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Reactive Dogs & Why Pattern Games Are So Effective

Have you heard of pattern games for dog training?

If you're in the positive reinforcement training community, you likely have!

They are very simple and have been used unknowingly by many trainers, but the one trainer who brought large scale attention to them recently is Leslie McDevitt, creator of the Control Unleashed program.

She built an entire program for sport dogs based around pattern games to calm arousal and more.

As the methods grew in popularity, she learned that the pattern games were hugely effective for reactive dogs as well - not just overexcited sport dogs.

What exactly is reactivity?

Reactivity is a response to distractions usually characterized by barking, lunging on leash, pulling on leash, jumping, whining, growling, and more, especially in response to other dogs or people.

A very common example of reactivity is a dog who barks at visitors to the door or outside the window.

Reactivity can have many root causes including excitement, fear, or anxiety.

With excitement reactivity, you'll usually see a dog who loves other people and other dogs and just wants to get to them no matter how hard they have to pull or how much they have to bark to get there. While this may feel less dangerous than a more aggressive form of reactivity, it can still be extremely hard to handle.

I'm looking at you, labradors and goldens.

When the reactivity is caused by anxiety or fear, the dog will usually bark, growl, lunge, or anything else to get the trigger to go away. They might seem to want to go towards the trigger, but when they get there they show body language of being anxious or nervous (cowering, ears pinned, stiff body, etc).

Both types of reactivity are shown to be benefitted by pattern games.

And the cool thing is that you don't have to know which type your dog has in order to be successful!

The pattern games work no matter what.

So what are pattern games?

Pattern games are easy, predictable, and simple training games to play with your dog in order to lower arousal, excitement, or anxiety.

One of my favorite pattern games, for example, is the up down game.

In this game, you drop one treat on the ground for your dog to eat, and when your dog looks back up at you after eating, you mark yes and place another treat on the ground.

Here are some links to tutorials for several other pattern games for examples:


Whiplash Turns (treat on ground & walk away. Feed three treats on return)

Requested Approach Training


Pattern games seem so easy. How exactly can they help me?!

Obviously, just like any training, before a pattern game can be effective near triggers for reactive dogs, you must first learn the game in a trigger free environment and increase distractions slowly as your dog is able.

A large part of reactivity, excitement, fear, and anxiety is that the triggers are unpredictable or the environment is unpredictable.

Pattern games, on the other hand, are extremely predictable and can be used to help lower the fear and anxiety of unpredictable situations.

Because pattern games become muscle memory for dogs who practice them a lot, it feels better to the dog to go into the predictable pattern than to avoid it and experience the unpredictability of their triggers or the environment.

The good news is that if your dog is avoiding the unpredictability of triggers, they are actively engaging with you in a pattern game.

Over time, the pattern games teach focus & engagement, and lower the baseline fear and anxiety around triggers, allowing you to work on more advanced skills in the future.

Many clients of mine come in after working with several different trainers of many different backgrounds. They are completely overwhelmed and struggling to be exciting enough to maintain focus with their dog around triggers. They feel like they are failing because the weight of being exciting enough to surpass triggers was on their shoulders.

When they are introduced to pattern games and find how easy and simple it is, they are hooked. 

And they're able to make significant progress at long last.

That sounds amazing! How can I get started?

The first thing I always recommend is choosing an easy pattern game to learn and play with. 

I personally LOVE the 123 game.

This game is quick and can show fast results for those of us who struggle with attention and motivation on the human end.

Here is how to play:

1. The first few sessions, I usually do three separate sessions, you are just going to say, "three!" and then drop a treat. You can do this for 15-20 repetitions per session.

2. The next few sessions, you are going to add the two. You will say, "two, three!" and then reach into your treat pouch for a treat to drop! Repeat 15-20 times per session.

3. Then you are ready to add the one! The finished game is counting "one, two, three!" and then reaching in to drop a treat for your dog. Repeat this 15-20 times per session at least 3 times before moving on.

Here is a video explanation of the game with one of my favorite rescue pups, Mr Magoo:


This game can be applied to SO many different scenarios.

Here is how I use the 123 game to work on cooperative care: 



More Options to Kick Off your Learning

if you enjoy reading books and don't need help through every individual step, I definitely recommend purchasing Leslie Mcdevitt's book Reactive to Relaxed.

If you would like to learn ALL of the pattern games, how to apply them, and have the opportunity to ask a professional instructor all of your questions, come join us in the Pack! 

In the pack, you will receive access to:

  • ALL of our pattern game tutorials
  • ALL our workshops that include pattern games as a focus (reactivity, loose leash walking, cooperative care, and more)
  • Peer accountability groups
  • Guided goal setting
  • Daily Trainer Q and A with a CCUI (Certified Control Unleashed Instructor)
  • Motivation, accountability, and support to reach your training goals

Click here to join today and receive $10 off as a thank you for reading this post to the end! 


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