Since Maisy and I have been working on heeling for the Five Times Challenge, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about criteria. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t require constant eye contact, but I’m finding that difficult to enforce. Maisy seems to either look around or to look me in the face; I may have chosen a middle ground, but she clearly hasn’t. In fact, she obviously didn’t read the dog books that say dogs don’t like to make direct eye contact. In fact, eye contact seems to be her preferred method of communication. When she needs to go out, she makes eye contact. When she wants food, she makes eye contact. When she wants me to throw her ball? Okay, then she usually stares at the ball, but if that fails? Eye contact.
I suppose I could teach her to use a focal point like my knee, but that just seems excessively difficult to teach, and let’s face it: I’m kind of a lazy trainer. As a result, it appears that we’ve agreed to do eye contact heeling. In ways, I like this. I love the way it makes us feel like we’re working as a team. But, as I’ve discussed, I have reservations about it. My two concessions to this are that she is allowed to break eye contact if she sees something that worries her, and we’re teaching a right-side heel to help mitigate the physical effects.
Normally, I wouldn’t even post about this. It’s a fairly minor point, and not even terribly interesting… except the part where I allow her to break eye contact if she sees something that concerns her. I suspect that this sounds odd to others, but I firmly believe it is essential to Maisy’s ability to manage her stress. Let me explain why.
There seems to be two main ways for a handler to deal with visual stimuli and their reactive dogs: they either cue their dogs to look at them (ie, “Watch Me”), or they cue the dog to look at the trigger (ie, “Look at That”). “Watch Me” is considered an incompatible behavior; the dog cannot demonstrate reactive behavior while engaged in another task. “Look at That” is a cue that is given to direct the dog to look at a visual trigger, which both allows the dog to see what’s going on, and rewards the dog for an appropriate response. This doesn’t mean that people only do one or the other. On the contrary, both cues can be very useful. Personally, though, I favor “Look at That” because Maisy is a highly visual dog. Most of her triggers are thing she sees, as opposed to sounds or smells, and she is very sensitive to fast motion, novel sights, or things that don’t look the way she expects them to.
Interestingly, she has the most difficulty when she knows something is present, but can’t see it, or when she can’t see it in its entirety. For example, on one of our recent trips to a pet store, there was only one other dog in the store, and it was in the adjacent aisle. Maisy knew the dog was there- she could hear it, and could probably smell it as well. Being short, she decided to check out this other dog by peeking under the display racks. Of course, she only saw feet, and this set her off in a barking fit. However, once the dog rounded the corner, she looked at it, and then quickly looked at me. She was still nervous, but she was no longer overreacting. It seemed to me that now that she had all of the information, she could make a better choice about how she ought to behave.
I could cite many similar examples, and in fact, her very first reactive response was to an incomplete visual stimuli. (In that instance, it was a very tall dog in the ring adjacent to us at training club. All Maisy could see was its neck and head.) However, if I shared every example, this post would become entirely too long. The point remains: Maisy is more likely to become reactive when she cannot look at whatever is upsetting her.
And that’s why I allow her to look at things while we are heeling. Ultimately, I’m hopeful that by working on just one step of attention heeling at a time, we can build up her focus so she doesn’t feel the need to look around. Of course, I also understand that I have the dog that I have. Although I hope that she will conquer her reactivity, I realize that she will likely always be more susceptible to stress than the average dog. So, my long-term goal is to help her learn to manage her stress so that she only needs the briefest of glances before she returns to the task at hand.
I know that sometimes I choose different methods than others, and I’m okay with that. I also know that in doing so, I’m probably sacrificing precision and high scores and ribbons and placements- things that I really do want, but that I’m content to give up if it’s what’s best for Maisy. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: training and trialing is about being with my dog, and about the relationship we build in the process. As much as I want that coveted OTCH title, I want Maisy to feel loved and respected and protected more.