Maisy looks at Reese. Photo by Robin Sallie.Okay, so you all know that I love the Look at That game (henceforth “LAT”). It is my favorite CU exercise, and it is the one that I use most of the time. Even though Maisy and I are pretty proficient at LAT, I was still excited about seeing how Alexa explained the exercise, as well as how she played it.
As a reminder, LAT is a game where we reward the dog for looking at an object, especially something they find worrisome. Although this seems counter-intuitive to people at times, it really does make sense. After all, if you were walking down a dark alley, and someone was following you, you’d probably want to look and see who it was, right? And if the person you were walking with told you that you couldn’t look, you’d probably feel even more anxious, or at least you’d probably tune out your companion’s chatter in order to listen for the footsteps behind you…
So LAT is a great game that allows our dogs to take in information about something that’s scaring them. When you cue your dog to look (or when you respond to your dog’s look), it also acknowledges to your dog that you saw the scary thing, too. Both actions help reduce anxiety. That said, Alexa was clear that Look at That is just that- looking. It’s not scanning the environment, looking for something to be worried about, and it’s not staring at the scary thing. Both behaviors only lend itself to increased anxiety.
Alexa also said that LAT should be a very controlled exercise, and said that we should control what our dogs look at. We do that by deciding when to give the cue, and when not to. I found this bit a little confusing, as it is not how I do it. Certainly, I want Maisy to look when I tell her to so I can point out triggers she hasn’t noticed yet, but I also really like it as communication- I want her to be able to tell me when she’s feeling worried about something that I haven’t seen.
In fact, that is exactly how I played the game with Maisy during the seminar, and Alexa didn’t direct me to do it differently, so I must admit that I’m a bit confused on her views of the game. It might just be that I was confusing the way that Alexa teaches the exercise with how it is done long term. Most of the other participants hadn’t played LAT before, so she didn’t really talk about how to do it once the dog becomes more advanced.
Right, so, let’s talk about how she teaches LAT. Alexa taught it in three stages, and the first two involved using a neutral object. When I posted about it before, I said that I just started by clicking when my dog looked at something, which is actually skipping ahead to Alexa’s third step. I also wrote about the potential downsides of the way I did it, so needless to say, I like the foundation steps Alexa taught.
Alexa had us do all three steps while our dogs were on their mats in order to help them understand that LAT is a visual targeting exercise, and that they should move only their head to look instead of their entire bodies.
In the first step, we did a simple open bar/closed bar with an approaching person. Alexa walked toward each of our dogs, and as she came closer, we allowed our dogs to look at her, and then began to feed a stream of treats. When she retreated, we stopped feeding. This step was to create a good association with someone coming nearer, as well as to help the dog understand that it’s okay to notice what’s going on around them.
In the second step, Alexa walked over to our dogs while holding a neutral object between her back. Then she moved the object out from behind her back, and when our dogs looked, we clicked. We did that a few times, and then began using a cue as Alexa brought the object out. All of the dogs picked up on this pretty quickly.
Alexa used a water bottle at the seminar, but you could use any neutral object. She cautioned against using anything scary, obviously, but also against a toy or other fun object which might excite the dog. We want a truly neutral object, one that causes the dog to look and say “big deal.” Done properly, this helps the dog learn that the cue “look at that!” means that there is something boring and non-threatening to look at. Without this step, the dog may learn that the cue means something scary is around, and might trigger the dog to begin scanning the environment instead.
Once all of the dogs were looking at the neutral object on cue, we added another dog to the mix- Alexa’s demo dog, a lovely, calm border collie named Reese. This allowed her to adjust the difficulty level for the beginner dogs (for whom Reese simply sat outside the ring, or walked sedately) as well as for more advanced dogs like Maisy, which was really cool. Maisy really struggles with watching recalls, and as time has gone on, she’s begun to anticipate the dog’s movement by reacting to the sound of the handler calling their dog. Alexa took Reese out of the equation entirely at first, and worked on just letting us desensitize to the sound of her calling, and then added Reese back in as Maisy calmed down. I was surprised how quickly she settled in to the exercise.
For my part, I learned that I need to adjust my criteria a bit quicker. Since Maisy knows that the behavior is look at the object, then look back to get the treat, I tend to wait for her to look back before clicking. But sometimes, she begins to stare, which increases the likelihood that she’s going to rush toward the object. I can (and should!) prevent that rushing by clicking for just the look when she’s a bit more tense in order to interrupt the staring.
At the same time, I need to tighten up my criteria by being a bit more insistent that Maisy remains lying down the entire time. Maisy has a tendency to raise her butt up into a bow sometimes. Alexa said that she thinks Maisy is doing this in an effort to get ready to rush off, while still technically complying by not standing, and that it’s a sign that Maisy is feeling nervous or uncertain about what’s going on. She’s completely right, but since I think of that position as a play bow, I hadn’t read it as a sign of stress.
These were great things for me to learn, and I’m really glad that Maisy and I got a chance to play LAT with Alexa. As I had hoped, it helped bring the game to the next level for us, and by getting some concrete feedback on how and when to adjust my criteria, it should help me help Maisy even more!