The overall theme of this seminar was choices. Early on in this series, I talked about how our dogs need to have choices. I also alluded to the fact that this can be hard to do when you have a reactive dog who might make dangerous decisions. Thankfully, Kathy talked about this! Her acronym SMART (See Mark And Reward Training) actually includes a sneaky second S: Set up.
Setting up means that you control the environment and not the dog, and refers to both training sessions and life outside training. Kathy told us that so much good training can be undone if the dog practices bad behavior outside training sessions. She gave us the example of a dog who barks at windows when people pass the house. Even if you train for an hour every evening, the eight hours your dog spends barking out the window while you’re at work will have a stronger and longer-lasting impact on his behavior.
Good set ups mean that you limit the dog’s activities so that he can’t rehearse the very behavior you’re trying to change. It’s kind of like a bucket of water: if you don’t plug the holes, the water will leak out. No matter how much water you add, you simply won’t make progress.
This is especially important with reactive dogs. We talk about keeping them “under threshold,” and again, this applies to both training and life. Kathy used a drowning analogy. If a child can’t swim and falls in the deep end of the pool, you not only want to pull him out of the pool but you also want to prevent him from going near the deep end again. This means that reactive dogs often need to be heavily managed or even confined early on during their training.
With a controlled environment, we can help our reactive dogs make good choices, making the neural pathways for the desirable behavior stronger. Then we can slowly add in distractions, which can become cues to perform the behavior we want. This allows us to “retire from the full-time job of cueing!”
Having lived with a reactive dog and as a result been very vigilant about possible problems, I love that phrase. In fact, this is why I eventually stopped taking Maisy to trials for awhile. As hard as it was, I couldn’t control the environment and was exhausted trying to constantly prevent her from going over threshold. Worse, I failed, meaning that the reactive neural pathway in her brain was constantly activated. Truly, going slow was actually much faster in the long run.
What have you done to set up your dog’s environment- and his life- so that he could be successful?