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.
(1) Friedman, Susan. “He said, she said, science says.” (Good Bird Magazine, Spring 2005)
(2) This is fine – full comic and deconstruction of the meme (The Verge, 2016).
(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!