Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reactive Dog Skills

*I would highly encourage anyone with a reactive or aggressive dog to seek professional help from a qualified +R trainer in your area.  Missing critical readings of behavior is disastrous to training and the owner's relationship with their dog.

In working with my dog, Dolce, I'm finding the wisdom of The Third Way's approach to ring true.  Its founder, Chris Bach, says that dogs who are really scared of something can't ever be made to overcome their fear.  If a person is afraid of the dentist, at best, they will likely be able to tolerate, maybe not even be too terribly bothered by going to their appointment.  But there is always that nagging fear that whatever bad thing happened will happen again.

So, as we can't truly socialize fear out of a dog, we can teach the dog skills to cope really well.  These skills are, in my opinion:

  • Sit
  • Touch
  • Front
  • Watch Me
  • Loose-Leash Walking/Heel
  • Let's Go (180┬║ turn)
  • Look At That
  • Bounce (BAT principle)
These are the cues I teach at IDOGS.  The +R manifesto states that you reward behaviors you like, and interrupt behaviors you don't.  One form of interruption can be to teach an incompatible behavior.  If a dog is in a Front position, facing its handler, staring into their eyes on a Watch Me cue, they can't be looking at a trigger.  If a dog is walking on a loose-leash, and can be called into Heel position at any time, they can't be out ahead looking for a trigger around the corner so the handler has no time to prepare or react to the situation appropriately.  Rather than continuing a dog who has encountered its trigger to stare at it, turning around and walking the other direction helps your dog trust that you will respect their discomfort, removes the threat, and will help the situation be a little less scary next time.  If every time the dog encounters its trigger, the owner marks that moment with an enthusiastic, but fairly calm "Look at that" and then the dog is heavily rewarded while remaining under threshold, a new association can form between the dog and its trigger(s).

What then, is this Bounce exercise?  It's how you can close the gap safely, at your dog's pace, while teaching them new skills.  This is the tricky part.  The handler must be able to read the dog's body language.  We're looking for a calming signal when we approach the dog's threshold.  This is basically anything that isn't freezing, lunging, barking, or growling.  It can be things such as tongue flicks, lying down, sniffing the ground, turning away and looking somewhere else, an eye blink, scratching, or sitting.  When the dog offers any of these behaviors, we mark with a word or clicker, and walk the dog away to safety and throw a party when we get there.  It is imperative that as the dog becomes aware of the trigger and starts to exhibit any sort of worry, we stop immediately and wait patiently for them to make a good decision AKA display a calming signal.  If we go too far, and the dog reacts, a simple "Let's Go" will suffice.  That was our mistake, so we needn't be mad at the dog.  Depending on how upset the dog is, we may have to practice calming down (take a break and go walk it off, give the dog a back massage, etc.), or try again another day.

So let's say a successful approach, calming signal, retreat has been accomplished.  It's rinse and repeat time.  If you were to draw your footsteps on a piece of paper, it would look as though you and your dog are bouncing off an invisible barrier.  That barrier is your dog's threshold, and it can only be determined by the dog, on that day, with that trigger, in that environment.  All these different factors contribute to the dog's state of mind for a given session, and we must remember that.  Just because feisty fido got within 3-feet of the exact same trigger in the exact same spot yesterday, it doesn't mean they'll be able to repeat that accomplishment today or tomorrow.

Let's say you've closed the gap, but putting things in motion, especially in close proximity, is still overstimulating your dog.  The Touch game can really help your dog stay focused on you while walking in heel position passed whatever trigger you're working with.  Dogs seem to find Touch intrinsically enjoyable, especially with someone they know and love.  If your dog is walking at your left side passed a trigger, cue Touch several times as you go by to keep your dog engaged with you and his/her mind off the trigger.  Do this several times, and try cuing less and less until your dog can confidently, happily, and calmly walk by the trigger while maintaining focus on you.

These are the tools I'm implementing with Dolce and my IDOGS clients.  Many people come for the first session, get the list of these tools and how to use them, and go on to come back a week, a month, or more later with drastically improved dogs.  It's a method you can't really do wrong, except if you push your dog too far.  You can't hurt the dog unless you get too close too soon.  I tell everyone, "If your dog is yelling at the trigger, you've gone too far!"

What are your favorite tricks of the trade for your reactive dogs?  Does teaching a skill, rather than truly desensitizing and counterconditioning, make sense to you?

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