Monday, August 2, 2010
Skills Reactive Dogs Need for Trials
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.
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!