Task Vs Emotion Focus; What’s the difference and how do they work together?

Task Vs Emotion; What’s the difference and how do they work together? If your dog knows all the tricks but won’t do them when you need them to, you might need to switch from a task focused approach to an emotion focused approach, or a bit of both. Here’s what you need to know!

Task Focused Training

Task focused training is about teaching your dog to focus on a specific task. This can be anything from a sit, recall, stay, or look at me. Typically you’ll learn this kind of training at a training class and can be very useful when you need your dog to something. For example, come back when off lead, or wait patiently at the side of the road. Giving your dog a command or cue is much more effective, and rewarding, than using NO to stop them from doing something else.

There are many benefits to task focused training. First, it can help your dog stay focused on a task, they are less likely to get distracted when they are given a job to do. Task focused dog behavior training can also help to reduce stress and anxiety in your dog. When your dog knows what is expected of them, they are less likely to feel anxious or stressed. And, task focused dog behavior training can help to improve your dog’s confidence. When your dog is able to successfully complete a task, they will feel more confident.

a labrador retriever balancing a white bone treat on his nose
A task focused approach won’t help an emotionally reactive dog

Emotion Focused Training

Emotion focused behavior training is a type of training that focuses on changing the way a dog feels. By helping your dog cope better they are empowered to change their own behaviour.

Dogs experience a wide range of emotions, including happiness, sadness, frustration, anger, fear, and anxiety. And just like humans, our dogs’ emotions can affect their behavior – for better or worse! In fact, almost all behaviour problems are directly linked to emotions. A dog who is barking excessively may be experiencing anxiety. Emotion focused behavior training can help to teach the dog how to manage their anxiety, which can lead to a decrease in barking.

There are a few ways you can help a dog change the way he feels about something, and the right way will very much depend on the problem and how severe it has become. In all cases, a patient and reward based approach will be required. You’ll not make a dog feel less anxious by shouting at them. Likewise, you’ll not help them relax if you push them towards something they are scared of.

Using them together

Hopefully, most dogs are in their comfort zone most of the time. This means they are pretty neutral about their environment. In this emotional state they are able to rest, eat, learn new cues, and behave normally and calmly. But, when they are exposed to something new, that will change. Whether they are excited, scared, or angered by it will depend on the dog. But as soon as that emotion is triggered they come out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone.

In the learning zone they are more alert and their brain is engaged while they decide what to do about it. In this zone you can make the most of cues and commands they know, they will be responsive to you, and allow you to take the lead. They will still take rewards, and can be distracted with tricks and well known commands.

Diagram showing the dogs comfort zone as a small circle in the middle of a bigger circle that represents the learning zone, and that's all inside a larger circle that represents the out of control zone.
Task Vs Emotion Focus? Knowing what emotional state your dog is in will determine the best approach!

The closer they get to the trigger, the more the emotion grows, and the less they will pay attention to you. Eventually, they will get overwhelmed and they’ll go into the “Out of Control” zone. In this zone, the reactive/emergency brain is in charge and there is nothing you can do to distract them or help them. This is a physical state. They can’t turn it off, and neither can you. It will only stop when the situation resolves and becomes less intense.

Stay in the learning zone

An emotion focused approach will work towards preventing the dog from getting overwhelmed and keep them in the learning zone. If you can achieve this, the tasks will kick in and the two systems work together.

Using a task focused approach to help an anxious dog around the car might look like getting them to jump in and out, eating meals in the boot, games around the sides of the car and doors, and “sitting” in various positions around the car. This teaches them to ignore their feelings about the car and focus on something else. An emotion focused approach would look like searching for the edge of the dogs comfort zone in proximity to the car. Then staying around long enough that they relax and the boundary changes. This way they learn to accept the car.

If you are struggling with reactive behaviour, you’ll need an emotion focused approach, check out my reactive dog behaviour course

For best results

A task focused approach relies on you to tell the dog what choice you would like them to make. You’ll need to be there to guide and reward them always if you rely on this style of training. However, an emotion focused approach will allow a dog to make better choices for themselves. This means they will regulate their own behaviour and will eventually mean you can step back and be less managerial in your approach.

Management Vs Empowerment

It’s unlikely you’ll solve a behaviour problem using a task focused approach alone. You’ll need to combine it with an emotion focused training plan to allow the dog to stay out of the “Out of Control” zone and change their own behaviour.

Most people don’t want their dog to just follow commands, they want them to be calm and happy. And that’s why I prefer I emotion focused rehabilitation, with just a touch of task thrown in at the end!

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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