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!


Katie said...

I absolutely LOVE LAT. It has been a lifesaver with little reactive Collie dog, both with things that he's scared of (omg scary people!!) and with things that just really stimulate him (omg running dogs!!)

When he first started agility class he absolutely Could Not Function because he was so overstimulated by the dogs in the advanced class running in the next ring. We spent pretty much the entire 7 week course doing mat work and playing Look at That. He was far from perfect by the end of that session, but he'd come a long way. We continue to play LAT a *ton* in agility class. It helps to ground him and keep him under threshold. Sometimes he still tips over, but he's learning to hold himself together and he's so much better at reorienting to me by himself when something excites him.

It's also been useful with Luce and her dog-dog issues, although by the time I learned the game, we'd worked through a lot of them with good old desensitization and "watch me" type games. I think LAT would have been faster and easier and less frustrating.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Doesn't classical conditioning override operant conditioning though. So in theory it shouldn't really matter if you end up over threshold as the dog isn't thinking about behavior. In theory. Of course I think there's also the point where the dog starts to get comfortable with the trigger and then you can be in trouble.

So do you think that with Maisy she was learning from the very beginning that reacting was apart of the equation? Or do you think that it was something that developed later on in your training?

Crystal said...

In theory it shouldn't matter if you end up over threshold... but Maisy still figured out that barking and lunging would get her a treat if she interrupted herself, and it's a PAIN IN THE ASS. I know of another dog who figured out the same thing.

I do wonder if it's because of the clicker. Classical conditioning is typically more open bar/closed bar, and doesn't use the clicker. With LAT, the click helps interrupt that fixation/staring behavior, but it does capture the looking. I don't see why it couldn't capture a bark or a lunge, too... She sees the dog and barks, just as I'm clicking. Does she think I'm clicking for the look or the bark? It clearly happened often enough that she decided I was clicking for the bark.

Crystal said...

Laura, I've been thinking about this all day. Most of the time, when Maisy is doing her bark, lunge, get treat routine, she's got really relaxed body language with a helicopter/circle tail... so it doesn't seem like she's stressed.

However... it does seem like she does it the most with her worst trigger: large black dogs with prick ears, which makes me wonder if she's feeling confused/uncertain. Like she feels anxious because of the trigger (hence the lunge), but she also knows how the game works (which is why she's fairly relaxed and interrupts herself).

I cannot wait for the CU seminar.

Katie, Meeka and Maizey said...

hi crystal, wanted to let you know I am following and loving these posts! Haven't commented much cause I am in a very odd place with my maizey and reactivity.

The whole "pretend reactivity gets me a treat thing" is kicking my but. Honestly at this point I am wondering if most of her reacting is pretend and telling the difference can be tough, as you mention in you last comment.

So I don't have too much insight to share as I am pretty muddled right now (insert eyes rolling at myself and heaving sighs here LOL) but I will keep posting on it and following you and learning, learning, learning!

Cinnamon said...

LAT is my favorite exercise too, and it actually works for Cinnamon as long as the stimulus is under her threshold. She used to bark even at dogs on the other side of a street with lots of traffic. But, after doing LAT using a clicker and treats, she now looks at me as soon as she finds a dog walking in a distance. However, if the other dog is walking on the same side of the street, which means that the dog is in a short distance from Cinnamon, she still barks, or lunges if not barking, at the other dog.

I understand that keeping my dog under threshold is very important in order to get results. But, that is easier said than done. You can't predict when and where you come across another dog when you are walking your dog. Even when you notice the other dog coming early enough and try to hide somewhere nearby, the other dog's owner might try to let it say hello to your dog, which has happened many times to us. I think that you sometimes need to set up subthreshold situations to practise. Otherwise, your dog may experience too many overthreshold situations before learning to control itself in subthreshold situations.

Also, when my dog is off leash, it is hard to exercise LAT. For example, when Cinnamon is in our front garden and sees a dog passing by the gate, she starts running around, barking. In such a situation, I have never succeeded with LAT... I just wonder if Cinnamon will ever learn to stay calm off leash.

Cinnamon's mum

Raegan said...

"I cannot wait for the CU seminar."

Are you going to the one in like Idaho or something? I'm super jealous! I've been nuts to find a CU seminar/class/event but I've already bookmarked my massive dog related expenditure for the year.

I've been having huge trouble with LAT. Gatsby doesn't take a lot of treats outside because in a lot of cases just being outside sends him off into outer space.

bonadeaaussies said...

So, I was going to comment and say, "the LAT game just doesn't seem to work for us," but then when I took Brando to class today, it was like something had clicked in his brain and he totally got it! He was sooooo wonderful and stayed below threshold through both obedience and handling classes today. There was no growling, no lunging, no nothing. I can't express how happy I am. During handling class the dog behind us got in his face... twice, and Brando did nada. Granted, it was a female dog, but he's gotten upset at females before, so I think it still counts. Hooray!!

Crystal said...

Cinnamon's mom- I think it's really encouraging that LAT's working for you guys at a distance. You'll need to work up to stuff that's closer, of course, but the fact that you've got such a positive response at a distance means it will come in time. But you're right- it can be very difficult to deal with a reactive dog when out on walks, etc- the real world is just so unpredictable sometimes!

Raegan- We're going to a CU seminar in Omaha Nebraska in two weeks. It's not by Leslie, but by one of her approved presenters. I'm super excited. As for Gatsby and being outside... have you tried playing the game with a neutral object first? Maybe if you got the "look" cue down well when he's not so excited, it would transfer over to more exciting places?

Bona Dea (Kim? I'm trying to remember!)- I'm glad that LAT finally worked today!! It's wonderful to have those breakthrough moments, isn't it??

KAT said...

Hello, I just found your blog and am reading it intently! It helps to hear people going through the same issues. Not that I would wish it on anybody! my dog barks and lunges when a dog is too close to him and I've been doing cc and desensitization. I've also just started playing the LAT game. He definitely seems to be getting it when below threshold - which is a long way off at the moment. I can tell when he is above threshold because he doesn't turn his head back when I click so I quickly move further away. I drive out so that we can walk in places where I can see dogs coming from a long way off to set him up for success - but today my OH has taken the car and I have to walk him in an area well populated by dogs - eek! Not looking forward to that!
I do have one question, when my dog turns his head he's not actually giving me eye contact, just turning towards the click. Am I meant to wait for eye contact?

Crystal said...

Hi Kat!

I totally understand how comforting it is to know you're not alone when your dog has issues. I hope my blog can help you and your dog! :)

In the beginning stages of LAT, you click when the dog is looking at the trigger. Your dog will turn towards the click. You don't need to get eye contact at this point.

As your dog gets more experience with the game, he should start looking at a trigger, and then looking back at you voluntarily, not as a response to the click. When the dog starts to do that, I start clicking the head turn back, not the looking at the dog. You might test his reactions from time to time by waiting between 1-3 seconds before clicking, just to see if he'll offer looking back at you.

Once he's reliably looking at the trigger and then at you, I'd add in the criteria for eye contact... assuming you want it- I don't think it's NECESSARY for the dog to ever make eye contact with you. It is nice, though! My dog naturally makes lots of eye contact with me, but if yours doesn't (and lots don't), work on capturing eye contact separately, outside the context of the LAT game.

You're already working under threshold, which is great! Before you try to reduce the threshold, I'd recommend working on getting the full chain of look at trigger, look back to you, and make eye contact with you. Once he's learned that full sequence, you can start reducing distance to the trigger.

Good luck! It's never easy working with a reactive dog, but I've learned so much!

kat said...

that's an excellent reply, thank you. I shall definitely do that.

Crystal said...

Let me know how things go for you!!

kat said...

hey crystal, please feel free to delete this post! I just wanted t share this with you for helping me. I have been posting on a personal blog for a while but just decided to make it public as i have found yours and other blogs so helpful. And if it raises the profile of positive training methods all the better. come and visit some time!

Crystal said...

Kat, I'm really excited about your blog. Frank is GORGEOUS. Is he a greyhound?