Thursday, August 5, 2010
Look at That!
In my work with Maisy, I have used the principles and games from Leslie McDevitt’s great book Control Unleashed as the foundation. And, of all of the excellent stuff in that book, my absolute favorite tool has been a game called Look at That (LAT for short). I use LAT constantly, and it has brought Maisy and me a long way.
So what is LAT? When you cue your dog to “Look at That,” you are telling your dog to look at a trigger, and then look back at you for a treat. This behavior is deceptively simple, and sometimes even seems a bit counter-intuitive. Why would you want your dog to look at something that upsets it? Well, in the words of Leslie herself, LAT works by “simultaneously building focus and changing attitudes” (page 122). Strictly speaking, while it isn’t counter-conditioning, it does tend to have the same effect, and teaches the dog to associate triggers with yummy foods.
But LAT goes far beyond that. It also reframes the entire experience for the dog. In the past, looking at a trigger has been a scary proposition, and has likely resulted in reactive behavior. By playing LAT, the dog learns to look at a trigger not out of discomfort or fear, but in order to earn a treat. The entire reason for looking changes. What’s more, since LAT requires the dog to look at the trigger and then back to the handler, it teaches the dog to interrupt itself. This prevents the dog from fixating on the trigger, and instead to focus on you! Finally, the trigger eventually becomes the cue to look at you, which means you don’t have to worry about spotting the trigger first.
Teaching LAT is incredibly simple. You’ll need two things: a clicker and a handful of treats. Although you can use a verbal marker, I think you will get better, faster results if you use a clicker, especially in the early stages where the dog hasn’t yet learned that looking at a trigger will be rewarded. This is because the dog will be focused on the trigger and may have difficulty hearing you, especially if that “fight or flight” part of the brain is engaged. The sound of the clicker can bypass that, and will get processed directly by the amygdala, which means your dog is more likely to respond than if you used your voice. (For more information, check out chapter 10 of Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor. It’s an amazing book.)
To teach LAT, take your dog, your clicker, and your treats out where you are likely to encounter a trigger. When your dog looks at it, click! Your dog should look back at you to get her treat. If she doesn’t, give the treat, and then move back 5-10 feet so that it’s easier. If you’re struggling to get your dog to look back at you despite the increased distance, or if your dog cannot remain sub-threshold (able to think, and not barking or growling), it’s best to teach the cue with a neutral target object instead of a trigger. To do this, hold an item behind your back (anything works, like a ball or a stuffed animal). Quickly hold it out to your side. Your dog will likely follow the movement, and you can click and reward.
Dogs quickly learn to look at the trigger and then look back at you for a treat. Once they’re doing that, you can attach a cue to the behavior (I say “look!”), although I tend to rely on the presence of a trigger to be the cue to look at me instead of actually telling her to look. Either way, the dog learns that seeing a trigger not only predicts good things happening, but also knows that it can do something to earn that good thing!
I’ve already mentioned it, but just to be absolutely clear: your dog must be under threshold. If she is barking or growling, you are too close, and you cannot play this game. Back up and try again. If you don’t, you’re going to end up with a dog that thinks the game is not Look at That, but rather, Bark at That… or worse, Lunge at That. As someone who didn’t heed the sub-threshold warning well enough, trust me, this is not something you want. Remember, what you click is what you get. Make sure you want what you’re clicking!
Even though I messed up this game a bit in the beginning (more on that soon), I still love it. It’s an easy way to counter-condition, and Maisy has definitely learned to self-interrupt. Since the game chains in eye contact with the handler, it’s automatically built in increased focus and attention. Her reactivity has reduced considerably, and I suspect that had I not made the mistake of going over-threshold with her in the beginning, we’d be even further. I’ll write more about how to fix a LAT gone wrong soon, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you guys. Have you tried Look at That? If so, how did it work for you? Did you love it, like I do, or did you struggle with it? Let me know!