Sirius Training, Serious Fun!
Sirius Training, Serious Fun!

Foundational skills and maneuvers

I suppose this should have been earlier in my reactive dog series.  Mea Culpa–my fault.   I wanted to mention some foundational behaviors, important moves, and management techniques that I suggest people put in their tool box for working with reactive dogs.  Some of these things I use more than others, some are really situational, and some are just enhanced basic behaviors.

Emergency U-turn– I very specifically teach a dog to turn around and walk the other way on cue when working with reactive dogs as a way to prevent reactions.  If you can get your dog to respond to a cue to turn and walk away at the sight of the stimulus (before the dog even has a moment to react) you can prevent the escalation of fear/anxiety/frustration.  I teach this by starting to teach the dog to simply turn around with me and walk the other way with little to no distractions … then work up to walking away from a toy or food on the ground and then from a ball being thrown, etc.  It is such a handy tool… you turn a corner and encounter a dog “Rewind!” and your dog hasn’t had the chance to react to the other dog before turning and walking away with you.

Where’s the yum?!–I use this if I’m in a situation where the dog can successfully focus on something other than the oncoming dog (so it would depend on the distance).  If there is a dog walking towards me at a distance (well below threshold), I may take a dog 20ft off the path and toss treats onto the ground and have the dog find the food.  I also use this for reactive dogs in my class if they get bothered by dogs entering and exiting.  I inform the handlers that people are coming in and have them play “where’s the yum!?” while the other dog enters as a way to keep their dog distracted.

Planning Walks and Escape Routes–When Shayne was at her most reactive, I spent considerable time planning our walks.  I knew where all the dogs lived, I knew which ones were fence fighter, which ones were out at about what time, where loose dogs lived, etc.  I got to know the walking schedules of the neighborhood dogs.  I took all this information to plan a route that would limit our exposure to things likely to cause her to react.  Once I had our basic route planned in my head (I wasn’t crazy enough to write it down, but if you have a particularly busy neighborhood, mapping it out can be helpful), I started thinking of escape routes.  Turn around here and go down this street if dog X is loose, walk into driveway A if dog Y is being walked on their flexi, yard B is fenced so I can’t get further away on that side for this stretch of the walk, etc.  I just wanted to have some plan of attack so I wouldn’t get stuck, like a deer in the headlights, if we were caught by surprise–for me it wasn’t a matter of mapping it out, the act of thinking about it and having mental solutions prepared me for the “what ifs.”  None of this was about treatment, but simply management and preventing a reaction (again, when there is a reaction their body is flushed with chemicals that make subsequent reactions more likely).

Name Game– Having a dog who can respond to their name with reliability is a really helpful behavior.  I think working really solid, really fast name response in high distraction environments is an important behavior to work on (*alternately a “watch” eye contact cue).  This is a cue that must be built up over many many repetitions in many many environments under varying levels of distraction.  This one is about being able to call your dog once and have them respond in even the most distracting environment–it’s a much better than the typical dog has.

Clicker Skills/Savvy–So much can be done using this simple plastic and metal noise box that I think it’s so important for handlers to learn the basic mechanics of using a clicker.  Clicker training is a two way street and the for the most benefit, the dogs should be clicker savvy and have a bit of ‘search’ drive for the click.  It’s so useful in reactivity that they are skills that I do heavily suggest, if not require.

Know your dogs’ reinforcers–I know, with out a doubt, that for Shayne, if I have Wellness CORE salmon and white fish canned dog food in a food tube that I can walk her past probably anything without any concerns.  For her, that food will keep her attention over almost anything.  If I encountered another dog on a small path and we had no exit (and it was before she was reliable with alternate behaviors), I could easily keep her from reacting by shoveling food in her face.

Hand Target–This is a foundational skill that I work on to have great reliability, even in stressful environments.   This behavior has so many options for how it can be used that it is one of the skills I keep at the top of my tool box.  Dog starts barking (a low level reaction)– “touch!”–dog turns their head to touch my hand for a treat.  In turning their head they break away from the stimulus and the reaction subsides.

5 Comments
  1. I really dropped the ball on a “watch me” cue. I’d always planned to teach it (it was on my to-do list well before I brought Cohen home) but for whatever reason I just never got around to it. Now I’m working on it very casually, but I really feel like I should be pursuing it with more fervor. Ah well.

    Re: hand targets. I love ’em! Garrett really tries to put a lot of value in the hand touch game, and will never cue it. The idea is that the dog needs to be paying attention to you in order to be rewarded with fun. For the purpose of managing reactivity cuing it is ultimately more useful, but I think training those really enthusiastic Garrett-touches are important.

    Love the idea of finding the yum. I’ve not heard that tactic before.

    • If you have really good name recognition, i’m not sure the watch-me cue is that important, I honestly don’t have a really solid watch me cue…. if you don’t have super good name recognition having a very solid watch-me cue is a good plan. OR if you don’t want to say your dog’s name more than necessary, a watch-me cue is beneficial.

      I have turned my hand targets into secondary reinforcers actually. They are so valuable to the dogs that I can use them as rewards for behavior if i need/want. I’m not sure i’d really want a default hand-target behavior (uncued) because i know i put my hand in the hand target position somewhat regularly and i woudln’t want constant bopping. But that’s just me… having it on cue and under stimulus control has a little more value for me, especially when working behavior modification.

      Find the yum is purely a distraction to keep them busy doing something other than reacting but i also think it works some CC/D. At the start of a recent round of classes I used this with a reactive dog who was set off by people/dogs entering the room… by the end of class his response to someone entering the room was turning around waiting for the food to fly. Although i initially used it purely as a distraction it seems to have had a more profound effect (which is great).

    • I don’t really teach a ‘watch me’ cue any more. I did have Risa trained to look at me on cue when we first started training but I eventually found it unnecessary. I highly reinforce Risa for making eye contact with me. I train it as a default behavior so I shouldn’t HAVE to cue it. If Risa doesn’t know what to do, the first thing she does is look at me. Also, her name means “look at me.” So I really don’t feel like I need a ‘watch me’ cue when her name means pretty much the same thing. Got an odd look from an instructor in our rally class when I told her I didn’t have a ‘watch me’ cue, though. 😉

  2. lol… reading your explanation of your route planning reminds me of my neighbour’s more-than-reactive dog. He has actually bitten other dogs, and is 100% not trustworthy, every time. I wish I’d known some of this stuff you’re writing about, when he was younger (he got bitten when he was a puppy, and never quite recovered, and his owners never tried getting it fixed, really), because he would be such a more pleasant walk if he could safely walk past dogs.
    Back to the point, though – when my sisters and I have house-sat for them, his owner either goes for a walk with us, or mentions house numbers, explaining dogs that Bailey is friendly wiht (there are two… ), where they usually walk/live, where a lot of people walk their dogs, and where there are people who let their off-leash dog out in the un-fenced front yard. That type of thing is definitely really important while working towards having a non-reactiive dog. Esp. since every incident of reactivity that makes another dog not-approach = more reinforcement, as I believe you mentioned before.

    • I think the more reactive or the busier the environment the more important planning can be. If you have a mildly reactive dog in a mildly busy environment, it may not be as beneficial but still helpful. It’s REALLY good they could give you all htat information! Makes your life that much easier! When I walk dogs I have a place on my client information sheet for special walking routes!

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