Monday, August 2, 2010

Skills Reactive Dogs Need for Trials

Maisy reluctantly shows off her impulse control skills.

We all know that success in dog sports requires a lot of work. Your dog needs to learn a lot of skills- and learn them well- in order to break into the ribbons. But for reactive dogs, learning the exercises is the easy part. Of all the time I spend training each week, 25% of it- at most (and probably less)- is spent on performance exercises. The rest is devoted to teaching my dog the skills she will need to cope with the stress and chaos that you find at trials. What are those skills? Well, I’ve come up with four things that I think every reactive performance dog needs to learn.

Impulse Control
It’s been my personal theory that reactive dogs tend to have impulse control issues. Am I right? I have no idea! But it makes sense to me; if a dog gets stressed and overwhelmed, there are basically two choices: to shut down, or to over-react. It seems logical that the dog who has impulse control issues would be the reactive one. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but a dog who can learn to control his impulses with low-stress things is going to be better prepared to deal with high-stress things than the dog who has no impulse control at all.

My favorite way to teach impulse control is by teaching “wait.” This is not a formal stay- it’s a temporary ceasing of activity- and there are about a million ways you can practice during the day. Wait for your food bowl. Wait to go out the door. Wait while I open the crate or car door. Wait at a street corner. Wait while I throw the ball. Lately I’ve even been able to stop Maisy’s forward motion simply by saying, “Wait!”

There are other great ways to teach impulse control, too. “Leave it” is great for this, and so is “doggie zen”- where the dog has to not only leave an item, but make eye contact with you instead. I tend to take doggie zen to extremes- hold treats in both hands and wind-milling them around crazily, which encourages my dog to ignore both the treats and movement.

There is a ton of down-time at trials, so being able to relax while there is crucial. Maisy and I have done a ton of mat work in class, and I take it with almost everywhere we go. A natural extension of mat work is the Relaxation Protocol by Dr. Karen Overall, which encourages the dog to relax on its mat even while you’re doing crazy things.

There are a number of other options to help a dog relax, too. Maisy gets regular massages. T-Touch is also popular, and the Anxiety Wrap is often used along with T-Touch (although it didn’t help Maisy). I’m a big fan of the Through a Dog’s Ear CDs, and of course, you guys know that I am interested in and use supplements, too.

The Ability to Navigate a Busy Environment
This is a more practical skill, but anyone who has been to a trial will recognize the need for any dog- not only reactive ones- to be able to walk through a crowd. There will inevitably be people and dogs milling about, sometimes right near the ring entrance, and your dog simply has to be able to do this. In fact, while you could get away with managing the relaxation piece (by keeping your dog in the car, for example), unless you have a very small dog that you can carry, your dog simply must learn this skill.

Teaching a competition heel is helpful, of course, but for really tight spaces, I like to use targeting. For taller dogs, I suppose a nose bridge or “sticky target” would be especially useful- where the dog maintains physical contact with you- but I simply point a finger for Maisy to watch. It’s been surprisingly effective and easy, and gives her something else to focus on, which allows us to easily move from place to place while at trials.

A Rock-Solid Interrupt Cue
Part of the trouble with reactive behavior is that when a dog begins to approach (or worse, go over) their stress threshold, their brains begin moving to that “fight or flight” state, and quit processing your verbal cues as well as it should. This means you have to work very hard to create a rock-solid cue that you can use to interrupt your dog’s behavior. (You also have to have the presence of mind to use it, which is another story entirely.)

You can use any cue you want- come, leave it, watch me, whatever- but the cue should be useful in any situation. I think my favorite one is to create a “whiplash turn” to the dog’s name. No matter what you choose, you’re going to classically condition your dog just like Pavlov’s dogs so that they don’t even think about what you’ve asked, they just automatically do it in response to the stimulus.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with this list? If so, tell me how you teach these skills. Would you add anything to this list? Remove something? Tell me about that, too! If you trial with a reactive dog, how much time do you spend on general coping skills vs. actual performance? I’d love to hear about your experiences!


Lauren said...

Well I don't trial, I do have a reactive dog and I struggle with trying to find things that help which aren't related to a dog actually being in our presence! So this post is awesome for me.

I don't spend enough time working on things like this, I know that. I have pretty much given up on relaxation work, which I KNOW I need to start again (it's just so boring compared to tricks and other useless stuff!). He does relax well though, which I am always surprised at. He can relax and chill out at dog class and at the vet's with new people/dogs around, he just first has to know they aren't a threat.

I do spend some time on impulse control and waiting. One thing that Frodo is having a VERY hard time accepting is that he has to wait while I am working with Mollie, that all my time doesn't belong to him!

He does not have the interrupt cue, which is something I think would really help him, though I feel as though we are not far enough in our classical conditioning that he would be able to do anything I ask without still worrying about the other dog at the same time. If that makes any sense...

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I think you've hi the nail on the head. I don't know if there is anything I can add to your list.

And by the way, your jealous comment of Vito being calm in his crate made me so proud!!!! Vito lying down in the crate and being quiet is huge for him, we have really come a long way and I am so excited. He isn't perfect at it everywhere, but there has been several trials now where he has just lied down and relaxed!!

Crystal said...

Lauren, I think the interrupt cue is one of the hardest to get... and I've found that the one I have "here" and maaaaaybe "wait" is not the one that comes out of my mouth. *Sigh*

Laura, I'm glad I could make you proud! I remain jealous of Vito's calmness in the crate. Could you give me a quick overview of what you did to get him to that point?

andrea said...

Sally isn't reactive but she is often over the top ...and there is no doubt that all your list are things we have to work on too - particularly impulse control ... and relaxation

poor Sally spends a lot of her life "wait"ing .. for doors to open for her food bowl to go down for just about everything ..

getting nice settled behaviour in a crate is a challenge for us too in some settings at least - but I don't do enough work on this skill now - i did do crate games and found them very helpful

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Well his naughtiness in the crate stemmed from his separation anxiety and probably frustration as well. I don't know how similar it would be to Maisy as he would feel relaxed, well relatively at least, in new environments if he wasn't crated. It's still a process we are working on, but overall he is now ok being crated as long as a lot of people are around. He doesn't always lay down, but he is doing so more and more. It also helps when I put Lance in with him at a trial. And while he doesn't really care a lot for Chuck, I think having that company in his crate at a trial is still helpful.

I started by just having him in the crate with me near by. Walking back and forth giving him treats for being quiet, about every 10seconds at first. This was very very hard. Once it got less hard, I worked on out of sight for 1 second, 5 seconds, etc. I used the manners minder a lot as it would give treats while I was out of sight. I played with no treats when I was near by, treats when I was gone. But it didn't make that much of a difference. He wouldn't always eat the treats, and still doesn't always eat them. I tried bones but even now he won't eat bones in his crate when I'm gone. I played with covering his crate with a blanket when whining, uncovering when quiet, but it didn't help any. I also have Vito be in a down in order to be released out of his crate. I don't know that it helps him to be more relaxed, but at least it's rewarding being in a down.

I think the biggest thing was doing this along side our SA program at home, and then just doing this a LOT. He came with to ton of Lance's classes and I had Adam on duty to do the treat thing. He came to all of Lance's trials where I did it and had other people drop treats in his crate. I would make special trips to the club just to practice with Vito being in a crate, no other reason to be there. At home, at Lance's classes, and at trials I played tons and tons of crate games, him offering going in and offering to stay in with the door open.

Crystal said...

Thanks, Laura. I'm not sure how that would work with Maisy since her issue is anxiety, not the crate. In fact, I think the crate makes things worse. When she's stressed, she really wants to be with me, and will start to shut down and refuse to move if I try to crate her. It's kind of a no-win situation.

We are going to a Control Unleashed seminar in a few weeks (not with Leslie, but with one of her assistants), and I'm hoping to get some pointers on this.

elegy said...

Impulse control?? What's that??

Excellent post as usual, Crystal.

Crystal said...

Andrea- you know, the things I listed are really skills that ANY dog that goes to trials should know, with maybe the exception of an interrupt cue. Other than that, though, a dog really needs to be able to relax, to navigate busy crowds, and to show impulse control, regardless of reactivity or not...

Crystal said...

If you FIND any impulse control, let me know. My local PetSmart doesn't carry it.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I agree that with Maisy's general anxiety about the environment you're going to have to work on that first. Something that I think you have to just be with her for and I would assume just keep doing what you are doing.

Vito's anxiety wasn't about the crate though. He actually loves crates from all the crate games that we played and was/is constantly offering to go in it. I still play "yer in yer out" type of games with him. He just didn't want for me to be out of his sight, or in the beginning be anywhere other then 6 inches from his crate. He could have been tethered to something or been in an xpen and have had the same reaction to me being any little distance away.

But still, I think until you get Maisy completely comfortable just hanging out next to you, you're not really going to make any progress with her being crated away from you at a trial. Even if you stay right next to her, if she's in a crate she's not going to feel the same level of security as if she was able to touch you. I hope that you come away with some great ideas from the seminar!

Crystal said...

I'm not sure if this is encouraging or sad, but the judge on Saturday told my trainer that "the little blonde dog has come a long way since [she] saw her last." I'm not sure if she knew that she was talking to my trainer, though.

Oh, but Maisy is memorable.

I hope we get a lot of great stuff from the seminar. Maisy's come so far, and I'm hoping we'll get what we need to go just a bit further.

Robin Sallie said...

I did not get the impression that she knew that I am your trainer either.

Crystal said...

But did she know you're my FRIEND??? ;)