Sunday, May 27, 2012

Self Controlled Canines (Part Two: Leave It + Other Dogs)

In the last Self Controlled Canines post I summarized the process of teaching a dog the "leave it" cue and mentioned that this skill can be used to help prevent or overcome common problems such as food aggression or dog reactivity. Before delving any deeper into those subjects I want to make it clear that if you are experiencing serious aggression issues I highly recommend soliciting the help of an experienced, professional trainer (who uses science based, proven methods) to step in and help you begin a training regimen. The most important step to working around a problem with aggression is to step back and carefully assess the source of the dog's anxiety/fear/agitation and take it from there. It's always possible that what you think you're seeing isn't what's actually happening at all. If you find a trainer whose only answer seems to be punishing the dog every time it does something you don't like then walk the other way. Signs of pain, fear, anxiety, agitation, etc. should never be ignored in an animal any more than they should be ignored when teaching a human being. 

After teaching your dog the "leave it" command (as outlined in the last post) we want to make sure that he becomes very good at immediately focusing on you once you've delivered the verbal cue. It is no longer good enough to have your dog just back away from the treat on the floor and we should now be encouraging him to give you his full attention upon hearing those words. This is usually pretty easy to accomplish under normal circumstances (as in, while you're at home as opposed to a busy park). All it takes is a little patience on your part. Have your dog on a leash with treat nearby on the floor. When he shows interest in the treat, calmly tell him to "leave it" and wait several seconds. The moment he turns to look at you, click (or tell him, "Yes!!") and treat from your hand. A few things you should keep in mind are:
  • Don't jerk and pull or wrestle your dog away from the treat. It is very tempting to deliver a leash pop when your dog goes to lunge for the treat, but we don't want a jerk of the leash to become our cue for leaving something and putting the attention back on you. Extra leash tension will also work against you once you're ready to use this cue around other dogs. Not to mention, all that extra effort and activity slows down the process and makes it harder for your dog to pinpoint the appropriate/desired behaviors. Make sure you've got control of the situation before you ever start practicing. Stand firm and at a distance where the dog can't reach the treat. If you have a boxer or other type of dog that loves using his paws like hands be mindful of that as well. I've worked with many a boxer with a knack for making unexpected "arm's length" transactions during this exercise!
  • Don't repeat the command too often!! This is the most common mistake to make when delivering any cue, but especially "leave it." Say the command one time, make sure the dog doesn't have a chance to snatch the treat off the floor, and be patient. If he still hasn't looked back toward you after several seconds, go ahead and deliver the cue again. It usually helps to say the dog's name first; "Kota, leave it!" 
  • It's all about teaching the dog that focusing on you is rewarding AND that it is the only path to getting what he wants. 
Your dog should be practically perfect with this exercise before moving on to working with more difficult distractions. If he is not reactive or otherwise aggressive you can then go on to practicing in close proximity with other dogs who are also well socialized. You just repeat the exercise above, except you treat the other dog as if it were the treat on the ground. You'll need the cooperation of the other dog's handler, of course, and to start off, you don't want the two dogs to get close enough to touch each other. That would be the equivalent of walking your dog close enough to a treat so that he could snatch it up. He must learn that it is extremely rewarding to "leave it" with dogs just as it was with treats. What this means is that when it comes to working around other dogs, you're going to have to offer a really nice reward. Choose a toy or treat of extremely high value.

 If you know the other dog and owner really well and feel comfortable, you can even reward the dogs with a quick play session! Ask them to "leave it," wait for a good solid response of eye contact and moving toward you, then release them to have fun by saying "Go play!!" Just remember that when it's time to go, don't wear out the "leave it" cue by trying to get them to stop in the middle of a play session. That will take practice of its own and the cue will be diminished (ultimately ruined) if your dog learns that it simply means the fun is over. If your dog has been playing off leash but is still in complete play mode when it's time to leave, just casually approach, offer a treat from your hand, and clip on the leash. Cheerfully tell him "Let's go!" and that's that. No matter what skill you're working on, be it recall or "leave it," you should never allow this to become a dramatic affair where you chase the dog around like crazy or become so flustered that he learns that your approach means horrible things are going to happen.

You can even use the exercise above to practice "leave it" with other people. If you have an enthusiastic greeter you can work on practicing this with people during a walk, provided they are ok with helping. Deliver the cue before your dog has a chance to touch (or be touched by) the other person so that he puts his focus back on you. You can combine this with "all four on the floor" training by allowing that person to pet him as long as he has all four feet firmly planted.The same rules apply though; stay in control of the practice session so that you don't end up finding yourself repeating the cue to no avail. As in all the other "leave it" scenarios, your dog has to learn that it is rewarding to focus on you when you ask him to leave it and that doing so has a direct correlation with whether or not he gets to dog what he wants at the time (greet a new person, greet a dog, get a treat, etc.).

The source of all good things has to be you. Not jumping, snatching things off the floor, or rushing into another dog's face. Remember, it takes time, especially when dealing with something that is incredibly exciting to the dog. However, if you are consistent and practice regularly you'll find yourself very proud of your dog's accomplishments! Set him up for success in every situation and you'll soon start to see just how much control your dog can muster when he really puts his mind to it.

In the next post on this subject I'll offer up a couple of examples of using this principle to treat food aggression as well as reactivity with other dogs. DO NOT try the exercises from this post to help with aggression; you do not want to work aggressive dogs in close proximity right off the bat for a variety of reasons. For now, just keep practicing the basics so that your dog has a perfect grasp of the concept. Add in a few new distractions and remember to increase the value of the reward/treat in proportion to the difficulty of the exercise. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment here or send me an email:

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