Alexa and Reese demonstrated off-switch games. Moments before this picture was taken, Reese was wildly tugging on that toy. Now he offers a default behavior- calm eye contact- to get the game started again. Photo by Robin Sallie.
When people talk about the Control Unleashed program, it’s often in the context of helping a dog calm down, relax, and control his impulses. These are important skills, and ones that are often missing with reactive dogs. What I love about CU is that it can help any dog, with almost any issue. A dog doesn’t need to be reactive in order to benefit from the games. It’s great for fearful dogs, anxious dogs, or even just inattentive and out-of-control dogs.
While any dog will benefit from CU, there is no denying that it was created and written with performance dogs in mind. This means that it’s incredibly important to teach our dogs how to engage in highly arousing activities while maintaining self-control. They need to be able to think on the agility course so they don’t resort to the zoomies. They need to be able to pay attention to their handler during the subtleties of a competition heeling pattern. And they need to be able to walk through a busy, crowded trial site without incident.
They need off-switch games.
These games not only help teach the dog how to think through their excitement, but also help the handler learn how to gauge their dog’s arousal level, and then adjust it in order to find the optimal level needed for a good performance. After all, being too relaxed can be just as bad as being too amped up when it comes to competition. Off-switch games help both the dog and handler learn how to attain this delicate balance.
Alexa demonstrated a very simple off-switch game with her dog Reese. She offered him a toy and then tugged with him for about 15 seconds. Then, she asked him to let go of the toy, and she simply waited until Reese offered a default behavior. (A default behavior is one that dog offers without be cued. Typical default behaviors include sits, downs, and eye contact. Maisy’s main default behavior is a down.) Once he offered the default behavior, she started up the game again.
Easy, right? Well, from experience, I can say yes and no. The concept is simple, but it can be a bit frustrating in the beginning. The play part isn’t a problem for most teams, although if you are tugging, it does require that you be able to get the toy back reliably. You also need to be able to read your dog and ask for the toy before he gets too amped up. For most dogs, playing for 10-15 seconds is doable, but for the super-excitable among us, that may need to be reduced to 5 seconds. Maisy doesn’t tug, so we play with a ball. That’s pretty easy since she’s really reliable about returning and releasing the ball.
Here’s the frustrating part: waiting for the default behavior. This will be easier if your dog already understands that a default behavior will be rewarded. If your dog doesn’t have one, you’ll want to teach that first, separately from the off-switch game. I taught Maisy’s default down by simply praising her every time I saw her lying calmly. After a few days of that, I’d get some treats and stand with her in the kitchen, verbally praising her and giving her a treat for offered (not cued) downs.
Anyway, so you’ll play tug, and then stop and wait. And you may need to wait awhile, especially the first time, because your dog won’t necessarily understand what you want. Even now, when Maisy is super excited, it can take upwards of 30 seconds to get a (very reluctant) default down. It may help to put out the dog’s mat as a subtle environmental cue. Once your dog has offered his default behavior, play!
After your dog understands that the game starts when he does the default behavior, it’s time to make the game more difficult. Now, in addition to the default behavior, you want to look for some signs of relaxation before starting up the game. For Maisy, I look for eye contact (instead of doing the herding dog stare at her ball), rolling on to one hip, putting her chin down and softer breathing (as opposed to heavy panting).
Once you’ve got both a default behavior and some relaxation, it’s time to start increasing the time on how long the dog remains relaxed before you re-start the game. My goal is for Maisy to immediately lie down, and then relax for about 10 seconds before I restart the game. Sometimes I’ll ask for a bit more relaxation, sometimes a bit less. It depends on how amped up she is, and if her arousal level is really high, or kind of low. If it’s too low, it’s a sign she’s going to disengage from the game entirely, in which case I’ll throw her ball immediately in order to help her get excited about playing with me again.
When your dog is reliably at this level, it’s time to increase the difficulty by lengthening the amount of time you spend playing before asking for the default behavior. Again, you’ll need to adjust that time to match your dog’s arousal level, but I think it’s reasonable to work towards the goal of a solid minute or so of intense play before asking the dog to relax again.
Anyway, that’s a little bit about how Alexa introduced off switch games, and how I play them with Maisy. Trust me, Maisy and I are far from perfect at this- there are days where we can play intensely for several minutes, and then she’ll automatically offer that default behavior, and then there are days where just seeing the ball causes her to lose her mind. I strive for more of the former than the latter. Writing this has reminded me that I’d like to see more relaxation after she offers the default behavior, too.
I’d love to hear about how you all play off-switch games. I’m sure there’s more than one way to do this, both in the game itself, as well as in the way it’s played. Do you do something similar- rev the dog up, and then calm him down? How is it different from what I’ve outlined here? Do you do something entirely different in order to install an off-switch? I’d love to know… mostly because I’d love to have another game to play with Maisy!