessary to “discipline” them and keep them “in line”. One would cringe now. However, isn’t this exactly what we are doing to dogs when we use aversive methods and tools on them? Just something to think about…

Stay tuned as I continue to tell the story of Buddy's rehabilitation. I haven't yet decided what the next blog post will be about. If there is anything you want to know or learn, leave a comment letting me know what it is or email me at

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Note and disclaimer: All information in the blog posts on this site is my opinion based on my own experience rehabilitating an aggressive dog. I am not a professional behaviorist or otherwise involved in the Veterinary profession. If you are dealing with an aggressive dog, I recommend you seek the advice of a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist.

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