12 Amazing (Insider) ways of Handling Reactive Dogs
Week Three: Show Time!
Criterion:Click and treat your dog for doing absolutely anything that is not a reactive or aggressive behavior.
The primary goals of Week Three are to guide the students through the process of evaluating thresholds for various triggers and working with the dogs at sub-threshold exposure levels. For the majority of the students in class, the primary triggers for reactivity are other dogs and/or people.
Students’ Responses to Their Dogs’ Triggers
Much like their dogs, many of your students will have developed their own emotional responses to their dog’s triggers. The better you are able to communicate the learning mechanisms that contribute to and solve reactivity issues, the better your students will be able to focus on the technique rather than their own learned emotional responses. Since many of your students will have spent years avoiding their dog’s triggers, it is a significant shift in mindset to transition from avoidance to actively seeking out those triggers for exposure sessions. It’s a shift that is often accompanied by a good bit of stress for the handler.
“One thing I learned in Reactive Dog class is that the dog isn’t the only one who is reactive. Once I was frightened by my ‘alligator’ dog on walks, I started to isolate us from the world instead of learning what the triggers were, how to read Rowan’s body language, and what I could do to prevent the alligator from resurfacing.”
Students really know when their dogs are about to explode. You can see it in their facial expressions and by the way that they move. They stiffen and freeze, eyes wide, with dread on their faces—sometimes before the dog has done anything. I often have to prompt a student to move, click, and treat because everything seems to slow to a standstill. In fact, in some instances, it is the student’s fear that the dog reacts to rather than the trigger the student was panicked about. Many a student sends her dog all kinds of warning signals before the trigger even becomes a problem. The dog is prepared for it to become a problem—and reacts accordingly.
The Moment of Truth
Week Three brings all dogs and handlers into the building together for the first time. As in the previous sessions, the owners will enter the classroom without their dogs first for the pre-class “pep talk,” where we review the criteria and plan for this week’s class. I stress to my students that it’s impossible to predict what will happen, but I promise that I and my class assistants will keep things safe, and everyone will learn. To help students focus on their dogs, I tell them, “We know behavior, but you know your dog. Let us worry about the environment.”
It is in Week Three that I ask students to choose a barrier based on the amount of exposure that they are going to get. Those students with the most dog-reactive dogs usually want to be all the way in the back (where they get less exposure). These are the dogs that are vocal but can still think to some degree. Students with people-reactive dogs often choose to be toward the front of the room (where they get more exposure, but I can control the interactions with people), so these dogs tend to be the quietest of the lot. The two barriers right next to the door I reserve for the dogs that cannot stay in the building and/or are the riskiest or most reactive of the bunch, so these dogs can make a hasty exit when necessary. The most challenging class is one where almost all the dogs are dog-reactive. But again, we take it step-by-step, and, by some miracle, the dogs do well! We try this initial arrangement based on each student’s prediction. Once the dogs are in the workspace, if we have to tweak barrier assignments, we do.
Reactive dog class setup at MasterPeace Dog Training facility
After Week 3, I need to keep the students behind the same barriers. Knowing where they are going to be each week provides structure that the dogs and their handlers can depend on, so they feel safer. There are no surprises. I often tease my students that I don’t want them to get so cozy behind their barriers that they start hanging up pictures!
I can only change one criterion at a time. If I were to change the student’s position in the room then I would have to make the exposure incredibly easy, which I am not willing to do. I find that it’s more valuable for my students to increase the challenge of exposures than to move them around the room behind different barriers. Only when the students are at an advanced level do I have them switch barriers.
This is also a good time to mention that students should quickly but quietly raise their hands at any point during the class if they are struggling or need a little extra help. Once you have debriefed all the students, then the assistants will ask each student to wait at her barrier to be escorted to her car, or, in the summer months, to leave and wait by her car to begin the process of getting the dogs in.
To Your Stations!
Essential to keeping the class calm is making clear announcements about what’s going to happen next and what each student is supposed to do (“Another dog’s coming in; up your rate of reinforcement.”). You also need to check in with each student constantly (“Is your dog still eating?” “How about yours?”). Since you can’t see what’s going on behind the barriers, you have to count on the students (or your assistants) to tell you.
An assistant will escort each student into the facility individually. We have found it most convenient and safest to “load the classroom” from the back of the room forward. As each team approaches the classroom, the assistant peeks inside the classroom before entering (“Are you ready for Rover?”) so that you may give her the green light to enter once the other dogs are safely behind their barriers. If you’re not ready because, for instance, a dog is barking or a student has run out of treats, you can let the escort know to delay the entry. Coach dog/handler teams that already are at their stations to increase their rate of reinforcement as each new team enters; the swell of clicks should rise like an orchestra.
The criterion for each student to enter the space and get to her station is simple: click and treat your dog at heel position every single step of the way, feeding on the floor for dogs that are especially sensitive, nervous, or grabby when aroused.
Once students and their dogs are behind their respective barriers, instruct students to start working with their dogs as they normally would, clicking and treating behaviors that have been well taught and therefore, are confidence-building for the dog and handler. The behaviors may be sit, down, hand targets, or even cute tricks that the dog likes to perform. Any behavior that keeps the dog and handler occupied and mutually engaged is fine.
The moveable barriers at MasterPeace allow students to adjust how much visual access their dogs have to the workspace.
If the class is doing well, I ask students to come out from behind their barrier with their dogs, one at a time, take about five steps into the middle of the room, and then head back behind their barriers.
If the dogs are adjusting well during Week 3, I ask each student to bring her dog out around a cone I place about 6 feet from the barrier. Feeding the floor, as this student is doing, helps keep her dog calm during the dog’s first “floor exercise.”
What If a Dog Cannot Enter or Stay in the Building?
On occasion when we try to escort a dog into the building, he is so stressed that he cannot function, which leads to outburst after outburst. Or a dog gets into the building and, once he’s reached his barrier, immediately goes over threshold and can’t recover. We cannot let this happen. It’s not healthy for the dog (or the student) and breaks the mantra of “Don’t let the dog rehearse unwanted behavior!”
These dogs either never make it into the building or immediately exit the building in Week 3. Instead of classroom practice, one of the assistants works with the team one-on-one in the parking lot, and/or in the car. The goal is always to work below the dog’s current reactivity threshold, so if he has to stay in the car, then that is where the student and her dog work. It may take a couple of weeks to get this team into the building, but waiting until the dog can handle the classroom is well worth it. Every once in awhile, a student insists that we take the dog into the training facility and “make him work.” We never cave to those demands but explain that the student’s options are either to keep her dog in our program and work in the car or in the parking lot, or to leave the class. We never force a dog to do anything. The dog is the teacher. He will tell us when he is comfortable enough to come into the training building.
It is critical to stress to these students that they are still working, although they might not be working in the building. Week 3 can feel devastating to a student whose dog wasn’t able to reach the building or stay inside it; she is likely to feel that, once again, she and her dog have failed when there were triggers around. I specifically instruct my assistants to be sure that they bring these students back inside at the end of the class to get their homework. Even if these students have to work outside the first few weeks, they are still a vital part of the class, and I address them individually. I want them to know that, even if they are not physically in the classroom, I still know what is happening and how they are progressing. Every week, I say something positive to each student. I want to nurture their minds as they train their dogs, but I also want to nurture their souls and spirits for having the courage to take this class.
“It wasn’t until Week 3 (when Oscar was in the otherwise empty building with just his classmates) that I realized just how much he had shut down the previous week when there had been another class going on in the other half of the building. For Week 3, I had brought novel treats and Oscar not only ate but he sat on cue throughout the class. He would not, however, respond to a new cue: ‘Touch.’ Nevertheless, we had a great experience. Maybe it helped that Oscar was now familiar with the workspace. I was so encouraged that he continued eating the whole time and surprised that he responded to ‘Sit.’”
The Challenge of Keeping Dogs Under Threshold
Once everyone has entered the room and arrived at their stations, the rest of the class is committed to one single goal: keeping the dogs occupied and under threshold by delivering a high rate of reinforcement. Though the dogs are catching glimpses of each other between the barrier openings, we won’t implement any formal exposure exercises until Week Four. Seeing how dogs react to brief glimpses of other dogs and people behind barriers allows me to get a feel for each dog’s triggers and level of reactivity and guides the choices I make in orchestrating exposures the following week of class.
Training a reactive dog requires being able to think and act quickly and rationally as a situation unfolds in seconds and you’re in an emotional state—in other words, it requires multitasking. To get students to start multitasking, I talk with them while they are working their dogs behind the barriers. Chatter like “What’s on the menu today?” is one way for the students to practice talking to me while they keep working their dogs, much as they would do if they were walking their dogs on the street and a neighbor approached.
If a student raises her hand to indicate that she is struggling or her dog is over threshold and cannot eat or perform, I have everybody click and feed their dogs until we have the situation under control. If a student has run out of treats, for instance, one of the assistants will provide more treats of her own. My assistants bring treats, so if a student runs out, we can supply a variety of options. If we have a dog with a sensitive stomach and his owner runs out of treats, we cannot supplement them. Then that student must leave the building, but this is a rare occurrence. Most of the dogs can eat any kind of treats, and if their diet is more restricted, the assistants usually bring enough variety so that something works.
What If There Is an Outburst or a Dog Won’t Eat?
If a dog starts going over threshold on the way to his station, I tell the student to walk briskly to the barrier because, when the dog starts barking, the student’s tendency is to stop and freeze. I want my students (as well as their dogs) to maintain a thinking brain and move! This is the priority. If a student cannot click and feed as she moves, I don’t care. I want her to learn to do something if her dog starts to react. For a variety of reasons, there are far fewer “explosions” as the dogs leave: the dogs are tired, the students are more relaxed, and so on.
If the student and her dog have come out briefly from behind the barrier and he starts to vocalize, in the beginning I just ask the student to take her dog back behind her barrier. Since students should have been practicing the U-turn, they should be able to simply turn and move. (That is why I teach the U-turn in Week One.) I find that if the student takes her dog back behind the barrier immediately (in the beginning weeks of class only), her dog usually can calm down enough to retry a cameo appearance on the floor successfully. Most of the dogs will eat again once they are behind the barrier.
For a habitual barker, a mash of delicious, wet food (that his stomach can tolerate) can help—it encourages licking, which not only occupies his mouth, but also deters vocal outbursts.
If the dog is in the building and won’t eat but is not reacting, I ask the student to sit with her dog behind the barrier and do what is relaxing for the dog: some dogs like to be massaged, petted, softly praised, whatever it takes. After a bit, the dog usually realizes that there is no danger and will begin to eat. We also try giving the handler different treats because no matter how much I stress to students that they need to find treats that their dog would simply die for, many arrive with treats the dog is already used to (and bored with) or even with plain old kibble.
Solutions to reactive outbursts vary as the dogs progress. I teach students that, when a dog “explodes,” that is their cue to breathe, since, after all, it is only noise. We can say this because with our two-leash system, the students can get control of the dog’s body. As we continue to work in the class, the outbursts get fewer and the recovery time becomes shorter. At a later point, if a dog has an outburst, I ask the student to stay out on the floor but to cue a reliable behavior to get her dog’s thinking brain back. I do not want a dog practicing outbursts just so he can head back behind his barrier.
If a dog reacts, instruct the other handlers to breathe deeply as well and to increase their rate of reinforcement; one dog’s reaction in class should cue all the other handlers to increase their attention and rate of reinforcement with their own dogs. When students practice breathing and increasing their rate of reinforcement in response to another dog’s reaction, they’ll find that a reactive dog actually cues the other dogs to focus on their handlers, just as it cues the other handlers to focus on their dogs!
What If There Is a Group Meltdown?
It is very rare that the whole group has a meltdown. In fact, I do not recall this ever happening. Certainly there are dogs that are more prone to react if one vocalizes close by. I teach students that when another class dog has a meltdown, this is a perfect opportunity to click and feed their dogs for tolerating the noise. That way if a dog explodes nearby in the future, the outburst will be the dog’s cue to look at his owner.
Ben offered a perfect example of this cued behavior once during the Long Sit at an obedience show and go. One dog about three dogs down from where Ben was quietly sitting in the line-up started humping the dog next to him, and the dogs began to bark. Fortunately, the incident did not erupt into a dogfight. The second the dog started humping his neighbor, I looked at Ben. He was staring hard at me with his whole body pointing forward. This was hard for him: he knew he was supposed to stay but the vocalization told him to make eye contact and come to me if he could. I went up to him and gave him a fistful of treats, thanking him for his compliance and reliability in a very challenging situation.
If I have a dog that struggles to be in the classroom environment even behind the barrier, we focus on the criterion of time inside the classroom, bringing the dog into and out of the facility, and applying and removing pressure in tiny increments that are dictated by his comfort level. Some dogs are only able to tolerate a few minutes inside the classroom at a time without going over threshold, so these dogs need frequent breaks for trips outside (always, of course, escorted by one of the assistants). These dogs grow in their ability to handle increasing amounts of time working and feeling comfortable inside the workspace, at which point we can begin integrating them into the exposure exercises that start in Week Four.
Time versus Space
Typically, when a dog goes over threshold in the presence of a trigger, the best solution is to create distance—to open up the space—between the reactive dog and the trigger. Because I hold my classes inside, however, I cannot make the room larger than it already is to accommodate a reactive dog’s threshold. Instead, I meet that need by keeping that dog in the classroom for shorter amounts of time. This is the dog we station near the door so he can exit and enter frequently. He might be in the room for 30 seconds and then leave for 30 seconds, alternating his comings and goings for about 10 repetitions.
Tracking the Proceedings
One of the biggest challenges in teaching the Week Three class is to mentally keep track of what each dog can handle since a single explosion can create a ripple effect in which many or all of the dogs in class quickly reach or exceed their individual thresholds. What is each dog’s threshold distance for each of his triggers? How long can he work before he needs a break? How solid are his foundation behaviors? How long an exposure can he handle? What does he find reinforcing? Consolidating this information, in addition to using your practiced eyes and ability to read canine body language, should keep the class running smoothly and safely.
Since I need to focus all of my attention on the students and what their dogs are doing, I make mental (not physical) notes during class. I watch each student and her dog carefully, looking for signs of stress and tracking how fast they are accumulating so I can help before the dog goes over threshold. In particular, I look for dilated pupils or glazed eyes, changes in respiration (heavy panting or holding breath), stiff posture or raised hackles, sharking or disinterest in treats, inability to refocus, and increased environmental scanning. The build-up to an actual outburst happens in seconds, so the instructor, assistants, and students have to learn to recognize and react to the signs intuitively and instantaneously. It’s something you can’t take time to analyze; you feel it in your gut.
After class, however, I jot down the names of those dogs that might need something more. For example, we might need to escort one dog in last next time, or we might need to station another dog next to the door. I e-mail these notes to the assistants so that they are aware of the plan. I often teach several classes in a row, but I always schedule at least half an hour in between them to allow for this analysis and note-making. Don’t count on keeping it all in your head.
In turn, my assistants keep me informed about incidents and problems that occur outside the classroom, which I wouldn’t be able to see and monitor. For instance, they e-mail me about the potential conflict posed by a student who drives a long distance and needs to potty her dog before class, or a student with knee problems who needs extra time to get her dog out of the car.
As students get their homework, I congratulate them on their first class together with all their “problem children” in one room. Now that they have practiced entering and exiting the building, getting to their assigned barriers, and keeping their dogs occupied, engaged, and under threshold in the room, the next step is exposing them to a “mild” trigger. That’ll happen next week. Encourage them, if they can do so safely, to determine their dog’s “working threshold,” as outlined in “Your Dog’s Melting Point.”
Week Three Home Management
Every Dog Deserves a Sanctuary of His Own
It is critical for your dog to have a safe place, a sanctuary that he can call his own. Although you may have a dog that is not friendly with people or other dogs, you may want to have visitors of either species at your home at some point. Many years ago, when I was living with Ben, I still invited visitors to our home to bring their dogs along as well. When they did, Ben would go into his crate in our finished basement with a frozen stuffed Kong. As an added sound barrier, I put the TV on to help “normalize” the environment and allow him to relax without fixating on the sounds of activity upstairs.
Living with a reactive or aggressive dog can feel isolating. If you do not find ways to create a healthy outlet so you can live a somewhat normal social life, you may find yourself resenting the dog you love so much.
When visitors are expected, you will want to know the approximate time they will be arriving so that your dog will be in his Safe Space before they arrive. The Safe Space should always have fun things: a work-to-eat toy, a frozen stuffed Kong, an antler or marrow bone. The ideal fun thing is some item that your dog a) really enjoys and b) can enjoy safely even if you are unable to supervise. It’s a good idea to play soft music, the radio, or television as a distraction so the dog will have something other than the sounds of your human or canine visitors to focus on.
Make it clear that the visitors are not to visit the dog at any time without your presence and approval. The Safe Space room is strictly off limits, with absolutely no exceptions! If curiosity killed the cat, it may seriously injure even well-intentioned visitors and place you and your dog in an uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, position. Additionally, such an event may provide your dog with the opportunity to rehearse aggression and reactivity while reinforcing your dog’s belief that people are unpredictable and not tremendously smart about respecting his boundaries.
If your dog has a room of his own already, slowly begin requiring that he spend more time in it each day. Be sure that you are putting him in his Safe Space for variable amounts of time at different times of the day. Give him mentally stimulating toys unpredictably, referring to “Toys with a Purpose” (here) for ideas if you are unsure of what to offer. Do put the TV or radio on while the dog is in this room: you want the room to sound as “normal” as possible. For example, if you usually listen to a certain type of music or watch a certain television show at the same time every day and your dog happens to be in his Safe Space during that time, choose those background noises to normalize that environment.
If your dog does not already have a designated Safe Space, the following tips will help you create one:
1.Decide which room you will be keeping your dog in. Your choice of room matters less than the room’s security. Your Safe Space could be a room with a strong baby gate, an X-pen in a spare bedroom, or a guest bathroom that you rarely use. As long as the dog cannot break out of his Safe Space and has enough room to play with his toys, the space will be fine. To avoid creating a situation where your dog can develop or rehearse barrier frustration, do not use a room where the dog has visual access to visitors.
2.Feed each meal in this location. Prepare your dog’s meal in another room, keeping him with you. He can be doing any polite behavior he likes (other than jumping, barking, and so on) as you prepare the meal. If he is behaving inappropriately, ask him to offer a behavior you like such as sitting or lying down. As long as it’s polite, it’s acceptable.
3.Once the meal is ready, take it to his Safe Space, and just as he is about to enter the space, give your verbal cue, whatever it may be. After he’s entered the space, set down his meal. I use “Kennel Up!” with my dogs. In this way, eventually you will be able to send him to his Safe Space on a verbal cue from any distance. This is handy if and when an unexpected visitor arrives.
4.As you continue to develop your dog’s Kennel Up behavior, ask him to “Kennel Up” from different areas and distances in the house. When that behavior is reliable, you can practice asking your dog to “Kennel Up” from an outside area, making sure that he can run quickly to his Safe Space inside.
From time to time, you may wonder if you should put your dog in his Safe Space to discipline him for undesirable behavior. I do this with my dogs because, in most cases, when my dogs get into trouble, it is because they are tired and overstimulated. I put them in their Safe Space with mentally stimulating toys so they can settle and de-stress. Within minutes, they fall asleep. If you make the Safe Space a happy place to be 99% of the time, then the 1% of the time you use it to give the dog a quiet environment to relax will not undo all your previous hard work conditioning the Safe Space as a happy place. While teenagers may be relegated to their bedrooms when they are “grounded,” few hate their bedrooms because that is where all the fun stuff usually is!
Week Three Foundation Behavior
Your Dog’s Melting Point
The first step in rehabilitating your reactive or aggressive dog is to determine his reactivity threshold, the point at which he is about to step over the line and react. At any time he is conscious, your dog is working on one of two levels: he is either “under” threshold or “over” threshold. If your dog is “under his threshold,” we call his state of mind “operant,” that is, he is able to process information from you, respond, and learn. If he is “over his threshold,” he reacts inappropriately to triggers—whatever sets him off in the environment—which severely limits his ability to listen to, respond to, or learn from you. Triggers are variable. Anything can be a trigger. The sight of dogs and people are the most common; however dogs can also react to specific triggers such as fast-moving objects or children’s activity. A dog’s ideal working threshold is below his reactivity point, characterized by his ability to notice the trigger without an inappropriate, undesirable, or dangerous response. A dog at threshold level may be physically aroused (often he has a slightly harder mouth when taking treats) but is able to eat readily and respond to well-known cues.
Determining Your Dog’s Working Threshold
While you may not have a specific number of feet or yards in your head that defines your dog’s working threshold, you probably know instinctively how close your dog can come to a known trigger before he overreacts. For example, if your dog reacts to other dogs, you may feel fairly relaxed if you encounter a dog a football field’s distance away, but when another dog crosses the street and approaches you, you can feel your heartbeat quicken, your respiration rate increase, your hands get clammy, and your grip tighten on the leash. The same holds true if your dog reacts to people, and a stranger walks toward you.
Your dog’s threshold may be influenced by multiple factors: distance; time elapsed; the behavior, gender, or appearance of the other dog (some dogs may react more strongly to dogs of a particular size, gender, or body type, or dogs that are romping and playing versus sitting quietly or sniffing), and so on. If your dog is right at the edge of his tolerance level, you may want to keep your exposures short in duration. If you want to work on longer duration exposures, it’s a good idea to work slightly farther away from the trigger in question or find a more “subdued” trigger. Pay attention to these factors; as you learn more about your dog and his comfort zone, you will be able to orchestrate exposures to triggers in a controlled manner that helps you and your dog stay comfortable, engaged, and feeling safe learning together. Since dogs get better at anything and everything they practice, practicing subthreshold exposures will help break the cycle of reactivity.
If you do not know what your dog’s working threshold is, you will need to gather a little information. For this exercise, you will either need to recruit a friend with a nonreactive dog or locate an area where handlers walk their dogs on leash, like a local park. Ben and I did much of our training work at a local park that borders a busy street, so the chances that someone would be walking a dog off leash were slim to none. The more space available to you the better, so that you can exit quickly and safely if necessary.
Determining Your Dog’s Reactivity Threshold
1.Ask your friend to walk her dog at a distance that you feel is safe for you and your dog, or set yourselves up at a similar distance from main walking paths.
2.At that distance, instruct your friend to walk her dog back and forth perpendicular to you and your dog; if you are walking forward in a straight line, she will be moving laterally across your path.
a.Above all, avoid head-on or frontal approaches, which are most likely to trigger a reactive response.
3.Once your friend is walking her dog back and forth across your path at your estimated threshold distance, you can begin walking with your dog, but just take a couple of steps forward, and then evaluate your dog’s body language for signs of stress.
a.Keep in mind that the ideal threshold distance for your dog means he can stand at the edge of the “reactivity cliff” without falling off and launching into a full-blown reaction.
4.If your dog is doing well at the current distance, you can shrink it by moving forward a couple of steps more.
5.Keep your eyes on your dog throughout this exercise, noting his reaction at each approach.
6.When you have reached a distance where you feel your dog is close to reacting, stop! Note this distance, then back up approximately five feet. This is where you will want to begin the exposure exercises for your dog.
If a dog and handler cross your path and you see your dog beginning to ramp up, you know you’ve reached your dog’s melting point. Step back 5’ and try again. If he tolerates the dog and handler at this further distance, you’ve found his working threshold.
Here are some signs that your dog might be approaching his threshold:
•Increased rate of respiration (panting)
•Decreased rate of respiration (holding breath)
•Inability to eat/decreased interest in reinforcement
•Inability to refocus after each treat
•Heightened levels of environmental scanning
•Body stiff, seemingly unable to move
•Dilated pupils/glassy-eyed stare
For a human-reactive dog, the formula is basically the same (without the stranger’s dog), and you would want to find a distraction-free site without a lot of other people who would only heighten your dog’s stress.
In class, we manipulate this working threshold, gradually shrinking it as we move closer to the trigger or triggers that concern your dog, always at a pace determined by the dog’s success. While your dog will not be meeting or interacting with other dogs in class, he will be learning the skills necessary to navigate environments where he will encounter his triggers with confidence and good behavior.
Your dog will learn that other dogs and people are part of the working environment but what keeps him safe and prevents the reactive response is focusing on you, his life coach. It’s not uncommon to encounter dogs that are not aggressive toward other dogs but are uncomfortable in their presence. Once they start learning that there is a structure that can keep them safe, these dogs grow in confidence and, at some point, may be able to interact safely with well-selected doggy friends. This is not true for all dogs, however, and most may develop great coping skills in public environments around their triggers while still preferring not to interact physically or socially with other dogs. This mindset is OK! Dogs do not need relationships with other dogs to be happy, and your rehabilitated reactive dog will have a great quality of life with you as his play partner.
The focus is always on teaching your dog to continue thinking in a doggy-saturated or a people-saturated environment while taking cues from you, his life coach. He will look to you for the guidance needed to keep him safe and comfortable, allowing you to make decisions for him regardless of circumstance.
Week Three Foundation Behavior
“Can You Look At This Dog?”
This is the phrase that I said to Ben each time we encountered a dog: “Can you look at this dog, Ben?” Ben then turned his head, looked at the other dog, and then looked at me as if to say, “See! Yes, I can do it! Now give me my cookies!”
Although mine was not the best cue (it’s too long), it made me feel better saying it in a singsong voice. (Leslie McDevitt, in her book Control Unleashed, suggests a lovely cue: “Look at that!” Short and easy!) I also liked the idea of asking Ben a question. I wanted to let him decide whether he had the emotional strength and self-control to look at the other dog. In the ten years that I worked with Ben, there were only two times that he actually said, “No!”
Once was when we had a private agility lesson in an arena where there was a Rottweiler in an X-pen at the far end of the space. Usually I could walk Ben into a space and click and feed him for happily looking at the other dogs. Once he was familiar with the environment, we were ready to work off leash. This day, however, when I asked him to look at the Rottweiler, he stopped, growled, and stood behind me, using me as a shield. I looked down at him, baffled. Ben had never said “No” in response to this question. I thought to myself, “Should I actually make him look at the other dog?” but realized that forcing Ben to look at this trigger would counteract all that I had taught him. Looking was always his decision. So, instead, I heeled him away, asking him to focus on his work. And that he did with nary a look in the Rottweiler’s direction!
In Week Four, we work on teaching the dog to look at the types of triggers (strangers and dogs) that have frightened or overstimulated him before. In the past, the sight of such triggers might have made you feel tense and extremely frustrated at the inappropriate reaction you expected from your dog. “Why does this have to happen to me?” you muttered to yourself. “All I wanted was a nice dog!” To make next week easier for both of you, this week you will start shaping your dog to look purposefully at neutral objects for a click and then to turn back to you for a treat. Next week you’ll be working on the same behavior with an actual trigger, not a neutral object.
Once your dog catches on to this behavior, it’s your choice whether or not you want to put it on a cue. It’s not necessary to make progress, but sometimes it is nice to have control over the behavior.
Training the “Can You Look?” Behavior
1.Practice with your dog in his appropriate training equipment.
2.Decide which object you will use.
a.It should be an object that means nothing to your dog emotionally (so don’t choose his favorite tuggie that makes him go bonkers).
b.Sometimes it may be more realistic to teach your dog to look at a small stuffed dog or doll, but any object will do.
c.Be sure that your dog is comfortable with the object you select before you start working with it.
3.Put the object down so that your dog can see it but not touch it.
a.Do not place it just out of his reach! We do not want your dog to feel any frustration during training!
4.Click and feed your dog as he looks at the object.
5.Practice clicking and feeding your dog for looking about ten times.
a.If your dog loses interest, pick up the object and put it down again with a flourish to spark his interest.
6.Now pick up the object and go to a different room.
7.Repeat Steps 3–5.
8.Continue to vary where you work, inside various rooms as well as outside.
a.You may need to adjust the reinforcement value of your treat as you work in these different environments.
9.As your dog begins to offer the look behavior reliably, you can insert your verbal cue if you want. It is not necessary to put this behavior on cue for the rest of the training to work.
a.As your dog looks at the object, insert your verbal cue to look.
b.Click and feed your dog a tasty treat for looking at the object.
10.What you are aiming for is a dog that rapidly bounces back and forth between looking at the object and checking in with you for his treat.
Week Three Emergency Behavior
In this exercise, you will teach your dog to walk with you and respond to changes in your movement and direction. You will begin to move forward together, and if you begin moving backward, your dog will reorient his body toward yours and seek the “front” position himself, by aligning his front paws between your feet. This is a wonderful way to get your dog’s attention and focus when you suspect a troublesome situation may be brewing. Simultaneously, it allows you to remove yourselves from the situation.
I remember attending an obedience class with Ben. On our left was a woman with a dog that fixated on Ben, locking on visually to stare. This can be a challenging situation for any reactive dog, and initially Ben handled the situation with aplomb, ignoring the dog and offering me all of his attention. I noticed as the class proceeded, though, that maintaining this level of focus on me became increasingly difficult for Ben, and his attention began drifting toward the other dog. When we lined up for the recall exercise, it was just our luck that we ended up right next to the offending party, closer than ever. Not wanting to place ourselves in a situation where an unwanted reaction would be imminent and nearly unavoidable, I knew I needed to change our position relative to our classmate and her dog.
I started walking backward. The instant I changed the direction of my movement, Ben spun around and started to approach the “front” position. Now all of his attention was back on me and we could move easily in partnership together once again.
When you are working through exposure exercises with your dog, the ability to turn your dog’s body toward you immediately and silently is a necessity, not a luxury. In a class situation, you may be working an exposure exercise and find that despite all your clicking and treating, your dog is so fixated on a trigger that he will not reorient to you to collect reinforcement. In these types of situations, breaking the stare by having your dog move willingly and happily with you, away from the trigger, is a great way to interrupt undesirable behavior patterns while regaining your dog’s attention.
Training Come Front
1.Walk forward with your dog on your side. While the left side is traditional, you may choose whichever side a) is most comfortable for you and b) you can maintain consistently. Choose right or left for this stage of training.
2.Stop moving forward.
3.With a treat held in both hands, place your hands in front of the dog’s nose and turn the dog’s head in toward you as you take a few steps backward.
•You want to hold the treat with both hands simply because you do not want the dog to focus on the left or right side of your body, but to come to the center of your body (lining his feet up between your feet, which should be spread shoulder-width apart).
•Your dog should now be facing you.
5.Click and deliver a treat at the center of your body.
6.Repeat this exercise until the dog swings into the front position quickly to accept his treat.
7.If you are having trouble with the dog coming to the front of your body, try this exercise:
a.With the dog in front of you, fill each hand with the same number of treats.
b.Let the dog know that you have the treats.
c.Take a step back.
d.As you are stepping back, bring one of your hands up, against the center of your body, at the height of your dog’s nose. Pretend that your elbows are glued to your torso so that the dog has to come in close to get the treat.
e.Click, if you like, and deliver the treat. It is best to click with the hand that will not be delivering the treat, so you can avoid clicking too close to the dog’s ears. Clicking close to a dog’s ears can be frightening—try it near your own ear and you may be surprised at how loud it sounds!
f.Repeat this exercise again, only this time deliver the treat from your other hand. Your dog should be getting a treat at the center of your body, and you will alternate your treat delivery hand after each step backward. (Switch your clicker hand accordingly.)
g.Repeat until all of your treats are gone.
h.Go slowly, so that the dog understands that staying in front of you is a reliable predictor of a high rate of reinforcement. Once the behavior is learned, you can go back to Step 1 and practice steps 1–6.
Use treats in one or both hands to lure your dog into position facing the front of your body. Let your hands do the work. With your dog at your side and a treat on his nose, take a couple of steps forward, start to bring the treat toward your waist as you step backward, making sure he turns toward you, and reinforce when his body is face to face with you.
Practice this behavior often at home and in a variety of low-distraction environments using the equipment your dog wears at class. Practice until the dog turns automatically to find front when you begin walking backward. You may want to practice this exercise with distractions you can easily control (food or toys on the floor, a favorite person on the other side of the room or street, and so on) before you begin practicing the “Come Front” exercise in conjunction with exposure to triggers.