We spent some time on both days talking about reactive dogs, and naturally, I found this to be perhaps the most useful part of the weekend. So useful, in fact, that I have to split this entry into parts! This one is about the official “how-to” of working with a reactive dog.
Suzanne’s work with reactive dogs really isn’t that much different than a lot of what is out there, but it is the subtle spin that she puts on the already familiar territory that’s fascinating. Instead of teaching a dog “watch me” or “look at that,” she teaches an auto check-in. The auto check-in has two primary goals: First, for handlers to reward their dogs when they choose to be attentive to the handler, and second, for the dog to choose to voluntarily be attentive to their human when faced with a decision.
The check-in is exactly like it sounds: Every 5-7 seconds, the dog ought to look at handler without being prompted to do so. The auto check-in depends on the dog volunteering the behavior instead of the handler requesting it because Suzanne strongly feels that a requested behavior is only as strong as the handler’s willingness to ask for it at the right time.
There are some pretty strong benefits to teaching the dog to willingly offer this behavior. Suzanne said that, in her experience, an unprompted behavior is more persistent and more durable than one which is prompted by the handler. Since the dog is choosing to check-in with the handler instead of acting reactively, it means that the handler doesn’t have to scan the environment for the dog. This allows the handler to be more relaxed, because she can trust that the dog will make the right choice. It’s also easier because sometimes it’s impossible to identify a trigger before the dog does.
In fact, Suzanne said that the handler shouldn’t scan the environment looking for triggers, though she acknowledged this is difficult. Instead, we should watch the dog, and let the dog tell us when there is something to be worried about. She told us about a neat study (I wish I had the citation) where the researchers set up a dogs and their handlers with barriers situated in such a manner that the handler couldn’t see when a trigger approached, but the dog could. When the handlers could see the trigger, the dogs reacted when it was approximately 15 feet away. However, when the handlers couldn’t see the trigger, the dogs wouldn’t react until the trigger was an average of 3 feet away.
Anyway, Suzanne said the auto check-in is truly a gift. She wrote in the hand out, “The dog himself has chosen to seek the social interaction with the handler instead of tuning them out in favor of an outwards draw by whatever is upsetting, attracting or distracting him.” This is pretty awesome, especially since prompting a check-in does very little to shift the dog’s motivation or emotions.
Teaching the auto check-in is pretty easy, as it is simply captured. Suzanne didn’t use clickers, she instead responded to voluntary eye contact by having the handler become incredibly excited, animated, and generous, with about 10 seconds of continuous reinforcement using both high value treats and praise. Dogs picked up the auto check-in pretty quickly during the demos.
The next step was to present the dog with a distraction. Naturally, she talked about thresholds, but I liked that she broke it down into distance, duration and intensity. Usually when people talk about working with thresholds, they talk about distance only. Suzanne said it’s important to control all three elements of a trigger. I understood this instinctively, but it was really nice to have it verbalized. Interestingly, when I thought about the different situations in which Maisy has gone over-threshold, I realized that most of the time it is due to duration. Yes, there are some stimuli that are too close or too intense, but if they come and go quickly, she is far less likely to react. For example, recently, a bike (one of Maisy’s triggers) came whizzing by us very fast (high intensity), and very close (about 2 feet away, so very little distance), but because it was there and gone so quickly (low duration), she was fine. (And yes, she got jackpotted like crazy! I’m so proud!)
When she presents distractions, she wants it to grab the dog’s attention. The goal is not to have a dog focused on the handler only, while ignoring the environment. Rather, she wants the dog to split his attention back and forth between both the environment and the handler without becoming overly aroused. She calls this the “think and learn” zone, and said that just as it is impossible for a dog to think when over-threshold, “sub-threshold” learning is also useless.
If the dog fails to check in regularly, Suzanne recommended using passive prompts. Instead of calling the dog’s name or using a cue, she recommended stepping into (or out of) the dog’s peripheral vision. If this doesn’t work, a light touch would be okay. As a last resort, it is okay to verbally prompt the check-in, but this would be a sign that perhaps the distraction is too great.
I liked the auto check-ins, and was very impressed by the responses of the dogs. Also, I do hope you’ll excuse a bit of self-congratulations here: I’ve always felt that playing Look at That made more sense unprompted. While Maisy does know the word “look,” I usually let her initiate the game instead of prompting it. It was nice to have some confirmation that that decision was sensible. However, I do tend to prompt Maisy with her name fairly often. It’s very useful, but as Suzanne points out, it hasn’t really taught Maisy what I’d like her to do.
I’m pretty excited to work on teaching her more auto check-ins, and to rely less on active prompts. I’m also excited about some of the other stuff I learned about reactive dogs, which I’ll tell you about soon.