With my attention elsewhere, the probability that Maisy will have a reactive outburst increases substantially... but why?
(Photo by Robin Sallie.)
(Photo by Robin Sallie.)
I love going to trials, but I find them exhausting. Maisy needs constant management in order to stay calm. If I keep my full attention on her, I can see and respond to her stress points so that she does not lunge, growl, bark, or otherwise act poorly. However, if I shift my attention elsewhere for even a moment- to check the rule book, for example- she tends to lose it.
After our last two trials, I realized something needed to change. Not only was I finding the experience to be more frustrating than fun, but I also felt like a hypocrite. After all, I had been writing about whether or not reactive dogs should be allowed to trial, and if so, what skills they need or behaviors they ought to exhibit, and here I was with a dog who lost her mind both in and out of the ring.
But I love going to trials, and Maisy appears happy in the videos. Stressed or not, I don’t think she needs to stop going. She may not care about going one way or the other- I fully recognize she’d be just as happy going hiking at the state park- but at this point, I don’t think that it’s wrong to take her to trials. Even so, I knew that we needed to get some of this reactive behavior under control so that we can both enjoy trialing more. The problem was, I had no idea how to do that.
Fast-forward to the seminar this weekend. I went with my friend/trainer, Robin, which was awesome. Not only was she excellent road-trip company (thanks again for driving!), but she also sat next to Maisy and I at the seminar. We had the same issue that we have at trials: Maisy’s fine as long as I’m paying attention to her, but when I look away, she behaves reactively. The interesting thing was what Robin saw…
As way of explanation, you should know that Maisy has been trained to play the Look at That game. The way we use it is that when she sees something that stresses her out, she looks at it and then whips back to look at me for her treat. I notice this, reassure her that the scary thing isn’t a big deal, and then Maisy’s fine. But if I miss her cue, she growls (or lunges or barks).
When Maisy did just that this weekend, Robin said that she growled while still staring at me, not at the trigger. Which means that the problem wasn’t that she was being reactive, but instead, that she doesn’t know how to communicate with me when she can’t make eye contact! In fact, she was doing exactly what I’ve taught her to do- look at the trigger and look back. When that failed to get her the reassurance she needs, Maisy, being a smart dog, found another way to get my attention.
Suddenly, all the pieces began to fall into place. Although I already knew that Maisy’s reactive behavior was fake- that is, that she was only acting reactive, not feeling reactive- I had misunderstood the motive. I thought that I’d created this mutant behavior chain of pretend to react/receive treat, so I’d been ignoring the behavior I didn’t like.
Truth be told, while this probably was part of the problem, it wasn’t the complete picture. Yes, the reactivity was fake, and yes, she probably did figure out she’d get a treat. But she also figured something else out: she could get my attention by doing this. So, while I had had mild success with the “ignore the behavior you don’t want” approach, it still left a huge void. In the absence of clear instructions on what to do, Maisy kept falling back on the only behavior she knew.
So, what’s the solution? Well, I do think I was on the right track. Ignoring the behavior does send her the message that it doesn’t work. However, I also need to teach her an alternate way to get my attention… something that is quiet and polite, but also quite obvious. Something that doesn’t require me to be looking at her. Something easy…
Something like targeting. I’ll talk about this in more detail soon, but a lot of the Control Unleashed exercises involve targeting, a point which Alexa made several times throughout the seminar. Going to place is a targeting exercise. Reorienting to the handler is a targeting exercise. Even Look at That is a (visual) targeting exercise.
Interestingly, Maisy has recently begun to do some of this herself. There have been a few instances where I’ve set Maisy up in heel position, and then turned to talk to someone. If I didn’t return to the exercise quickly enough for her tastes, Maisy took it upon herself to poke my leg with her nose, a gesture I interpreted as, “Hey, we’ve got work to do here!” What I need to do now is to capture this offered behavior, and teach her that it's a better way to get my attention than to growl or lunge.
So, here’s my plan: I’m going to start by doing some simple targeting exercises. She already knows how to touch my palm with her nose on cue, but I’ll transfer this behavior to touching my leg. Once that’s solid, I’ll begin giving her the leg-touch cue after her fake-reactive-outbursts.
Do I run the risk of creating an even more annoying behavior chain? Yes, I suppose I do, which is why I’m planning on ignoring the outburst, waiting five seconds or so, and then cuing the leg-touch (and then jackpotting the heck out of that leg-touch). By doing this, I’m hoping to minimize the attention she gets for the reactive behavior, and maximizing the attention she gets for an alternate behavior. If I’m lucky, she’ll just decide that it’s easier to just cut to the chase and offer the leg-touch instead of the growling or lunging.
Incidentally, I thought about adding the leg-touch as another step to her Look at That behavior, but ultimately chose not to because it would muddy up the criteria for her “look” behavior. I really like the way LAT works for us right now, and I don’t want to change that. Also, it would probably be annoying for her to leg-touch me that much.
Will this work? I have no idea, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Even if it doesn’t, I’ve still gained new insight into why my dog acts the way she does. At any rate, you all will be among the first to know how it works out for us.