Tuesdays are market days at Diagonal San Antonio! We used this opportunity to walk through as the vendors were just setting up shop in the morning.
We also did – as we do most days – a little (or a lot of) shaping, drove a slightly longer (about 2 minutes while yesterday was about 1 minute) loop on an empty stomach (success! No throwing up or pooping!), spent some time in the car crate, and hung out at home with Game.
I know a beautiful black Standard Poodle named Gidget. She’s 2.5 years old, and lives with a wonderful human who’s ready to do pretty much anything for her: Brandy.
Gidget is an anxious dog. Not when she’s home with fellow Poodle Kona, or practicing cooperative care behaviors with Brandy in her house. Not even when she’s in her familiar car crate. These are safe spaces for her. She gets to be herself. At least, she doesn’t seem anxious in these contexts – we can’t ask her because she doesn’t speak human.
She does, however, get anxious in new places. And even in certain familiar ones. Gidget is a perfectly normal Poodle in that she has certain things she really enjoys, such as going on hikes and making dog friends on the trails. What’s hardest for her is not the hike itself. Nor is it being in her safe space in the car. It’s the transition between the two: making the seemingly HUGE effort to get out of the car, and get to the trail head.
We all know that control over your own outcomes is a primary reinforcer1, don’t we? Choices are great? So Brandy and I decided to give Gidget more control over her choice of exiting the car crate in the first place. We started with a treat test: can you take treats in the car? If so, great! If not – no pressure. You can stay in the car. If Gidget could eat, Brandy would release her from the car. Next, we’d use the 123 walking game in combination with a start button behavior. This way – we thought – we could let Gidget choose whether or not she wanted to walk from the car to the trail head or venture into other new environments, or whether she’d rather get back in the car.
In my experience as a dog trainer, dogs tend to opt in more and enjoy themselves more the more agency they are given. I hoped that Gidget would feel this way, too!
A detour: what is the 123 game?
The 123 game is one of Leslie McDevitt’s CU (Control Unleashed) pattern games. It’s based on the assumption that familiar patterns help us navigate familiar and unfamiliar environments. The basic version of the 123 game is very simple: the point is not for the pattern to be complex, but for it to help both human and dog to implement it quickly and even in distracting environments. Here’s how it goes:
Count your steps as you are walking forward: one – two – three. Feed a treat from your hand at three. Count out loud again as you keep walking: one – two – three. Feed a treat at three, and so on. In the basic version of the game, the treat always happens at 3, and the dog doesn’t have to do anything – you count as you walk, and they eat every three steps. It’s predictable, and it can be incredibly helpful to get a dog from one end of a training building to the other, from your car to the agility field, or simply across the street. Both the predictability and the eating help the dog and give them something other than the environment to focus on. You, as the human, also have clear and easy instructions about what to do (as opposed to what not to do: “Don’t pull on the leash, don’t tell your dog to heel,” etc.).
Another detour: what is a start button?
A start button behavior is any behavior the dog has learned to use as a cue for the human to do something, or for the human to ask the dog to do something. We use start buttons a lot in cooperative care and voluntary sharing – but really, there is no end to their application. Common start buttons include visual targets (looking at something or someone; making eye contact) and tactile targets (for example a chin rest on a hand or object, or stepping and staying on a platform).
Rather than feeding each treat from her hand, Brandy put the treat on the ground, next to her shoe, anytime she got to 3. Like in the basic version of the game, you will be walking and counting your steps, and your dog will eat at 3. However, the difference is that now, you’ll stop at 3, then put down the treat and wait for your dog to eat. And you will only start moving/counting again if the dog offers a start button behavior: if they look up at you. This turns the 123 game into requested approach training (RAT).
The video below shows Gidget learning the start button version of the 123 game in her yard. Notice how Brandy waits for Gidget to make eye contact before she starts counting again! The taking and eating of the treat interrupts the behavior of paying attention to Brandy, giving Gidget an opportunity to offer eye contact again once she’s ready – or not if she’s done.
What is requested approach training?
Requested approach training (RAT) is Leslie’s term for CU games that empower the dog to direct how close they will get to something, or how close something will get to them.
In the RAT version of the 123 game, you’ll stay put as long as your dog sniffs the ground or looks around rather than up at you. This is what we did with Gidget once she had learned the game at home, and we took it out into the world: it was up to her if she wanted to go further from the car. If she did, she’d look up at Brandy after eating, which was Brandy’s cue to walk and count three more steps. If Gidget didn’t look up within 5 seconds, Brandy would turn around, and they would return to the car: Gidget got to go back into her safe space. No need to venture out into the big and scary world unless you want to!
Windows of opportunity
Windows of opportunity to offer a certain behavior – such as 5 seconds for Gidget to make eye contact after eating – serve an important purpose in this kind of training: if you just waited your dog out indefinitely, sooner or later, they would look up at you. So even though you wouldn’t be actively “making them” move ahead, it would not be a real choice. It is only a real choice when the dog can opt out easily. A clearly defined window of opportunity is one way for the dog to opt out. (Another one is not taking the treat on the ground.)
How we imagined the training would go
Once Gidget knew the game, we took it to a quiet, low distraction parking lot. I imagined that after a little practice, Gidget would happily cue Brandy to take her all the way to the trailhead on the other side. After all, we already knew that Gidget loved the car, and loved the hike – it was just the space in between that wasn’t her favorite place in the world.
How it actually went
I (because of the kind of human I am, the fact that I knew Brandy would do a great job, and my own love of patterns) like to imagine things working out beautifully – but that’s not what happened for Gidget.
The video below shows Gidget’s first 123 session in the real world. You may want to watch the second attempt (where I didn’t add freeze frames) more than once to notice both lip licks! You can also use the gear wheel in the bottom right corner of the Youtube video to slow the clip down to half its original speed – it’ll help you notice subtle body language details.
It took approximately 10 sessions to get Gidget comfortable with three to four 123 reps before she asked to return to the car. The video below shows a BIG difference from that first attempt! But you can see that it is still hard for her: rather than looking right up at Brandy after eating, as she did in her yard, it takes her 4-5 seconds (the entire window of opportunity) to offer the respective next start button. At this stage, we plateaued for a while.
Plateauing means we need to change something. So we did!
Treat scatters in 123
We integrated a treat scatter into the 123 RAT game to help Gidget calm down on the way out into The Big World: when Gidget scanned (insecurity) or sniffed (if there isn’t anything worth sniffing, this is often a displacement behavior) for more than 5 seconds without offering eye contact, we integrated a treat scatter (as suggested by my wonderful colleagues Leslie McDevitt and Jennie Murphy) anytime Gidget wasn’t able to offer her start button behavior (eye contact) after eating the previous “3” treat. She could usually eat the scatter, and it relaxed her nicely. A lot of the time, she’d be immediately able to offer her start button behavior after finishing her scatter. Post scatter, we gave her a second 5-second window to offer eye contact. If she didn’t, Brandy and Gidget would return to the car.
Below is Gidget’s very first rep with scatters – and she nails it! She makes it up to SEVEN 123s with the help of scatters (Brandy’s scatter cue is, “Find it!”).
The very next time they went out to do scatter 123s in Gidget’s first training environment (if I remember correctly), she met the goal Brandy had set for her: ten 123s without asking to go back to the car! Success in environment #1! Gidget only needed ONE scatter during these ten 123 reps, even though it was a windy (noisy!) day!
When we went to a second environment, the same initial challenges presented themselves, and Gidget’s body language and her trouble taking treats showed us that she wasn’t ready to choose to walk away from the car. The second place Brandy tried was also relatively calm – but there was more traffic.
When opting out and then released to go back to the car and hop back in her crate, Gidget’s body language would change: she’d shed the tension; her tail went up. She looked relieved.
The video below is from the first 123 field trip to environment #2. Notice that Gidget can’t eat the treat Brandy puts down at 00:05. This is her opting out. Brandy reads her well, and takes her back to the car right away.
Hikes – yay or nay?
We knew that Gidget really enjoyed her hikes. She had a great time exploring nature trails with Brandy and her Poodle sister Kona, sniffing all the things, looking for critters … Gidget genuinely likes hiking, and her body language shows it! The video below shows clips of Brandy playing hide and seek with Gidget, taking turns praising and rewarding auto check-ins, and a recall – it’s a video Brandy took for my Out and About class at FDSA and allowed me to share here. Look at her tail carriage, the happy face, how she runs with a bounce in her step, and how proudly she carries her tail! This is a Poodle who’s having a blast on her hike, and lots of fun with Brandy – not a Poodle who’d rather be sitting in a crate in a car!
Leadership versus Choice
After seeing just how much Gidget struggled in environment #2 (more than I would have liked to see after our work in environment #1), I asked myself: what happens when Brandy takes the lead and doesn’t ask Gidget whether she would like to go further towards the trail (and away from the car)? I had been operating under a “choice is best” paradigm, and this was a good reminder that dog training is a study of one. Just because choice is best for some or even most dogs doesn’t automatically make it the right approach for Gidget. Only Gidget can tell us what is the right approach for Gidget! I asked Brandy to show me what walking away from the car in environment #2 looked like if she clearly took the lead:
Not being given a choice – like Brandy used to do pre-123 – ended up working better for Gidget than being asked to voluntarily opt in. She just couldn’t easily opt into leaving a safe space voluntarily, even if on the other side of leaving this space, something great – such as a hike – awaited. Notice the lack of scanning the environment, and Gidget’s higher (more confident) tail carriage in the video above! It’s hard to believe that this is the same place as in the first 123 video in environment #2!
This brings up a number of interesting questions and observations:
Some dogs, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some dogs have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
Transitions are hard. For some dogs, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a dog like Gidget … just live her life at home, in her house and yard, and skip all hikes unless she voluntarily opts in?
Should we medicate dogs like Gidget? (Gidget already is on medication for generalized anxiety. How should we define that “the meds are working” though? Are they working if the dog is able to follow your lead and have a good time? Or are they working only once the dog is able to opt in voluntarily?)
These questions don’t have clear-cut answers. In the end, we are making dogs live in a world designed by and for humans. And it is going to be the human who ends up making all of the above choices for their dog. Different humans will make different choices, and that’s okay: we all love our dogs, and do our best to give them a good life. It’s just that our definitions of a good life, and how we weigh factors such as getting exercise outdoors, freedom to choose etc. is different for every one of us. One dog owner may think that hiking matters more than freedom of choice, and vice versa, and neither one would be wrong: there simply is no objective answer, no matter how much we wish there was.
Let’s think about humans!
I know humans like Gidget. If you’re a human like Gidget, you might struggle to take the first step in a conversation or the planning of an event, even if that first step would eventually lead to an enjoyable activity. Or maybe you struggle to leave your safe space, and can’t quite put your finger on the reason why. Maybe you beat yourself up about it (which doesn’t help anyone, but is an easy go-to that distracts from the actual issue at hand).
The thing is: Gidget isn’t wrong – she’s very much right about the world. It is indeed scary and unpredictable. It’s just that most animals – including most humans and most dogs – are really good at pretending it isn’t. Objectively speaking though, just because nothing bad happened yesterday doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen today. That’s a fact – it’s not just paranoia. And just like Gidget, there are humans who know that the world is a scary and unpredictable, overwhelming place to inhabit. The majority of us pretending that everything is fine isn’t helping if you happen to be someone who can’t pretend. If anything, it makes things worse.
However, it is certainly easier to exist in the world if we can make ourselves feel safe. It’s an ability I treasure. Anxiety sucks, and given a choice, I’ll trade it for the illusion of safety every time. No questions asked. (But then again, that’s just me. And we’re all different.)
Let’s ask the questions that have come up for me in the course of following Gidget and Brandy’s journey – but let’s ask them about humans (like Gidget) this time. Maybe they will be easier to answer for our own species than for dogs. Maybe we can tap into a shared human experience, and find some answers.
Some humans, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some humans have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
If we take “performing the task satisfactorily” as a measuring stick, some humans will perform better with clear leadership than with choice. They have a hard time doing something fun if the bridge between the status quo and the potentially fun goal involves a decision to step out of a safe space. Yes – this is certainly true, even if not universally so. I’d venture it is true for most children in some situations, and for some adults in most situations.
An example from my childhood
As a child, I used to be scared of making phone calls. Even phone calls to set up a playdate with my best friend. I loved playdates with my best friend, but I knew her parents would answer the phone, which meant I would have to remember the script one is supposed to follow when talking to someone’s parents on the phone. The whole situation was stressful. When I’m stressed, I’m bad at remembering scripts. I kept asking my parents to make these phone calls for me instead. But the rules were clear, no matter how much I pleaded: I had to call myself, or there would be no play date.
I remember the feeling vividly, even today. Especially my mom: if I explore my feelings around this topic, even now, there is a part of me that feels hurt and let down because she didn’t offer to make the call for me. Which is interesting given how many years have passed! Back in the day, I would usually try to bargain and beg, but end up making the call myself. It would always be highly stressful. It wasn’t something that got easier over time – it just kept being hard. Day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t know why it was equally hard every time. After all, I kept practicing the script of talking to someone’s parents, and I kept successfully setting up playdates. The motivation of seeing my friend outweighed my fear of the call: I’d make the call (the behavior was stable because it kept getting reinforced), but I’d always feel bad about it (it didn’t get counterconditioned).
Today, I’m not afraid of making phone calls. The adult I am is not a human like Gidget – quite the opposite. I’m an adult who seeks out places and experiences others might consider dangerous. I like climbing abandoned buildings, and I sometimes dream of being a war journalist. I’m also an adult whose favorite dogs are dogs like Gidget. I like working with them, thinking about them, learning from them, and earning their trust.
But unless I’m expecting a client to call, I don’t answer my phone. Even if I know the number – unless I’ve scheduled a phone date with you. I prefer making calls to answering them. And I very much prefer written or in-person communication to phone calls overall. If you are someone I talk to on the phone every once in a while, know that you’re an exception, and very important to me.
If I had a child, I probably wouldn’t force them to make that call – I’d give them the option, maybe try and encourage them to give it a try sometime. But if they really wanted the playdate, and really didn’t want to talk on the phone, I’d do it for them. Why? Two reasons. One, I don’t want them to hold a grudge against me 30 years after the fact. And two, I don’t think the reason I’m not afraid of making phone calls anymore is the fact that I had to practice making them as a child. I can’t be sure because human minds work in mysterious ways – but I believe the reason is simply that I grew up to be a confident adult, and would have either way. I don’t think having to make phone calls as a child had any benefits for me.
Here, listening to my opt-out (making the phone call for me) would have been a better approach. I suspect the actual playdate was always too far away in time in order for me to get counterconditioned (change my feelings about phone calls) about setting it up in the first place. We keep pretending that humans are able to learn from reinforcers that are far removed in time – but truly, are we? I’m not so sure.
Another childhood example
When I was a kid, my mom would often visit her relatives on weekends. My dad would prefer to stay home. Both wanted me to be with them and share their weekend. And the choice was mine: did I want to go see the big family, or do fun things with dad? I remember it felt torturous. I’m sure my parents weren’t aware of it. They were doing the best they could, and probably trying to increase my agency (like Brandy and I tried with Gidget and the 123 game). But boy, weekends were hard!
One, I enjoyed both doing things with my dad, and visiting my mom’s family. I don’t think any of the two was intrinsically preferable to me. Two, for Chrissi, the child, it wasn’t a choice between two activities – it was a choice between who to make happy. Choosing to stay with my dad would make my mom unhappy, and choosing to go with her would make my dad unhappy. My job, my raison d’être, was to make both of them happy, which was both impossible and felt like a failure on my part.
Sometimes I picked my mom, but asked her to stop the car a few hundred meters from the house, got out, and walked back home to stay with my dad after all. Other times I picked her on the condition that we would leave by a certain time so I’d still have time with my dad in the afternoon – maybe I could make both of them happy! I’d enjoy the day, but always keep an eye on the clock, and then I’d remind her of our agreement … and she would generally ignore it. For whatever reason, I ended up trusting her word again the next time. And the next time after. I remember this whole part of my childhood, even though it consisted of weekend experiences I genuinely liked (time with dad; time with mom’s family), first and foremost as stressful.
In this second case, what would have been the best way to handle things? I probably benefited from both kinds of experiences – family time and dad time. If my parents had agreed on a schedule and just stuck to it, not fought about it, and shared that schedule with me rather than letting me pick one, life would have been a lot easier.
Let’s go back to dogs for a minute!
How does this compare to Gidget, the Poodle, and dog training in general? I’ve seen dogs who try so hard to please their person, independent of what they actually want themselves (hint: a lot of the time, these dogs are Border Collies). This is one reason windows of time are important.
I don’t think Gidget felt this kind of pressure: she isn’t the kind of dog who’s extremely prone to feeling this way, and Brandy did a great job making sure Gidget never felt “wrong” when she chose to go back to the car.
Still, in a way, both childhood examples apply to Gidget: IF Gidget is going to go on hikes, she’ll benefit from clear leadership as opposed to choice: today, we’re going on a hike. Tomorrow, you’ll stay home (a safe and fun place, too). Brandy will make it for her, and take the lead (Brandy will make the phone call for Gidget, so to speak).
Transitions are hard. For some humans, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
I know kids as well as adults this is true for. Some (all?) kids benefit from a heads up: “In 5-10 minutes, we’re going to head home! Just letting you know so you can wrap up the game you are playing.” (My friend, the one I mentioned earlier and who, maybe thanks to all the phone calls I made back in the day, is still my friend 3 decades later, does this for her kids today, and I LOVE it!)
It’s also true for some adults. It’s not the case for me, so I’ll have to do some guessing here. I know people who are often late because they struggle with leaving place A in order to get to place B in time. Maybe as long as it is early, the anxiety about the outside world outweighs the social obligation of leaving now in order to get to place B in time. Once you look at the clock and see that the time of the meeting in place B has already arrived, the social obligation outweighs the anxiety, and you do leave place A. Which will make you late. If the person who has been waiting for you at place B was on time, they may be grumpy by the time you get there – which makes it even less likely that you’ll leave earlier the next time. Being greeted by grumpiness or judgyness is a punisher. It’s a vicious circle.
I’m not sure what would lessen this kind of struggle for adult humans. In kids, maybe we should minimize their decision time (1 minute of stress a day is better than 15 minutes of stress a day?), and give them a heads-up for transitions that will be made for them (“we’ll leave in 10 minutes”)? Maybe adults benefit from establishing routines that make it easier to do A, B, C? Tag points? Therapy? Turning outings into rituals on a regular schedule rather than spontaneous events? I don’t know. I know what I would try myself: therapy, meds, and gamification. But that’s just me, and things that have helped me with other, totally different struggles. If I were a human like Gidget, neither one of these might appeal or make sense to me.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a human like Gidget …live their life at home, in their house and yard, and skip all hikes/outings/cocktail parties/agility group classes if they never opt in?
Let’s take another look at dogs first.
I’d venture it varies from dog to dog. Dogs who get a lot of enrichment at home and have a big yard, their human is home all day and plays nosework games and trains and plays at home – maybe that’s where they are happiest. Get a vet who’ll do home visits, and you’re covered on that basis, too. Life is free(er) of stress, but still enriching.
If your yard is not quite as big, and/or your dog truly enjoys activities that are only available outside of it (such as hiking for Gidget) – maybe a choice-based approach simply isn’t the one to go with. Do what works for your dog, not what works for most dogs, or what is currently in vogue in the dog training communities you are a part of.
And what about humans? Very difficult to say! As for adults who enjoy meeting friends, but can’t leave their house … again, it depends. If they live with a big happy family or with friends or partners, maybe they don’t need to leave, or can live perfectly happily while only rarely leaving. I have my doubts – but maybe they are unfounded.
For adults who live alone, this looks like a major life quality issue to me. If you crave social interactions (or mountain biking, or agility classes), but are finding it impossible to leave your house, this is a problem. Maybe one option would be to have friends come pick you up at previously agreed times/days. Again, I think it depends on the individual if this reduces or increases stress though: what if the agreed-upon day happens to be a bad day, but you can’t get yourself to cancel because that, too, would require interacting with people, which feels impossible sometimes? You need people you trust, but what if your anxiety doesn’t allow you to trust anyone?
Should we medicate people like Gidget?
I have opinions – but that’s all they are: opinions, not facts. I say, yes, if whatever you are experiencing on a medium to long term basis is seriously affecting your quality of life – go get therapy, and get meds on board! There is a whole menu of medications that decrease social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety, which are probably some of the root causes of transition struggles and decision paralysis. For humans, I’d say that if you feel like Gidget in the first 123 video in environment #2 more days than not, it may be time to get help. There is an endless supply of shitty things happening in the world around us. It’s easy to externalize the way we feel that way. But if you feel this way on a consistent basis (however rational it may be to be affected by the shitty things going on! Yes, it’s rational, but that is not the point!), the cause is something inside of you – not something outside of you. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. As in, something outside of you is always going to be bad: if it’s not the Coronavirus, it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If it’s not that, it’s the rapid decline of US democracy into orderly fascism. If it’s not that, it’s climate change. You can’t wait out the bad things, because they never stop. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. Here’s the good news though:
I really don’t think medication and therapy should be last resorts – for dogs4 or humans. I’m on medication, and it has significantly improved my life quality. I’ve also been in therapy, which has improved my understanding of myself and the people around me. I’ve also seen therapists who, I felt, had no idea what they were doing – you need to find the right person for you, just like the right medication. If the first person or medication you try doesn’t help – there are others out there that might do the trick! The menu is large. You just have to take the first step.
Knowing that the first step is the hardest, if you know me and struggle with this – by all means, reach out! I’d be happy to hear from you and happy to talk through it on an entirely non-medical, personal-experience-based basis (maybe even on the phone). I can also just listen. Or hold up your end of the conversation too, if that’s what you prefer. It’s okay to need people. It’s okay for life to be hard. It’s okay if you’re not fine, you all. And if you are not a human like Gidget? Look out for your friends who are! Give yourself and them the same grace and compassion you have for dogs like Gidget.
(3) A meme from Pinterest that has been showing up on all kinds of social media platforms.
(4) Check out this post by my FDSA colleage Jennifer Summerfield for a veterinary take on the topic: “Behavior Medication: First-Line Therapy or Last Resort?” Dr. Jenn’s blog, November 14, 2016.
PS: Thank you, Brandy and Gidget, for exploring the 123 game with me, for hanging in there throughout windy, cold and rainy days, and for allowing me to share your videos! You are wonderful, and I feel lucky and grateful to have met you both!
Superbowls is a pattern game that allows your dog to direct you towards a novel/potentially suspicious stimulus. It consists of a row of bowls. The dog learns that by giving you eye contact, they can cue you to put a treat down in the respective next bowl in the line. In the very end of the line, there’s your stimulus/trigger. Your dog will not directly interact with it within the structure of this game – that’s why it feels safe for your dog. They get to decide how close they want to go. If they stop offering eye contact, you will stop at the bowl you are at, or further increase the distance.
If they lead you all the way to the stimulus you plugged into the end of the line (it could be an object, or a person on a chair – anything goes as long as you can guarantee that the stimulus won’t approach your dog), the next eye contact rep cues you to turn around and move back along the line of bowls in the other direction: approach – retreat. Approach – retreat. Approach – retreat. In CU, when we approach, we will also retreat. Dogs NEVER get stuck near the stimulus you are working with in the context of Control Unleashed.
The first step of the Superbowls game is teaching Puzzle that eye contact makes things happen. In this case, eye contact will cause me to click, and put down a treat in the first bowl. We’ll stay at this stage until she offers eye contact without latency after swallowing the previous treat, and predicts where the next treat will show up: right there, in the bowl. For the first step, you’ll only use the first bowl in your line.
Puzzle doesn’t yet know that eye contact is a payable behavior. You’ll see her figure it out over the course of the three sessions below. Which brings me to yet another reason I love CU games for puppies or dogs who are new to training: they organically pick up different skills along the way! In this game, the meaning of the clicker gets reinforced, and Puzzle learns that eye contact is a behavior she can use to earn treats.
Next time, we’ll start moving between bowls!
For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s February class at FDSA: Calling All Dogs!
Puzzle has strong foundation mat skills. She’s ready to take her mat work to the next level!
What that next level is depends on your goals for your dog:
+ You could start using the mat to relax under the table while you’re eating out at a restaurant. + You could use it as a station while you train your other dogs. + You could use it while your dog waits their turn at seminars or group classes. + You could use the mat to teach the “look at that!” game.
This is what I’m going to show you for Puzzle’s final mat video: how do you teach “Look at that” (LAT) to a dog on a mat?
Note that there are different ways to teach LAT. This is just one of them – but it’s a particularly nice one because it has relaxation built into it. To learn more about the LAT game, what it is, what purpose it serves, and the different ways to teach it, check out any of Leslie McDevitt’s books:
Now it is time to raise criteria again. Approach your puppy just like before. Squat down. This time, reach towards the front of her chest, but stop your hand at about 10 inches distance – do not touch her. Click, drop the treat, and retreat. Wait 15 seconds between reps, and stay at this level of difficulty for at least 5 reps. If your puppy is comfortable with the hand reaching towards her, move your hand 2 inches closer the next time. Click, treat, retreat. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat. Raise criteria only when your puppy appears confident and relaxed.
You should soon be able to move your hand up close to your puppy’s body. Now you are ready to gently touch the front of her chest. Gently put your hand on her body, barely touching her. Repeat this step at least five times without your puppy showing the stress signs described in the ladder of aggression (see body language chapter). She should remain perfectly relaxed: the muscles are soft, the tail rests on the floor or wags gently in expectation of a treat. The body isn’t stiff, but loose. Rolling over onto one hip is a good sign.
Did your dog stay relaxed or show signs of happy expectation? Excellent. In your next rep, put a little bit of pressure on your dog’s chest with your hand – the same amount of pressure you would use when petting a dog. Repeat this step at least five times, and make sure your dog is comfortable. Once you can do this, you are ready to slowly stroke your dog’s chest. Move your hand over her chest for three inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. After five reps of this, move your hand over her chest for 6 inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. Repeat five times, and raise criteria to 9 inches. (If your dog is very little, 2, 4 and 6 or even 1, 2 and 3 inches may be better suited!)
Your Dog’s Chin
Once this works well, it is time to move on to a different body part. Your dog’s chin tends to be a good second spot. Again, start with extending your hand towards her. Stop your hand at about 10 inches distance from your puppy’s chin, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Work your way up to touching her chin, just like you did with her chest. Once you can touch her chin, scratch her with your fingers for one second before clicking, dropping the treat, and retreating. Gradually extend the time you spend scratching your puppy’s chin by counting in your head: “One good puppy.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. Work your way up to 5 good puppies before moving on to the next body part.
Your Dog’s Side
Next, you will desensitize your dog towards touching her side. Just like before, start by reaching towards her without actually touching her body, and work your way up to a 9-inch stroke (less if your dog is very small).
Your Dog’s Withers
A good fourth spot to work on is your dog’s withers. Be patient – this may be more difficult for your puppy than the previous body parts. Follow the protocol until you can stroke from the withers back to her rump. Does she seem enjoy you touching her rump? If so, step five should be initiating touch there, and gently scratching her rump with your fingers. Work your way up from “One good puppy” to “Five good puppies!” of rump scratching. If she doesn’t enjoy her rump being touched, leave out this step.
Your Dog’s Head
Equally difficult is your dog’s head – your sixth spot of touch. Take your time, and only increase criteria when your dog is completely comfortable with the previous step. Your goal is being able to stroke from her head down to her withers.
Your Dog’s Chest and Belly
Number seven in our list are your dog’s chest and belly. Start when your dog is relaxing on her side, but not asleep. Allowing you to approach while exposing the belly is a sign of trust! Gradually build up your approach again before physically touching her body. Your first spot of touch is just behind the front legs. Build up to stroking her all the way back to her belly. If your dog doesn’t usually rest on her side when you are around, that is okay – skip this step for now, and move on to spot number 8. On the other hand, if your puppy enjoys being touched on her chest and belly, feel free to experiment a litte and gently scratch different parts of her belly. Never keep your hands on her for more than 5 seconds at a time (“Five good puppies!”) before clicking, treating, and retreating.
Your Dog’s Legs
Now you are ready to work on another sensitive body part: your dog’s legs. Start with the shoulder of a front leg, and gradually increase how far your hand slides down. Most dogs prefer a medium amount of pressure to a very gentle touch on their legs. Your goal behavior is slowly sliding your hand down from the shoulder muscles to the toes. Go through the protocol for both front legs, followed by both hind legs.
Repeat all steps when your dog is standing instead of lying down. Choose a time of day where your puppy is calm and relaxed, and start from scratch: take a step towards your dog, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Gradually decrease the distance, and then add touch. Start with every new body part like you did when your dog was lying down: the front of her chest, her chin, side, withers and back, head and neck, chest and belly, front legs and hind legs.
Puppies under 16 weeks of age should be able to go through the protocol for proximity and touch relatively quickly. Dogs that age are still behaviorally flexible. The fear response isn’t fully developed yet, and positive experiences quickly lead to positive associations. Nevertheless, a puppy between 12 and 16 weeks will already require more time and patience to learn to like your touch than a puppy under 12 weeks would. The socialization window has already started to close.
Have you successfully worked through the entire protocol on your puppy both when resting on her bed and when standing upright? Good! It’s time to generalize what she has learned! Keep practicing in different rooms of your house as well as outdoors. At the same time, the other members of your household should work through the protocol as well. Dogs do not generalize well. Everyone who works through the protocol needs to start from the very first step. Don’t worry though – with every new helper, your puppy will make faster and faster progress. Once your puppy is comfortable being touched by your entire family, it doesn’t hurt to ask dog-savvy friends to work through the steps as well. Choose calm helpers you trust with your dog, and give them clear instructions on when to feed and retreat. Click for them in order to help their timing. The more people your puppy learns to trust in this way before the age of 16 weeks, the better: women, men, children, and elderly people. Equally important is generalizing proximity and touch to as many different environments as possible. Work in different indoor and outdoor locations in order to generalize her positive associations to touch as widely as possible.
Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Registration for Out and About , her April class at FDSA, is still open! Join me to learn more about advanced recalls, leash manners, getting past distractions, and keeping everyone safe on your dog-based adventures!
The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.
I’ve been too busy to blog, but I recently finished translating a second sample chapter for Nur Mut! (click here for the first English sample chapter). Here’s a sneak peak at one of the protocols from chapter 8.3 Early interventions for fearful puppies. Part 1 is my protocol for proximity. Part 2 will be the protocol for touch.
While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.
Protocol for Proximity and Touch
Part 1: Protocol for Proximity
Before diving into the protocol itself, you need to establish how close you can get to your puppy without causing a stress reaction. No matter whether her threshold is 3 feet or 15 feet – add 2 steps to this distance. This is your starting point – a point where your puppy is perfectly relaxed.
Click – Treat – Retreat
Choose a time your puppy is resting calmly on her bed or another comfortable spot, but not asleep. Walk up to your starting point. Mark her relaxed body position with a click. Throw a treat to her. Turn around and retreat.
Retreating is an important part of this protocol. Not only do you pair your approach with food (classical counterconditioning), but you also negatively reinforce your puppy’s relaxed position by means of removing yourself – a potentially stressful stimulus – from her space. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat the exercise. Again, you will walk up to the starting point defined above, click, treat, and retreat. Keep your session to 5 minutes or less, and give your dog a break. Then, start the game again by means of walking up to your original starting point, treating, and retreating. You are explaining to your dog that you are playing the game she already knows. All she has to do is keep relaxing and wait for you to throw her a treat. What a great deal!
Do not walk closer to your dog until you are convinced she understands that your approach predicts a treat. Watch her body language: does she lift her head and start wagging her tail when you walk towards her? She is beginning to understand that something good is about to happen!
Once your dog is clearly happy about your approach, you are ready to walk one step closer your next rep. Click, throw a treat to your dog, and retreat. Stay at your new click point for at least 5 reps. Does your dog look equally relaxed and happy about your approach as before? Good! Walk another step closer in rep number 6. Click, treat, and retreat! Stick to your new click point until your dog looks forward to your approach. Then, walk one step closer again.
Depending on your starting distance, you may already be standing directly in front of your dog at this point. Avoid leaning over her and looking into her eyes. Dogs can find this typical primate posture threatening. Instead, look at the floor between you and your dog – right at the spot you are going to drop the treat. Make sure to not let your session run over five minutes before giving your puppy a break.
If everything went well, start your next session one step behind the final starting point of your last session. The first rep of this new session is just a little bit easier than the last rep of your last session. Gradually work your way closer again, just like you did before, until you are standing right in front of you puppy. Is your puppy perfectly comfortable or happy and curious? Excellent! Bend your knees just a little before you click and drop the treat. Straighten up, turn around slowly, and retreat. Again, wait 15 seconds in between the individual reps.
Can you do five reps of walking up to your puppy, bending your knees, and dropping a treat between her paws with her looking perfectly relaxed or happy to see you? (Review the body language chapter if you need help reading your dog!) You are ready to raise criteria! In your next rep, you will squat down completely, click, and reach towards your puppy’s front paws with your treat hand. Do not touch her paws, but drop the treat in between or right in front of them. Get up slowly, turn around, and retreat. Repeat this step several times, waiting 15 seconds in between each rep. Your puppy should look perfectly relaxed or happy to see you – anytime she appears concerned, move your click point back one step!
Before we raise the level of difficulty again, it is time for a cold trial. You are going to test whether your puppy has really learned that you squatting down in front of her and reaching out with your food hand is not a threat – even if you do not gradually work your way closer. Choose a time when your puppy is relaxed, but awake. Walk right up to her and squat down. Does your puppy appear just as comfortable with you being close as before? Great! You are ready for the next step.
Does she cower, retreat, bark, growl, snarl or snap? Freeze your movement the moment you notice her insecurity, and wait for your puppy to calm down. Count to five in your head: “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies, four good puppies, five good puppies.” Then retreat and give your puppy a break. The reason I am asking you to freeze and count to five before retreating is that we do not want to negatively reinforce the potentially operant behavior of barking, growling, snarling or snapping by means of rewarding it with an increase in distance. Instead, we give the puppy five seconds to calm down or stop barking, and then reinforce her calm behavior with an increase in distance. Anything that doesn’t resemble offensive behavior does get reinforced by your retreat. In either case, try to avoid the need to use this kind of extinction of unwanted behavior in the first place. Ideally, all your training sessions will take place well under threshold. If your puppy hasn’t calmed down after 5 seconds, retreat either way.
Take a deep breath. Have a cup of tea and think about something else before you go back to training. Frustration and disappointment don’t make good teachers. Remember that all behavior is information. Now you know that your puppy isn’t yet ready to stay calm when you walk right up to her without gradually decreasing the distance. That’s okay. Go back to your last successful click point, and explain the game to your puppy again. Gradually work your way closer, just like you did before. End the session squatting down and dropping the treat between her paws.
Take a longer break, and then do another cold trial. Does your puppy stay confident and relaxed this time? Excellent! If your puppy struggles, be patient and explain the game from the beginning. If your puppy still struggles the third time you do a cold trial, find a competent trainer or behaviorist to help you develop a plan for your puppy to learn to tolerate and even enjoy your approach and touch (See chapter 10.6 Finding the right trainer or behaviorist).
Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. In April, she will be teaching Out and About at FDSA – a class that is about a passion of her own: taking your dog on urban walks, nature hikes, and other adventures while having fun and staying safe. Registration opens today – come join me!
The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.
I’ve been translating parts of my German-language book on fearful puppies, and decided to rewrite and extend my introduction to the specific training protocols for helping young dogs conquer their fears. All my protocols stress patience and working under threshold. Here’s the reason why:
Psychogenic distress has a number of physiological effects we should be aware of when trying to help a puppy overcome her fears. There are two systems that get activated under stress: the sympatho-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Let’s look at them by means of an example.
Imagine you are walking to the supermarket. Suddenly, a lion jumps out of a driveway. The SAM axis responds immediately – your adrenaline levels rise quickly, and you are getting ready to outrun or fight the lion! A few minutes later, your adrenaline levels drop back to normal again. The same holds true anytime your puppy meets “her lion” – no matter whether that’s indeed a lion, a person on crutches, a strange dog or a teenager on a skateboard.
The HPA axis, on the other hand, is activated more slowly and remains active longer. It leads to the release of cortisol. Indeed, your cortisol levels will only peak approximately 20 minutes after you ran into the lion, and elevated cortisol levels can be measured in your body for up to an hour or two after the stressful event. Again, the same things happen in your puppy’s body when she encounters a trigger.
Why is this relevant when trying to change your puppy’s negative associations to skateboarders, men in hats, or strange dogs? Staying under threshold in training is significantly more effective than training in a state of mind our dog would be in if she saw a lion: anytime your puppy experiences distress, her ability to learn is compromised. While we do want to face the triggers your puppy is concerned with, we need to stay at a point where they do not trigger the physiological responses associated with distress. A puppy’s brain is most receptive when she is in a relaxed and attentive state of mind. That’s why, in order to maximize the training benefits for your sensitive puppy, you should stick to the recommended maximum duration of the training protocols as well as the minimum relaxation times in between sessions. If your puppy “goes over threshold” (i.e. the physiological stress response is triggered), you don’t only lose the benefits of your current desensitization session, but also of the following reps: the physiological stress response takes a while to subside, and only when your puppy’s body has returned to homeostasis can you effectively change her association to a trigger by one of the protocols described below.
Earlier in this chapter, we learned that adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t immediately drop back to normal the moment a real or metaphorical lion disappears: adrenaline levels stay elevated for several minutes, and cortisol levels for up to two hours. When several minor stressors happen immediately one after the other, the total level of stress keeps rising. That is to say the puppy doesn’t process them one after the other (image 1), but simultaneously (image 2).
Image 1: Meeting several minor stressors in a row isn’t all rainbows and unicorns
An isolated trigger that is only perceived as slightly stressful by your puppy might cause your puppy to run away, freezy, alarm-bark or air-snap if it happens simultaneously or soon after another minor or major stressor. Stress stacking is also the reason many moderately reactive puppies and dogs don’t react to the first or second trigger they meet on a walk, but will react to the third one.
Image 2: … but more like meeting a lion!
Thresholds and Relapses
And there is another reason I recommend always working at a distance to the trigger that is great enough to avoid fear reactions. Experiments show a connection between elevated heart rate during training sessions and future relapses. This hasn’t only been studied on animals, but also on people undergoing exposure therapy in order to conquer phobias. The results showed that the subject was most likely to relapse when the level of fear they themselves reported to be experiencing was out of line with the level of fear indicated by their heart rate. This is why I don’t like using food lures when socializing fearful puppies: a food-motivated puppy may be tricked into approaching someone she wouldn’t approach otherwise, only to realize she is in way over her head once she has swallowed the food.
Special thanks to FDSA instructor Jessica Hekman for making making sure I got the science right! Jessica also pointed me to one of her articles, which wasn’t only helpful, but also interesting and enjoyable to read. Check it out if you want to learn more about psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs!
Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.
During our first consult, I asked Sabrina to take me on one of her usual walks, and do everything the way she normally would, so I could see the problem. Given the part of Vienna that Sabrina lives in, it was likely that we would meet a dog or two, even if we just walked around the block.
Toni walked on his leash relatively nicely. He took his time sniffing doorways and lamp posts, and peeing on trees. The people walking by and the traffic noise didn’t seem to bother him. He’d trot along happily, sniffing here and there, and pee on lots of trees. Except for his dog reactivity, he was a pleasure to walk in a busy town. He ignored strangers on the street beautifully, and Sabrina was doing a great job giving him opportunities to take his time sniffing rather than pulling him along.
When a man with two Labs suddenly appeared in a doorway further down the street, Toni reacted as soon as they entered his peripheral field of vision. He barked, hackles raised, and pulled towards them. Sabrina held on to the leash (which wasn’t easy, given Toni’s size!), and waited while the guy with the Labs crossed the street and disappeared around a corner. Toni shook when the dogs had disappeared, and went right back to sniffing the spot he had been investigating.
Sabrina explained that this was a typical Toni reaction: he’d become aware of a dog – sometimes, that dog had to come quite close until Toni noticed; sometimes, he was still further away. Toni would pull and bark until the dog had disappeared. Since Toni was a big black dog, the other owner would usually get out of the way, and Sabrina tended to just stay where she was, tightly holding on to the leash, until the trigger was gone.
Toni didn’t have dog friends or regular contact with other dogs except the ones he saw in the street. He didn’t have a concept of how to deal with them, or what to do with them, but seeing them was clearly arousing. That arousal manifested itself in barking, pulling, and lunging.
We were going to teach him an alternative way to react to dogs in the street, and a way to get rid of the startle response that probably contributed to his arousal when a strange dog showed up unexpectedly. I love Leslie McDevitt’s “Look At That” (LAT) protocol for cases like this because it gives the dog something specific to do (look at the trigger), and it creates positive associations with the trigger (food!).
A quick break down of the “Look at That!” game for those of you who aren’t familiar with it:
The dog gets specific job around his triggers: showing them to his human by means of looking at them. Looking at the trigger gets clicked or otherwise marked. Upon hearing the marker sound, the dog turns back to his human to collect his treat. The owner can even click her dog several times in a row for looking at a trigger and then back at her – until the trigger is out of sight.
Later, a cue is attached to the behavior. I usually suggest “Schau!” – German for “Look!” – to my Austrian clients. We introduce the cue by saying it when the dog is about to turn his head and look at the trigger anyways. Through repetition, the dog connects the cue with the behavior. The goal is that eventually, the human can cue “Schau!” when she sees a trigger the dog hasn’t yet seen. The dog will then scan the environment until he finds the trigger in order to collect his click and treat.
I didn’t video Toni’s training sessions, but here is a short clip of another client working on the first steps of LAT with her adolescent Border Collie. I am coaching the owner and videoing, and a helper is walking my Greyhound up and down in the distance. Toni’s first sessions looked very similar to this.
We started working on LAT once Toni had learned to work for his food and knew the meaning of the click (turn to your handler and collect a treat). This was achieved as a side effect of the first training steps with his relaxation blanket.
Toni’s first LAT dog session took place on a wide, open field outside the city. I instructed my helper to walk Fanta, my Greyhound, up and down at about half a soccer field’s distance from Toni, Sabrina and me. Toni saw the decoy dog in the distance. He tensed up and watched intensely. He didn’t lunge or bark though. The distance was much bigger than what he was used to from the city. I asked Sabrina to click right away, then feed from her hand as Toni turned towards her. He swallowed his cookie, then looked again. Click and treat. He looked back – click and treat. After about four clicks, Toni visibly relaxed. He had collected information and realized this dog in the distance, who wasn’t coming closer, was not a threat. What’s more, looking at him was getting paid in clicks and cookies! Once Fanta had walked up and down four times, Toni seemed happy and interested in this new game, and Sabrina’s timing and mechanics looked nice, I asked her to start walking and move parallel to Fanta. Now, Toni got clicked for looking at our helper while walking. Since this went just as well, Sabrina could reduce the distance to Fanta by 4 feet. She kept walking parallel and clicking Toni for looking there and back.
In the course of this first meeting, we did several short sessions, interrupted by sniffing breaks for Toni, and worked our way closer and closer to Fanta, until there were only about 15 feet between the two dogs, and they could still walk parallel to each other without Toni getting the least bit upset. Towards the end of this session, Sabrina started introducing the “Schau!” (German for look) cue. She inserted it right before Toni was about to look at Fanta.
In our next session together, we practiced in a different place, with a new helper dog, and went through the same protocol again. Toni did well, enjoyed the new game, and never got over threshold.
In session number three – my last LAT lesson with Sabrina before I sent her out to practice on her own – we were ready to play in a more urban environment. We worked in a parking garage I often use for this kind of training: it is usually not frequented by dogs (so there are no unexpected triggers), and it’s easy to do set ups with having a dog suddenly appear behind a car. It’s not a busy garage, so there are some, but not too man distractions. You can see this location in the video of Border Collie Rose above. We worked a bit with both my dogs (Fanta and Phoebe) as the decoys. This time, I handled the helper dogs myself while Sabrina and Toni worked alone. Sabrina learned to watch out for my dogs appearing behind a car, clicking as soon as Toni saw them, and then walking off in whatever direction was safe and increased the distance between us. I gradually made things more difficult for them, trying to hide behind parked cars to sneak closer and surprise them both! Neither Sabrina nor Toni were getting nervous at this point – it had really turned into a game they both were having fun with.
In the second half of our urban LAT session, we took Toni for a walk through the neighborhood. Now Sabrina was working in real life rather than with set-ups. She was going to apply the protocol we had been practicing to the random dogs she met in the street. I led them past the back of a small, fenced dog park: instead of avoiding triggers, we were now looking for them so Sabrina could click and treat Toni!
Sabrina was doing a great job looking out for dogs, cuing “Look!”, and being proactive. Rather than passively remaining in place and waiting for the trigger to pass, she now actively helped Toni cope by means of clicking, treating, and, whenever necessary, retreating.
After successfully testing what we had practiced in the real world together, Sabrina was ready to play the LAT game anytime she met a dog on her regular neighborhood walks. She was going to avoid really close encounters with other dogs for now, until the new, alternative behavior of looking instead of lunging and barking had become an ingrained habit.
When Sabrina wrote to tell me about their progress about half a year later, Toni had learned passing strange dogs on the same side of the street, on a narrow sidewalk, without getting upset! Sabrina isn’t bringing her clicker on walks anymore, but she still makes sure to always have treats on her, and feed a particularly tasty one after passing a dog up close. She says she believes Toni wouldn’t need to get a cookie every time anymore, but she likes paying and praising him because it reminds her how proud she is of him.
Why we chose this training approach
Sabrina’s goal was for Toni and her to be able to walk through her neighborhood without him getting upset about other dogs. She didn’t need him to interact with other dogs up close, but she wanted their city walks to be enjoyable and less stressful. Sabrina just needed a strategy and a plan about how to get through dog encounters. Having the LAT game in place, she stopped being passive, and was able to successfully lead Toni through the situation.
Check out Leslie McDecitt’s books Control Unleashed and Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program to learn more about the “Look at That” protocol as well as other training games! I really like Leslie’s training approach. Her books are targeted at sports dogs, but many of their games and concepts are very useful for working with pet dogs as well.
Toni is a very big, black-and-tan, floppy-eared, 3ish years old male mixed breed who was adopted by Sabrina when he was about 5 months old. With the exceptions of the two issues described below, Toni is a laid-back and mostly low energy dog.
Sabrina has four housemates, and they all have active social lives – a lot of the time, there isn’t just five people at their house, but rather ten. It’s never boring, and it’s never quiet. Toni does well in this environment – he’s a good fit for a social owner. Soon after Sabine got him, he started greeting each and every one of their visitors like old friends, even when they were new ones.
The behaviors we wanted to change
1) Toni used to get very excited when Sabrina had visitors, would try and jump on their lap as they sat on the couch, solicit attention, scratch their legs, and whine. It wasn’t easy to have a conversation with Toni in the room. Sabrina wanted to change his behavior around visitors. Taking him places wasn’t easy, either, because he insisted on being the center of attention when Sabrina was out with friends.
2) Out in the street, Toni would bark and lunge at other dogs. Sabrina wanted him to learn to pass them calmly.
Training steps: Learning to relax around human friends
Toni’s life included a lot of different people coming and going. He had the right kind of personality for it – he liked people. However, he liked them so much that he wanted to interact with them, and he had learned that the best way to do so was to pester them until they gave him attention! Sabrina had a lot of dog-loving friends, so this had been working well for him.
We decided to teach Toni to station on a blanket. This particular blanket would only come out when Sabrina wanted him to stay on it, and the blanket itself would become the cue to lie down.
Our first challenge was that Toni wasn’t interested in food rewards. He was free fed. Sabrina had a 15-kilo bag of high-value kibble in a corner of her bedroom. The bag was always open, and Toni just walked over and ate when he was hungry. He had been free fed ever since Sabrina got him. He was a little chubby, but he didn’t over-eat. He was very relaxed around food in general. Food wasn’t a limited resource. This was convenient in everyday life, but presented a training challenge!
In order to increase Toni’s interest in earning his food, Sabrina stopped free-feeding him. The first thing Toni needed to learn was that food could be the consequence of something he did – a concept he wasn’t familiar with. However, he knew how to sit. This was our starting point. Sabrina asked him to sit, clicked, and fed a cookie. She threw the next cookie to make him get up again, asked for another sit, clicked, and threw a cookie. After looking slightly perplexed in the first few sessions, Toni decided that this strange new game was fun. Now that food wasn’t available for free anymore, Toni’s interest in it had increased considerably. He liked interacting with people anyways, and these cookies weren’t all that bad, either! You could see him perk up as he realized that he had the power to make clicks happen and food appear.
With the help of a cookie pressed against Sabrina’s hand with her thumb, he soon learned to do a hand-touch as well, which earned him a click and released the cookie. Sabrina could fade the lure within a few reps. Toni learned to figure out how to get his cookie: sitting, hand touches, or “shake”: he needed to paw at a closed fist in order to get his treat!
Next, I showed Sabrina how to add an element of shaping to her training sessions. Toni was going to learn to go to the blanket we were later going to use to change his behavior around visitors. I asked Sabrina to get a new blanket Toni had never seen before. She made a big fuss about it, then put it on the floor. Toni came over to investigate – click! Sabrina threw the cookie away from the blanket. Toni chased down his treat, and since he hadn’t been done investigating the blanket just yet, he returned to give it another sniff – click! In the course of several short sessions, Toni learned to step on the blanket with all four paws. Now, Sabrina clicked him for standing on the blanket, and then lured him into a down with the reward cookie. She waited a second or two, clicked again, and threw a cookie off the blanket. After a few reps, Toni offered his first voluntary down on the blanket and got a jackpot. After every brief session, Sabrina removed the blanket. It was only out when she was working with it.
Once Toni had learned to lie down on the blanket as soon as it was presented, we put the blanket where Sabrina eventually wanted it to be when she had visitors: in one of the corners of her big couch. It was important to her that Toni could be a part of her social life. She didn’t want him to have to wait in a different room, in a crate, or in a corner. During training sessions on the couch, she could sit next to him, feed him cookies and read or work on her laptop at the same time. She could also scratch his ears while he relaxed next to her, which he loved.
Once Toni recognized the appearance of the blanket on the couch as his cue to lie down, we started adding duration. From this point onwards, we made sure that Toni wouldn’t have Sabrina’s undivided attention. She’d read a sentence – feed a cookie. Read two sentences – feed a cookie. Read three sentences – feed a cookie, and so on. As long as he continued hanging out on his blanket next to her, cookies would materialize. At the same time, we made sure her full attention and eye contact weren’t part of the picture we were creating. After all, we wanted Toni to eventually relax rather than “work,” and Sabrina wanted to be able to focus on her visitors, and not just on her dog.
Toni was good about relaxing for the occasional cookie, and daily sessions got Sabrina to a point where she could soon read several pages of a book between the individual cookies, and occasionally replace a cookie with ear scratches. We systematically introduced Sabrina getting up, walking around the room, and sitting down again while Toni remained in his spot. He also learned to stay when Sabrina got up, left her room, and then came right back in. We practiced this until Sabrina could get up, go to the kitchen, get a glass of water, and return without Toni getting up or getting fidgety.
The next step was practicing with various visitors. The first one was me: Toni learned that the blanket game could still be played when someone else was in the room. We first increased the rate of reinforcement again, and since Toni’s desire in this situation was to interact with the visitor, we decided that I – the visitor – would give him the occasional cookie and attention when he was on the mat. My attention made the reward even more reinforcing.
It turned out that Toni was actually able to be quite patient and well mannered now that he knew hanging out on his blanket would get him cookies and attention. His excitement hadn’t been due to high arousal and overflowing energy – he had simply learned that he had to pester people in order to get attention. Once provided with an alternative behavior, he turned out to be an easygoing big boy.
After some experimenting, we decided that the mat would come out right before a visitor came into Sabrina’s room. If he stayed on his mat, the visitor would come over and great him with a cookie right away. If he got up, the visitor would turn around and close the door behind them. Sabrina would pick up the blanket, wait a second, and then put it down again. This usually reminded Toni to lie down. Now the visitor could come in and approach again.
Sabrina then began to ask other helpers to visit her in order to train her dog. First, we worked with two of her dog-savvy housemates. Then, she would ask friends to help her. If Tony stayed on his blanket, Sabrina would instruct her friends to deliver a cookie to him and calmly talk to him.
While building this new behavior, Sabrina had people over specifically for this exercise, not in order to socialize or talk about other things. She was consistent in her training, and it showed in Toni’s progress. He learned to stay on his mat while visitors came in the room, and his overall level of excitement around human friends decreased.
Sabrina then switched from cookies to long-lasting chews and stuffed Kongs that Toni could use to entertain himself on the blanket when she had people over. At that point, she was able to actually focus on her visitors, too, and not just on training Toni. By the time Toni had gotten used to eating part of his dinner from a Kong when Sabrina had people over, she was able to start giving him more freedom again. At first, she had made sure people would leave before Toni finished his Kong. Then we tested what would happen if Toni got to finish his Kong before the visitor left: it turned out he soon dozed off while Sabirna and me were still sitting together. We then tried what would happen if Sabrina released Toni and took away the blanket after he had finished his Kong – and he would just trot over to his bed and continue dozing off there. The Kong seemed to have a calming effect, and Toni’s need to be the center of attention had disappeared now that his relaxation on the blanket got reinforced on a regular basis. As Sabrina gradually increased his post-chew freedom, he would sometimes go right to his bed, and other times, he’d jump off the couch, wag and wait for ear scratches from Sabrina or the visitor before heading over to his bed. The attention-seeking behavior and vocalization had disappeared completely.
Training steps: Learning to relax in public
Sabrina wanted to be able to take Toni more places. In order for him to relax around friends away from home, Toni needed to generalize his blanket skills. Most cafés and restaurants in Austria allow dogs, and it is pretty normal that people bring their dogs when they go out for lunch or dinner. In order to practice for this, Sabrina and I went to McDonalds. Fast food restaurants are perfect for this: you can just get up and leave anytime, and it’s perfectly fine to only spend a few minutes inside. We picked a table in a quiet corner. Sabrina would head over to the table, put down the mat, and calmly reinforce Toni for lying down on it, and for staying down. I would get our drinks from the counter and join them. Once Toni had settled, he got a frozen Kong or long-lasting chew. We would finish our drinks, keep an eye on Toni, and discuss the next training steps. Then, Sabrina would trade the Kong or the remains of the chew for a cookie, release Toni, pick up the blanket, and we would leave.
After going through these steps together, Sabrina was ready to practice at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks on her own, or in the company of dog savvy friends. If she went on her own, she made sure to set him up for success by having him wait in the car while she ordered her coke or coffee and put it on the table, and set up the blanket. Then, she got Toni from the car, lead him directly to her table, and rewarded him for recognizing his blanket and lying down on it.
Gradually, Sabrina increased the time Toni could spend at a fast food restaurant, and decreased the attention he got from her until she was able to take him to other restaurants as well and actually have conversations with her friends while he relaxed on his blanket under the table.
Why we chose this training approach
Toni wasn’t a high energy dog to begin with. That made the blanket a good choice. He wasn’t torn between finding an outlet for his energy, and staying on the mat. He just needed an acceptable way to solicit attention when people were around. Hanging out on a blanket was congruent with his base personality: a big, friendly, laid-back dog.
Toni’s excitement around people wasn’t based on anxiety or insecurity. He genuinely liked people, and wanted to meet them. Not knowing how to get their attention was frustrating to him. Interacting with them was reinforcing, not stressful. This made it possible to integrate visitors into his reinforcement protocol.
It was important to Sabrina that our training plan would allow Toni to keep being part of her social life. She wanted her friends to be his friends, too. Using a blanket on the couch achieved just that.
Check back next week for how we worked on Toni’s second issue: barking and lunging at strange dogs in the street.
Dao will guard food. That is to say, when she has something edible, she will let you know that you cannot touch it. She does this eloquently by flattening her ears, protecting the food item with her head/body while looking up at you so the white of her eyes is visible, showing her teeth, and growling. It is a clear warning, delivered in beautiful body language and in just the right intensity to be unmistakable: “Don’t touch this.”
A friend and colleague challenged me to teach Dao to let me touch her food items. She doubted it could be done without intimidation. I, on the other hand, was sure it could be done without intimidation, and I videoed most steps so I could show her my training process.
I’m narrating the training steps and Dao’s reaction in this video. In short, I used classical counter-conditioning, and I built a relationship based on mutual trust. Or, in other words: I taught Dao it was safe to trust me around her food. There was no reason for her to worry about me stealing it. What I found most interesting is not that it worked, but how extremely well Dao responded to it, and just how much trust and affection she’d soon show me. None of our sessions lasted longer than a few minutes.