Sunday, August 29, 2010
CU Seminar: Reorienting
There are lots of benefits to teaching a dog to reorient. It creates a routine for the dog, which pretty much all dogs like. For reactive dogs, though, it creates a sense of predictability, and helps them know both what to expect, and what is expected of them. This relieves some of their anxiety.
Reorienting also teaches the dog impulse control; instead of rushing off to check out the exciting new environment, the dog learns to contain himself and check in with you first. This, in turn, leads to increased team work and attention to the handler- skills we definitely want in our performance dogs!
Finally, reorienting helps mitigate some of the sudden environmental changes that happen when you move from one location to another, largely because the dog becomes patterned to look at you automatically instead of scanning the environment for a potential trigger.
Ironically, after Alexa discussed the value of reorienting at the seminar on Saturday, I experienced first hand how valuable reorienting can be. Maisy and I were walking out of our hotel room, and as we headed into the hallway, an older man was walking towards us. Because Maisy has not learned to automatically reorient to me, she shot to the end of her leash and barked and growled. She was truly over threshold; nothing I said or did was able to get her attention. Although I’m quite sure she would have been nervous about the man no matter what, I believe that if she’d been conditioned to automatically turn to me, there is a decent chance I could have prevented that reaction. Needless to say, I’m going to teach Maisy to reorient!
So, how do you teach reorienting? Alexa had us start with the dogs exiting their crates. In turn, we each opened the crate door and fed a constant stream of treats as long as the dog remained inside the crate. If he tried to exit without a release cue, we calmly shut the crate door and then tried again. Pretty soon, we had a group of dogs that really enjoyed being in their crates! This step helped create some impulse control in the dogs.
Next, we stood next to the crate so that we were facing the same direction as our dogs, and called them out. As they did, we watched for the tiniest movement in our direction. Even an ear flick or a slight head turn earned the dog a click and treat. Each time, we waited for a little bit more of a turn in our direction. It really didn’t take long for the dogs to rush out, make the u-turn towards us, and plop down, watching us expectantly. (The sit, while not necessary, is nice. It is an added demonstration of self-control, and it also means that if your dog is feeling especially wild, you have a better chance of catching him if he's loose.)
Astute readers will notice that we didn’t give any cues, verbal or otherwise. We didn’t ask them to “wait” before getting out of the crate, and we didn’t call their name or otherwise ask them to pay attention to us. This was a deliberate choice, because we want the dog to learn to reorient to us based on environmental cues. The cue to seek out the handler is the transition from one location to another, not anything we said or did. This gives the dog the ability to think and make the right choice, which creates both confidence and self-control. It also means that you don’t need to be constantly nagging your dog with commands, something that I find mighty appealing.
Once the dogs were easily reorienting while coming out of their crates, we worked on reorienting while walking into a box made out of ring gates. Again, the process was similar. We would approach the opening to the ring, and stop and wait. Some dogs automatically reoriented, while others would take a few moments before they turned back towards their handlers, impatient about the lack of movement. At the first sign of turning towards us, we clicked! We repeated the process again as we moved through the gate into the interior of the ring. After only a few repetitions, the dogs were offering up the reorienting behavior on their own.
This is something that would be easy to practice at home. Practice it when your dog comes out of his crate, as you let him into the back yard, or as you go through the gate to your fenced in yard. All of these are pretty low-distraction environments, so it should be easy for your dog to learn. Once he gets good at the game, you can make it more challenging by putting a toy or bowl of treats on the other side of the boundary.
Reorienting a simple behavior, but it’s a powerful one, too. Like I said, I’ll definitely be working on this one with Maisy. But I want to hear from you guys. Have you taught your dogs to reorient? Has it ever helped you and your dog? I’d love to hear your examples!