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We first learned about the “Look at That” (LAT) game from Leslie McDevitt’s brilliant book “Control Unleashed.” One of the most common dog training issues is on-leash reactivity. Our gut instinct is to tell Fido to knock it off or to try to console them and make them feel safe by patting them and speaking in high pitched voices. Unfortunately for a lot of dogs our attempts at canine communication are often misinterpreted and we see an increase in snarling, lunging and barking at approaching triggers like animals, people or moving objects. If we scold our dogs for acting like a lunatic when triggers approach, we run the risk of creating an even more negative situation for our already stresed or anxious friends. When we try and reassure Fifi that everything is going to be OK, they don’t hear our words but may assume based on our high-pitched tone that we like it when they are nervous and scared and they may enjoy the extra attention it gets them.
Although it goes against our human nature, the Look at That game diffuses both of these situations and quickly results in increased confidence and focus on mom or dad instead of incoming triggers. For a detailed description of the “Look at That” game, we encourage you to check out Leslie McDevitt’s web site and buy her easy-to-understand book or videos but we wanted to give you a brief overview of the exercise because the Clicker Leash makes it so easy to do.
The key is to keep your dog below threshold (ie quiet and calm) while teaching them to look at a stimulus they do not normally like and rewarding them for looking at it. To train LAT, use your Clicker Leash to click and reward your dog the second they look at a trigger as long there is no reaction. If your dog is too intense with the triggers being used, start with a neutral target like a piece of paper or other item your dog has no association with and again click as soon as they look at it. When your dog is offering a quick glance towards the target, name it “look.” Your dog will quickly start to look at their triggers and turn back to you for a reward. If your dog does not turn quickly, it is likely because they are over threshold. You should increase the distance between you and the trigger and try again.
Begin playing LAT with a different neutral distraction for about 30 seconds, as often as you can each day. Gradually progress to more challenging distractions such as favourite toys, the mailman, squirrels and approaching people. Once your dog has mastered the game with various distractions, you can progress to using dogs they like and then strange dogs. Remember, the key here is to keep your dog calm during this game. If they begin to growl, bark or lunge, they have gone over threshold and you need to start again with more distance between you and the object.
If youhave a particularly stressed, anxious or reactive dog, you may also want to check out Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. The protocol provides a clear set of exercises to do with your dog to help teach self control in exciting situations. Remember to keep your training sessions brief and fun so your dog will want more! For more training tips and free video tutorials visit www. clickerleash.com
While at a party last weekend, I met one of the cutest puppies I have ever seen. After six years of teaching group obedience classes, puppy socialization classes and in-home Perfect Puppies programs, I have seen my share of cute puppies but this one took the cake. The little guy looked a bit like a Border Terrier with some long-coated Chihuahua thrown in the mix. He had a striking sable colour pattern with some white spots for good measure. He belonged to the neighbor next door and was out for his nightly rituals. When the neighbor held him up to the top of the fence, he was immediately swarmed by all the “crazy dog people” at the party and he took it all in stride. He soaked in the attention while his owner said how much people seem to be drawn to him and what a great feeling it gave her spiritually to have such a special little puppy in her life after losing her old dog a few months earlier.
It was uplifting for me to see someone so attached to their puppy with nothing but positive things to say. But suddenly, things changed. The woman declared that she was an avid Cesar Millan fan, she followed everything he recommended to the letter and that was why the puppy was so wonderful. I am sure I must have grimaced slightly and the group of educated dog owners that had gathered around my side of the fence seemed to recoil slightly and gradually disband. Visions of three dogs I had tried to help in the past year whose owners had been practicing the techniques they saw on National Geographic’s “Dog Whisperer” swarmed through my brain. One dog had been re-homed after snapping at the child in the family and the other two had been euthanized for biting (one of the dog’s owners required 17 stitches to his face after alpha-rolling the dog for resource guarding). My horror continued as the neighbor informed us that she wanted desperately to go study with Cesar Milan so she could help spread his messages and methods around the world.
“But don’t you find him a bit mean?” I asked. The woman looked at me as if I had just used her lord’s name in vain. Her eyes flashed as she countered that Millan was kind and loved dogs. Various episodes of his show seemed to fast forward through my brain all at once. Dogs with tucked tails and whale eyed expressions, being repeatedly checked and occasionally choked in the name of dominance danced through my head like clips from a scary movie. All I could sputter out was the fact that the man still uses choke chains. The neighbor argued that he only used the tools that his clients wanted him to use.
Typically I do not back down from a Millan debate. With science on my side, a growing number of studies and reputable organizations lending their voices in support of positive reinforcement it does not take much convincing to convert people from dominance theory to learning theory with a focus on reward-based training methods. Once people realize their dogs are simply opportunists, not masterminds trying to takeover the household, they happily leave the alpha rolls, choke chains and other punitive tools behind.
For some reason I felt completely disarmed at the thought of this puppy being checked into submission if it stepped out of line. I felt like the ancient Greek scientists and philosophers who first suggested the world might not be flat. I didn’t know where to begin in explaining how flawed the Dog Whisperer’s techniques truly are. Should I have started with the fact that dominance or rank is rarely the root for bad behaviours in our pet dogs despite Cesar blaming it for virtually every problem he encounters? Should I have taken the time to explain the suppression of behaviors that Millan typically performs on his show often results in fallout on another level? Or perhaps I should have told her about the recent research that found 25% of the dogs observed actually acted aggressively when alpha rolls and other types of force were used?
Instead I walked away and told her the puppy was lovely as I strolled back to my chair. I felt hopeless as I have when in circular arguments in the past. It has been so long since anyone has challenged the ideas and facts that I present them and it was as if I had forgotten how to fight a good fight. I have since vowed never to walk away again. Hopefully the neighbor at the party will expand her readings beyond Cesar and pick up a scientific journal some day but I have my doubts. I have seen these same people in chat room and other blog postings and they are challenging to have logical discussions with because they believe in untruths. Just as it is equally challenging to convince people who believe the world is flat that it is in fact a sphere, it is difficult to argue with Millan’s militia.
One of the most important responsibilities as a dog owner is to train your four-legged pal so he will be a welcome member in the community and a treasured part of your life. Many of us quickly realize though that our dogs have just as much to teach us as we have to teach them. Some of the best doggy teachers are often the ones that initially come with the greatest challenges, including many adopted dogs who have suffered from abuse and neglect in their previous lives. Dogs with behavioural issues teach us valuable life lessons when we take the time to help them overcome challenges. These life lessons include the ability to think creatively, patience and how to communicate effectively.
When dealing with behavioural issues there are no quick fixes. What works with one dog, may fail miserably with another. The easiest way to assess and treat a behavioural issue is by imagining the world through your dog’s eyes. Analyze what triggers are provoking the unwanted behaviour and what may be rewarding your dog for their response. Then make a plan to control your dog’s environment so you can prevent or prepare yourself for theses triggers and teach your dog a more appropriate response. Remember to be creative, breeds like Terriers and Hounds are independent thinkers while other dogs who lack confidence are fearful and often wrongly labeled as being stubborn or dominant. Make sure to set up your training sessions so the dog can only make the right choice and make sure the dog’s rewards match your expectations. Most humans wouldn’t go work at their jobs everyday for a pat on the back but will endure sometimes awful jobs for a big reward like a paycheck.
Because there are no effective quick fixes for behavioural issues, dogs are great at teaching humans patience. Bad behaviours take time to become habit and changing bad habits to good ones doesn’t happen overnight. It is essential to be calm, consistent and have a clear training plan. Having patience with problem dogs will transform nervous and insecure dogs into happy-go-lucky, relaxed animals. This transformation is a powerful, rewarding and can give you the strength and patience you will need to face future life challenges, knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The final skill set our challenging dogs teach us is effective communication. We learn that yelling and nagging won’t work to change a dog’s behaviour any better than it does to change a spouse or co-worker. When we learn to focus on and acknowledge the small successes our dogs experience when overcoming a behavioural issue, this will often transfer to the rest of our lives and we will be more likely to see the good in people which results in healthier professional and personal relationships.
Get started on the road to success with a challenging dog by contacting a qualified trainer who focuses on modern, positive training technique. Enjoy teaching your dog new tricks while you learn a few yourself!