The Lack-of-Choice Routine

We just flew from Thailand to Austria. In order to be allowed to do so, I needed an export license and a health certificate for my dogs. Getting these documents required a trip to the animal quarantine office at the cargo area of an international airport in Bangkok, where the dogs were examined by the airport vet. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of experience and the kind of environment dogs like Grit handle well, so I stuck to a routine I have for situations that might overwhelm her. It’s a simple and helpful routine that can be applied to all kinds of unavoidable experiences, so I thought I’d walk you through it. Maybe some of you will find it helpful for your own dogs.

Let’s get a few things out of the way:

Freedom and Agency

I’m about to talk about taking away my dog’s choices and putting her in a situation she’d rather not be in. If you know me and my dogs, you know that they usually have a great deal of freedom. In no way am I suggesting that the lack of agency I’m about to describe should be applied in everyday life! It is meant for exceptional situations – ones that you couldn’t or haven’t prepared your dog for, but have to get through.

The lack-of-choice routine is a management tool, not a training replacement.

I believe that medical and husbandry training are invaluable, as is building a positive relationship between your dog and your regular vet, and learning how to do routine procedures yourself (some vets – at least in Austria – will let you do things like read your dog’s microchip or take her temperature yourself). However, I also believe that we can’t prepare for everything, and that sometimes, a sensitive, fearful or anxious dog will be put in a situation you haven’t or couldn’t prepare them for. It’s part of life, and we have to find a way to get through it. The lack-of-choice routine helps in these situations. It’s not a replacement for training, but a management tool.

In my experience, adult dogs – even sensitive and insecure ones – are generally able to handle short periods of discomfort without being traumatized by them, and without developing new behavioral problems because of them – as long as you, the human on the other end of the leash, handle these potentially scary experiences wisely. Once a dog’s personality is fully developed, it is pretty resilient. That is to say: it is hard to change it. It takes longer to increase an adult dog’s confidence than to increase a puppy’s confidence, for example. The upside of this is that it also takes longer to decrease an adult dog’s confidence than, say, an adolescent dog’s confidence.

Have a plan that helps you feel in charge! Know what to expect! Have helpers if you need them!

I made sure I knew in advance what the airport environment would be like, and what would happen there: it would be in a busy cargo area; there would likely be other people with dogs and cats, crammed together in a small waiting room; and I would probably have to wait for a long time. The vet would read the microchip, take the temperature, and check the skin and fur for ticks and fleas. Knowing these things in advance helped me prepare for them.

I had a helper come so he could stay at the car with the dogs while I was gone, and leave the engine and AC running. I would leave the dogs in the car, bring their EU pet passports and paperwork into the office and let the vet know that I would get my dogs – one after the other – when it was our turn. That way, we didn’t have to sit in a crowded waiting room amongst cats and dogs for an hour or two. I informed the vet that I would bring in the first dog, then take her back to the car and bring the second dog, then take her back to the car as well, and return to pick up the export licence and pay.

Lay your plan out to whoever you are talking to before you get your dog. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people tend to agree with it, even if your approach is unusual or uncommon. For example, don’t ask if you can leave your dog in the car until it’s your turn – just be friendly, and state that you are going to get your dog from the car when it is her turn. That’s just the way it is going to be, not something up for discussion. Having all the paperwork ready helps, too: you don’t want to take up any more of the staff’s time than necessary. They are probably busy and stressed out, and looking forward to the end of their work day! Don’t make it harder than it already is.

Do something for your dog that relaxes both of you!

Before leaving for the airport, Grit and Game got a good off-leash walk and swim. They got to run and play and sniff to their hearts’ content, followed by breakfast. I added Zylkene to Grit’s breakfast. I don’t know if it makes a difference for her, but it does for me: it makes me feel like I’m helping her get through the day and taking good care of her, which in turn helps me feel relaxed and confident about our plans for the day.

If necessary, do something for yourself!

If you tend to get nervous in situations that are stressful for your dog, take something that helps you relax yourself! Nervosity is contagious. If you are freaking out, a sensitive dog will likely get nervous too – even if she would have been fine otherwise. By ensuring you yourself will be okay, you are also helping your dog.

Don’t give your dog the chance to make bad choices!

That’s a big one – maybe THE biggest factor.

In training, I set up scenarios in which I can give Grit the freedom to make the right choice herself. When we work on her confidence around strangers, I make sure to not set her up to fail. I try to have sessions where Grit’s reaction looks completely normal to an observer. A good session of working on confidence is one a bystander wouldn’t recognize as such, like this example of walking in a residential street.

I want Grit to learn to choose to walk away when she is uncomfortable. I have seen way too many fear-aggressive Malinois, and I try to be proactive about teaching Grit the opposite reaction. I suspect that genetically, Malinois are a breed that is more likely to choose “fight” over “flight” or “freeze” when they feel threatened. If they are worked over threshold, fear aggression is a common result. This leads to a vicious cycle where the “dangerous dog” is severely punished in order to get rid of the “fight” response and get a “freeze” response instead. A dog who “freezes” when scared is probably safer than a dog who “fights” (bites) when feeling threatened, but I don’t think that dog is a happy dog. Personally, I want neither fight nor freeze. I would like my dog to not be in situations where she feels like she needs to do any of these things at all, but if she does get into these situations – and sometimes, life happens and she will! – I want Grit to be able to walk away in order to increase the distance to a scary stimulus rather than attack it. My strategy is practicing in situations where she is able to make the right choice, and avoiding opportunities for her to make the wrong choice. I want walking away from instead of towards a scary stimulus to become a habit she doesn’t have to think about.

Sometimes – like when I needed the export license from the animal quarantine office – I need to put Grit in a situation where she, given a choice, would probably choose badly. I don’t doubt that if scared and cornered, she’d resort to biting the person she felt threatened by. And why not? It’s a natural reaction, and in her breed, probably one that has been – on purpose or as a by-product of other breeding goals – selected for.

I make sure that Grit will not be able to choose in situations where I don’t trust her choice-making, and I use contextual cues that let her know from the moment we get out of the car that this is a situation where I am in charge, and I am not asking her opinion. This happens rarely – my dogs have a lot of freedom in their lives, and their opinion matters almost always to me. But there are situations where I take away the choice, and I’m very clear about it.

If Grit felt threatened and bit, it would be a reflexive, emotional reaction – one that just happened rather than a conscious choice on her part. A classical reaction. However, operant learning can still occur. If the person being bitten or growled at withdrew their hand, or jumped back – and most people will, of course! – biting or growling would be negatively reinforced. We cannot reinforce an emotion, but an action based on an emotion can be reinforced by its consequence. Fear is an emotion. Biting is an action often based in fear. Withdrawing the hand is a direct consequence of the dog’s bite/growl – and it’s a consequence a dog who would like the scary thing to go away will get relief from. Negative reinforcement is likely to happen.

When Grit has choice and agency (which is most of the time), she wears a collar, a harness, or nothing at all. When she doesn’t have choice, she wears a head halter. It is very easy to guide a dog in a head halter wherever you want them to go. It lets you turn their head where you want to turn it, so you even control what they look at and see. I use a lead with a snap on both ends for situations like this, because I’ve seen dogs get out of head halters. One end will be on the head halter, and one end will be attached to a harness or collar. Grit will wear a Baskerville Ultra muzzle over her head halter. I like this muzzle best because it’s sturdy, I can feed through it, and it fits most dogs (unless they have long noses like collies or sighthounds) well. Grit knows that when she is wearing both a halter and a muzzle, I am not asking her opinion.

I hold the leash close to Grit’s head. She can’t really walk or sniff where she wants, and it’s clear that I expect her to walk next to me, which she does.

When we got into the waiting room, the vet was just finishing up with another client. I sat down, and Grit climbed in my lap. She does this when she feels insecure, and I encourage it. I believe it’s a good thing when our dogs turn to us for safety.

When it was our turn, I led Grit to where the vet wanted her, told the vet I was going to hold Grit for her, and then secured her. There’s no science behind the way I hold her – this is just what I’ve found to work well for holding dogs still. I kneel down, and wrap my left arm around the dog’s breast and neck, and use it to hold her head against my body. My right arm goes over her back and under her belly, holding her body against my body. Now the vet could check out her skin and fur, take her temperature, and if she had wanted, she could also have taken a closer look at Grit’s eyes or ears. Grit knows being held this way. She doesn’t struggle – she knows there is only one option: hold still. We were done quickly, I thanked the vet, told her I would return Grit to the car and then come back, and then we left. She shook off the stress, and happily jumped back into her car crate to continue with her day.

Why it works

The lack-of-choice routine has been working well for Grit in situations like this. She is able to go right back to everyday business – sleeping, hiking, working, playing, eating … as soon as the stressful situation is over. I assume this is because (1), we have a relationship based on trust, and (2), Grit knows to follow my lead any time she is wearing a halter and muzzle and being led on a short leash. Her job in this situation isn’t to figure out how to get out of it or solve it, obsess about it or panic over it, and she accepts this fact. Would she rather be somewhere else? For sure. Does it stress her out completely and ruin her day (or her week, month, or life)? No. It enables her to get through an uncomfortable experience with my help, and then move on with her life – a life filled with freedom, agency, and choice.

Your management tools are most helpful if they themselves don’t increase your dog’s stress level even more! Practice in relaxed, everyday situations!

If I only ever used the head halter, muzzle and my way of securing Grit in scary situations, she’d start feeling stressed as soon as she saw me get these tools or touched her this was. I make sure to use them in everyday life as well. For example, we’ll occasionally go for a nice off-leash walk with the muzzle on, and I’ll briefly hold my dogs like I do at the vet office during personal play or cuddle sessions. Grit has also learned to be comfortable in a head halter away from scary situations, and long before I ever used these tools in scary places. I’ll sometimes use it to get from A to B in everyday life.

Here’s a demo video. In the first clip, you’ll see it’s no big deal for Grit to wear the muzzle and happily run off leash. She feels about the muzzle like I feel about my glasses: I forget that I even wear them. She is also used to being led on a head halter and short leash (clip 2), and to wear a muzzle as well as a halter (note that I’d put the muzzle and halter on a little more tightly in real-life situations). I do not ask her to put her nose in the muzzle or into the halter – this would be like asking her consent to be handled in potentially uncomfortable ways. In the situations I want to use these tools, I’d be lying to her if I pretended that she had a choice about it.

The final clip shows me holding Grit in the way described above. She isn’t a hundred percent comfortable here – her tail is a little too low, and her wag, front leg lift and facial expression a little too appeasing for my taste. I’ve used this way of holding her twice in the last week – once the day before we flew from Thailand to Austria, and once the other day in Austria, when I got her health certificate for the next leg of our trip. He reaction here tells me that we need to do more practice sessions in fun and relaxing contexts in order for her to feel better about it again! In any case, you can see how I can move her head this way, and lift her up in case the vet needed to examine her belly.

What is your favorite way of getting your dog through an uncomfortable situation you haven’t been able to prepare her for?

Case Study: Toni gets paid for looking at dogs

Last week, I told you about Toni’s relaxation blanket that helped him stay calm around visitors. Today, I’m going to share how we tackled the second behavior his owner wanted to change: lunging and barking at dogs he saw in the street.

During our first consult, I asked Sabrina to take me on one of her usual walks, and do everything the way she normally would, so I could see the problem. Given the part of Vienna that Sabrina lives in, it was likely that we would meet a dog or two, even if we just walked around the block.

Toni walked on his leash relatively nicely. He took his time sniffing doorways and lamp posts, and peeing on trees. The people walking by and the traffic noise didn’t seem to bother him. He’d trot along happily, sniffing here and there, and pee on lots of trees. Except for his dog reactivity, he was a pleasure to walk in a busy town. He ignored strangers on the street beautifully, and Sabrina was doing a great job giving him opportunities to take his time sniffing rather than pulling him along.

When a man with two Labs suddenly appeared in a doorway further down the street, Toni reacted as soon as they entered his peripheral field of vision. He barked, hackles raised, and pulled towards them. Sabrina held on to the leash (which wasn’t easy, given Toni’s size!), and waited while the guy with the Labs crossed the street and disappeared around a corner. Toni shook when the dogs had disappeared, and went right back to sniffing the spot he had been investigating.

Sabrina explained that this was a typical Toni reaction: he’d become aware of a dog – sometimes, that dog had to come quite close until Toni noticed; sometimes, he was still further away. Toni would pull and bark until the dog had disappeared. Since Toni was a big black dog, the other owner would usually get out of the way, and Sabrina tended to just stay where she was, tightly holding on to the leash, until the trigger was gone.

Toni didn’t have dog friends or regular contact with other dogs except the ones he saw in the street. He didn’t have a concept of how to deal with them, or what to do with them, but seeing them was clearly arousing. That arousal manifested itself in barking, pulling, and lunging.

We were going to teach him an alternative way to react to dogs in the street, and a way to get rid of the startle response that probably contributed to his arousal when a strange dog showed up unexpectedly. I love Leslie McDevitt’s “Look At That” (LAT) protocol for cases like this because it gives the dog something specific to do (look at the trigger), and it creates positive associations with the trigger (food!).

A quick break down of the “Look at That!” game for those of you who aren’t familiar with it:

The dog gets specific job around his triggers: showing them to his human by means of looking at them. Looking at the trigger gets clicked or otherwise marked. Upon hearing the marker sound, the dog turns back to his human to collect his treat. The owner can even click her dog several times in a row for looking at a trigger and then back at her – until the trigger is out of sight.

Later, a cue is attached to the behavior. I usually suggest “Schau!” – German for “Look!” – to my Austrian clients. We introduce the cue by saying it when the dog is about to turn his head and look at the trigger anyways. Through repetition, the dog connects the cue with the behavior. The goal is that eventually, the human can cue “Schau!” when she sees a trigger the dog hasn’t yet seen. The dog will then scan the environment until he finds the trigger in order to collect his click and treat.

I didn’t video Toni’s training sessions, but here is a short clip of another client working on the first steps of LAT with her adolescent Border Collie. I am coaching the owner and videoing, and a helper is walking my Greyhound up and down in the distance. Toni’s first sessions looked very similar to this.

Training steps

We started working on LAT once Toni had learned to work for his food and knew the meaning of the click (turn to your handler and collect a treat). This was achieved as a side effect of the first training steps with his relaxation blanket.

Toni’s first LAT dog session took place on a wide, open field outside the city. I instructed my helper to walk Fanta, my Greyhound, up and down at about half a soccer field’s distance from Toni, Sabrina and me. Toni saw the decoy dog in the distance. He tensed up and watched intensely. He didn’t lunge or bark though. The distance was much bigger than what he was used to from the city. I asked Sabrina to click right away, then feed from her hand as Toni turned towards her. He swallowed his cookie, then looked again. Click and treat. He looked back – click and treat. After about four clicks, Toni visibly relaxed. He had collected information and realized this dog in the distance, who wasn’t coming closer, was not a threat. What’s more, looking at him was getting paid in clicks and cookies! Once Fanta had walked up and down four times, Toni seemed happy and interested in this new game, and Sabrina’s timing and mechanics looked nice, I asked her to start walking and move parallel to Fanta. Now, Toni got clicked for looking at our helper while walking. Since this went just as well, Sabrina could reduce the distance to Fanta by 4 feet. She kept walking parallel and clicking Toni for looking there and back.

In the course of this first meeting, we did several short sessions, interrupted by sniffing breaks for Toni, and worked our way closer and closer to Fanta, until there were only about 15 feet between the two dogs, and they could still walk parallel to each other without Toni getting the least bit upset. Towards the end of this session, Sabrina started introducing the “Schau!” (German for look) cue. She inserted it right before Toni was about to look at Fanta.

In our next session together, we practiced in a different place, with a new helper dog, and went through the same protocol again. Toni did well, enjoyed the new game, and never got over threshold.

In session number three – my last LAT lesson with Sabrina before I sent her out to practice on her own – we were ready to play in a more urban environment. We worked in a parking garage I often use for this kind of training: it is usually not frequented by dogs (so there are no unexpected triggers), and it’s easy to do set ups with having a dog suddenly appear behind a car. It’s not a busy garage, so there are some, but not too man distractions. You can see this location in the video of Border Collie Rose above. We worked a bit with both my dogs (Fanta and Phoebe) as the decoys. This time, I handled the helper dogs myself while Sabrina and Toni worked alone. Sabrina learned to watch out for my dogs appearing behind a car, clicking as soon as Toni saw them, and then walking off in whatever direction was safe and increased the distance between us. I gradually made things more difficult for them, trying to hide behind parked cars to sneak closer and surprise them both! Neither Sabrina nor Toni were getting nervous at this point – it had really turned into a game they both were having fun with.

In the second half of our urban LAT session, we took Toni for a walk through the neighborhood. Now Sabrina was working in real life rather than with set-ups. She was going to apply the protocol we had been practicing to the random dogs she met in the street. I led them past the back of a small, fenced dog park: instead of avoiding triggers, we were now looking for them so Sabrina could click and treat Toni!

Sabrina was doing a great job looking out for dogs, cuing “Look!”, and being proactive. Rather than passively remaining in place and waiting for the trigger to pass, she now actively helped Toni cope by means of clicking, treating, and, whenever necessary, retreating.

After successfully testing what we had practiced in the real world together, Sabrina was ready to play the LAT game anytime she met a dog on her regular neighborhood walks. She was going to avoid really close encounters with other dogs for now, until the new, alternative behavior of looking instead of lunging and barking had become an ingrained habit.

When Sabrina wrote to tell me about their progress about half a year later, Toni had learned passing strange dogs on the same side of the street, on a narrow sidewalk, without getting upset! Sabrina isn’t bringing her clicker on walks anymore, but she still makes sure to always have treats on her, and feed a particularly tasty one after passing a dog up close. She says she believes Toni wouldn’t need to get a cookie every time anymore, but she likes paying and praising him because it reminds her how proud she is of him.

Why we chose this training approach

Sabrina’s goal was for Toni and her to be able to walk through her neighborhood without him getting upset about other dogs. She didn’t need him to interact with other dogs up close, but she wanted their city walks to be enjoyable and less stressful. Sabrina just needed a strategy and a plan about how to get through dog encounters. Having the LAT game in place, she stopped being passive, and was able to successfully lead Toni through the situation.

Book Recommendation

Check out Leslie McDecitt’s books Control Unleashed and Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program to learn more about the “Look at That” protocol as well as other training games! I really like Leslie’s training approach. Her books are targeted at sports dogs, but many of their games and concepts are very useful for working with pet dogs as well.

Case Study: Toni learns to relax around visitors

Meet the dog

Toni is a very big, black-and-tan, floppy-eared, 3ish years old male mixed breed who was adopted by Sabrina when he was about 5 months old. With the exceptions of the two issues described below, Toni is a laid-back and mostly low energy dog.

Sabrina has four housemates, and they all have active social lives – a lot of the time, there isn’t just five people at their house, but rather ten. It’s never boring, and it’s never quiet. Toni does well in this environment – he’s a good fit for a social owner. Soon after Sabine got him, he started greeting each and every one of their visitors like old friends, even when they were new ones.

The behaviors we wanted to change

1) Toni used to get very excited when Sabrina had visitors, would try and jump on their lap as they sat on the couch, solicit attention, scratch their legs, and whine. It wasn’t easy to have a conversation with Toni in the room. Sabrina wanted to change his behavior around visitors. Taking him places wasn’t easy, either, because he insisted on being the center of attention when Sabrina was out with friends.

2) Out in the street, Toni would bark and lunge at other dogs. Sabrina wanted him to learn to pass them calmly.

Training steps: Learning to relax around human friends

Toni’s life included a lot of different people coming and going. He had the right kind of personality for it – he liked people. However, he liked them so much that he wanted to interact with them, and he had learned that the best way to do so was to pester them until they gave him attention! Sabrina had a lot of dog-loving friends, so this had been working well for him.

We decided to teach Toni to station on a blanket. This particular blanket would only come out when Sabrina wanted him to stay on it, and the blanket itself would become the cue to lie down.

Our first challenge was that Toni wasn’t interested in food rewards. He was free fed. Sabrina had a 15-kilo bag of high-value kibble in a corner of her bedroom. The bag was always open, and Toni just walked over and ate when he was hungry. He had been free fed ever since Sabrina got him. He was a little chubby, but he didn’t over-eat. He was very relaxed around food in general. Food wasn’t a limited resource. This was convenient in everyday life, but presented a training challenge!

In order to increase Toni’s interest in earning his food, Sabrina stopped free-feeding him. The first thing Toni needed to learn was that food could be the consequence of something he did – a concept he wasn’t familiar with. However, he knew how to sit. This was our starting point. Sabrina asked him to sit, clicked, and fed a cookie. She threw the next cookie to make him get up again, asked for another sit, clicked, and threw a cookie. After looking slightly perplexed in the first few sessions, Toni decided that this strange new game was fun. Now that food wasn’t available for free anymore, Toni’s interest in it had increased considerably. He liked interacting with people anyways, and these cookies weren’t all that bad, either! You could see him perk up as he realized that he had the power to make clicks happen and food appear.

With the help of a cookie pressed against Sabrina’s hand with her thumb, he soon learned to do a hand-touch as well, which earned him a click and released the cookie. Sabrina could fade the lure within a few reps. Toni learned to figure out how to get his cookie: sitting, hand touches, or “shake”: he needed to paw at a closed fist in order to get his treat!

Next, I showed Sabrina how to add an element of shaping to her training sessions. Toni was going to learn to go to the blanket we were later going to use to change his behavior around visitors. I asked Sabrina to get a new blanket Toni had never seen before. She made a big fuss about it, then put it on the floor. Toni came over to investigate – click! Sabrina threw the cookie away from the blanket. Toni chased down his treat, and since he hadn’t been done investigating the blanket just yet, he returned to give it another sniff – click! In the course of several short sessions, Toni learned to step on the blanket with all four paws. Now, Sabrina clicked him for standing on the blanket, and then lured him into a down with the reward cookie. She waited a second or two, clicked again, and threw a cookie off the blanket. After a few reps, Toni offered his first voluntary down on the blanket and got a jackpot. After every brief session, Sabrina removed the blanket. It was only out when she was working with it.

Once Toni had learned to lie down on the blanket as soon as it was presented, we put the blanket where Sabrina eventually wanted it to be when she had visitors: in one of the corners of her big couch. It was important to her that Toni could be a part of her social life. She didn’t want him to have to wait in a different room, in a crate, or in a corner. During training sessions on the couch, she could sit next to him, feed him cookies and read or work on her laptop at the same time. She could also scratch his ears while he relaxed next to her, which he loved.

Once Toni recognized the appearance of the blanket on the couch as his cue to lie down, we started adding duration. From this point onwards, we made sure that Toni wouldn’t have Sabrina’s undivided attention. She’d read a sentence – feed a cookie. Read two sentences – feed a cookie. Read three sentences – feed a cookie, and so on. As long as he continued hanging out on his blanket next to her, cookies would materialize. At the same time, we made sure her full attention and eye contact weren’t part of the picture we were creating. After all, we wanted Toni to eventually relax rather than “work,” and Sabrina wanted to be able to focus on her visitors, and not just on her dog.

Toni was good about relaxing for the occasional cookie, and daily sessions got Sabrina to a point where she could soon read several pages of a book between the individual cookies, and occasionally replace a cookie with ear scratches. We systematically introduced Sabrina getting up, walking around the room, and sitting down again while Toni remained in his spot. He also learned to stay when Sabrina got up, left her room, and then came right back in. We practiced this until Sabrina could get up, go to the kitchen, get a glass of water, and return without Toni getting up or getting fidgety.

The next step was practicing with various visitors. The first one was me: Toni learned that the blanket game could still be played when someone else was in the room. We first increased the rate of reinforcement again, and since Toni’s desire in this situation was to interact with the visitor, we decided that I – the visitor – would give him the occasional cookie and attention when he was on the mat. My attention made the reward even more reinforcing.

It turned out that Toni was actually able to be quite patient and well mannered now that he knew hanging out on his blanket would get him cookies and attention. His excitement hadn’t been due to high arousal and overflowing energy – he had simply learned that he had to pester people in order to get attention. Once provided with an alternative behavior, he turned out to be an easygoing big boy.

After some experimenting, we decided that the mat would come out right before a visitor came into Sabrina’s room. If he stayed on his mat, the visitor would come over and great him with a cookie right away. If he got up, the visitor would turn around and close the door behind them. Sabrina would pick up the blanket, wait a second, and then put it down again. This usually reminded Toni to lie down. Now the visitor could come in and approach again.

Sabrina then began to ask other helpers to visit her in order to train her dog. First, we worked with two of her dog-savvy housemates. Then, she would ask friends to help her. If Tony stayed on his blanket, Sabrina would instruct her friends to deliver a cookie to him and calmly talk to him.

While building this new behavior, Sabrina had people over specifically for this exercise, not in order to socialize or talk about other things. She was consistent in her training, and it showed in Toni’s progress. He learned to stay on his mat while visitors came in the room, and his overall level of excitement around human friends decreased.

Sabrina then switched from cookies to long-lasting chews and stuffed Kongs that Toni could use to entertain himself on the blanket when she had people over. At that point, she was able to actually focus on her visitors, too, and not just on training Toni. By the time Toni had gotten used to eating part of his dinner from a Kong when Sabrina had people over, she was able to start giving him more freedom again. At first, she had made sure people would leave before Toni finished his Kong. Then we tested what would happen if Toni got to finish his Kong before the visitor left: it turned out he soon dozed off while Sabirna and me were still sitting together. We then tried what would happen if Sabrina released Toni and took away the blanket after he had finished his Kong – and he would just trot over to his bed and continue dozing off there. The Kong seemed to have a calming effect, and Toni’s need to be the center of attention had disappeared now that his relaxation on the blanket got reinforced on a regular basis. As Sabrina gradually increased his post-chew freedom, he would sometimes go right to his bed, and other times, he’d jump off the couch, wag and wait for ear scratches from Sabrina or the visitor before heading over to his bed. The attention-seeking behavior and vocalization had disappeared completely.

Training steps: Learning to relax in public

Sabrina wanted to be able to take Toni more places. In order for him to relax around friends away from home, Toni needed to generalize his blanket skills. Most cafés and restaurants in Austria allow dogs, and it is pretty normal that people bring their dogs when they go out for lunch or dinner. In order to practice for this, Sabrina and I went to McDonalds. Fast food restaurants are perfect for this: you can just get up and leave anytime, and it’s perfectly fine to only spend a few minutes inside. We picked a table in a quiet corner. Sabrina would head over to the table, put down the mat, and calmly reinforce Toni for lying down on it, and for staying down. I would get our drinks from the counter and join them. Once Toni had settled, he got a frozen Kong or long-lasting chew. We would finish our drinks, keep an eye on Toni, and discuss the next training steps. Then, Sabrina would trade the Kong or the remains of the chew for a cookie, release Toni, pick up the blanket, and we would leave.

After going through these steps together, Sabrina was ready to practice at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks on her own, or in the company of dog savvy friends. If she went on her own, she made sure to set him up for success by having him wait in the car while she ordered her coke or coffee and put it on the table, and set up the blanket. Then, she got Toni from the car, lead him directly to her table, and rewarded him for recognizing his blanket and lying down on it.

Gradually, Sabrina increased the time Toni could spend at a fast food restaurant, and decreased the attention he got from her until she was able to take him to other restaurants as well and actually have conversations with her friends while he relaxed on his blanket under the table.

Why we chose this training approach

Toni wasn’t a high energy dog to begin with. That made the blanket a good choice. He wasn’t torn between finding an outlet for his energy, and staying on the mat. He just needed an acceptable way to solicit attention when people were around. Hanging out on a blanket was congruent with his base personality: a big, friendly, laid-back dog.

Toni’s excitement around people wasn’t based on anxiety or insecurity. He genuinely liked people, and wanted to meet them. Not knowing how to get their attention was frustrating to him. Interacting with them was reinforcing, not stressful. This made it possible to integrate visitors into his reinforcement protocol.

It was important to Sabrina that our training plan would allow Toni to keep being part of her social life. She wanted her friends to be his friends, too. Using a blanket on the couch achieved just that.

Check back next week for how we worked on Toni’s second issue: barking and lunging at strange dogs in the street.

Case Study: Dao’s Resource Guarding

I’m trying something new today, and if you like it, I might do it more often: I’m going to tell you about a dog I have worked with.

I made a video about Dao’s training a while ago and shared it with friends, but I haven’t shared it publicly before. I’ll add some background in this blog post.

Meet the dog:

Dao is a 5-year old female Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. She was bred and lives at Siam Crown Kennel, where she used to be part of an amateur study on working with Czechoslovakian Wolfdogs. She’s a kennel dog, not a house dog.

The behavior I want to change:

Dao will guard food. That is to say, when she has something edible, she will let you know that you cannot touch it. She does this eloquently by flattening her ears, protecting the food item with her head/body while looking up at you so the white of her eyes is visible, showing her teeth, and growling. It is a clear warning, delivered in beautiful body language and in just the right intensity to be unmistakable: “Don’t touch this.”

A friend and colleague challenged me to teach Dao to let me touch her food items. She doubted it could be done without intimidation. I, on the other hand, was sure it could be done without intimidation, and I videoed most steps so I could show her my training process.

Training steps:

I’m narrating the training steps and Dao’s reaction in this video. In short, I used classical counter-conditioning, and I built a relationship based on mutual trust. Or, in other words: I taught Dao it was safe to trust me around her food. There was no reason for her to worry about me stealing it. What I found most interesting is not that it worked, but how extremely well Dao responded to it, and just how much trust and affection she’d soon show me. None of our sessions lasted longer than a few minutes.

 

The Lady and the Doorknob.

Tonight, I’m going to tell you a story: the story of the lady and the doorknob.

My friends from Bangkok have a housekeeper. When she first arrived at their place a few years ago, they showed her around, and eventually asked her to get something from the kitchen. There was a door between the kitchen and the living room. A white wooden door, with a silver door knob. It looked just like this:

DoorKnob

She walked up to the door while my friends remained sitting. She just stood there and looked at it. Seconds passed. They felt like hours. The door wasn’t locked. All she needed to do was turn the knob.

She couldn’t open the door. She didn’t try, either. She helplessly stood in front of it until my friend got up and opened it for her.

My friends’ housekeeper grew up in Myanmar. In case you don’t know a lot about Myanmar – it is one of Thailand’s neighboring countries, and it used to be under military rule until 2016. Between 1962 and 2010, the military regime was considered one of the world’s most repressive and abusive ones. Its history is one of genocide, child labor, and censorship.

Long story short: it wasn’t a good place to live if you belonged to certain ethnic minorities. Many people fled to Thailand. The woman who now works for my friends was one of them. My friends have been her first and so far only employers – she works for them full time.

Why did the woman not know how to open the door?

I’ve met her twice. She’s nice, and a few years younger than I. In the few years that she’s been here, she has learned both Thai and English. She grew up in an indigenous community, in a place without electricity or running water. She made her way through her own country, across the border, and to Bangkok. She has learned to do the household the way my friends want her to, do the shopping, and take care of their seven dogs. She’s now making enough money to send some to her family back home every month. She seems happy to me. I like her. And, boy, do I respect her! Growing up without access to education and managing to emigrate, secure a job, learn two new languages, and adapt to a completely different way of life in an 8-million metropolis, and all of this when she was probably no older than 16 … I know few people who would be able to do this successfully. It shows tremendous resourcefulness, intelligence, and guts.

Why did the woman not know how to open the door?

My friend told this story as a funny anecdote illustrating a cultural divide. Is it funny, though? Not really – especially not when it is used to justify the inequality of opportunities on the basis of perceived differences in intelligence. Intelligence had nothing to do with the fact that the woman couldn’t open the door. She had simply never seen a doorknob. There probably were no doorknobs in the community she grew up in. Maybe there were no doors, either. I don’t know. I do know, however, that she went on to open all kinds of doors for herself – literally and figuratively. She lacked the experience of doorknobs, and she lacked the concept that the mechanics of unfamiliar doors can be figured out by trying different things. We take this concept for granted – but it’s neither innate nor obvious. It is a learned behavior based on our experience with a large variety of doors.

Why am I talking about the lady and the doorknob on a dog training blog? Because if you are a professional dog trainer, chances are you meet the lady who has never seen a doorknob on a regular basis. She’s your client who’s in over her head. You know, the full-time working single mom who got a working-line German Shepherd to keep her kids company. The first-time dog owner who bought a Border Collie on Craigslist and thought he’d be happy with a leashed walk around the block twice a day. The student who didn’t buy one, but two Pomeranian puppies from the pet store because they were cute.

As professional dog trainers, we tend to complain about the lady and the doorknob, or ridicule her. We feel self-righteous and superior. We use her story to connect to our colleagues, and we leave out the part where she crosses a border in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, and the part where she learns not one, but two new languages, and the part where she finds work and makes a living for herself. Instead, we reduce her to someone who doesn’t know what to do with a doorknob, and say she should have stayed in Myanmar.

“He doesn’t even know how to hold a leash!”, we say. “She got a Ferrari, and she doesn’t know how to drive a Volkswagen.” “He has no connection with the dog. He has no idea what connection even means.” “When this dog is an adolescent, they’re going to rehome it. It’s probably going to end up with me.”

These are pretty horrible things to say about someone in relation to someone or something s/he cares about. I know I’ve said at least one of them myself in the past, and I’m not proud of it. It’s not okay to tell these people’s stories as if they were all about doorknobs. The stories themselves are ambiguous. We can make the protagonist a hero or a bumbling idiot, and in the dog training community, it is common to do the latter.

And it is not okay. We don’t need to tell the story so the protagonist is the hero, either. We can just keep the story to ourselves, teach the protagonists (after all, that’s what they are paying us good money for), and let their success speak for itself. Everyone who wants to can learn to turn doorknobs. Let’s not be jerks about it.

Trainability, Street Smarts, and Social Intelligence

A translation I’m working on made me think about the intelligence of dogs. The book (Marc Bekoff’s Canine Confidential) points out that we shouldn’t rank intelligence the way it is typically done. He insists that all dogs are intelligent, but they are intelligent in different ways.

I agree to some extent. The breed intelligence rankings I’m familiar with measure mostly trainability, and wether trainability is the same as intelligence really depends on how you want to define intelligence. Fanta, my Greyhound, isn’t very trainable – but I consider him to be quite intelligent. On the other hand, we are usually looking for a “trainable” dog when we say we want an intelligent one, and most people, even if they aren’t familiar with the term “trainability,” probably mean this concept when they talk about “intelligence” in relation to dogs.

Let’s look at the two dogs who are making mischief while I’m writing this post: Grit and Game. They are interesting because they are the same breed, and yet they are two VERY different dogs. One of their differences lies in the kind of intelligence they have.

Trainability

Grit is the dog who would be higher up in a traditional intelligence ranking. She is highly trainable, biddable, and generalizes very well. It’s extremely fun to work with her – she tries hard and learns fast. She is on a par with the Border Collies I’ve worked with.

Game learns new things more slowly, and she is less biddable – she doesn’t want to figure something out simply because I am asking her to figure it out. She’s happy to figure it out for a nice reward though. (I believe high biddability inspires dogs to try harder, and might make them score higher on trainability, too.) Game needs significantly more reps than Grit in order to remember something, and she doesn’t generalize well. Same cue, slightly different location – Game will look at me as if she had never heard the cue in her life, while Grit will be able to perform without hesitation.

However, Game has two other kinds of intelligence. Let’s call them practical intelligence and social intelligence. Game would score very high on both of them. Grit would score rather low.

Practical Intelligence

When I say practical intelligence, I mean the ability to recognize and use opportunities to get what you want – find a path from A to B, get food that seems out of reach, etc. It could also be called street smarts. Game has lots of it – she’d thrive as a stray dog, while Grit probably wouldn’t survive long enough to spread her genes. Here’s an example:

This will happen every time I forget something edible on my desk and leave the room. Game doesn’t pay much attention as long as I’m in the room. She knows begging won’t work, and she knows I do not appreciate her taking my resources. We’ve had this conversation, and she respects it. However, when I leave something edible unattended, Game will remember it, wait till she is sure I have really left the room, and then take it. She isn’t “being disobedient” or “a bad dog”. It’s just like with a toy or bone another dog has: Game wouldn’t steal it from another dog, but if the other dog left it and walked away, that toy or bone would be fair game. Finders, keepers! It may also have to do with the fact that Game doesn’t generalize well. I have told her I do not want her to steal my food while I’m in the room, but that doesn’t translate to me not wanting her to steal my food when I’ve left the room – this is another situation entirely. (I could, of course, train it if Game’s stealing bothered me. All it takes is generalizing “Leave it!” to out of sight contexts.)

Grit, on the other hand, doesn’t steal my food when I’m in the room, and she doesn’t steal my food when I’m gone, either. Is she less practically intelligent, or is she just much better at generalizing and assumes that if I don’t want her to steal my food from the table, this is still the case when I leave? It’s hard to say!

Game has also been faster than any of the other dogs when it came to figuring out how to open the sliding door in our old house. She has since found numerous ways to open a number of different doors – even ones I barricaded – in order to reach something she wanted and knew was behind a closed door.

Social Intelligence

Game is a superstar when it comes to social interactions. So far, I have not once seen her not get along with a new dog or person. She is friendly and confident, and she reads others well. If there is a reason to roll on her back or run away to avoid a conflict, that’s what she’ll do. Otherwise, she’ll charm new dogs and new people – even ones who are sceptical at first. It is quite fascinating to observe. She isn’t fazed by people acting weird, wearing helmets or carrying umbrellas. If a street dog barks angrily, she’ll curve around them. If a street dog is scared, she’ll be friendly and charming and not overwhelming. If someone is ready to play, she’ll play rambunctiously.

Grit doesn’t have this level of social intelligence. She is sceptical of new people. The interesting thing is that I can trace her scepticism back to one particular experience with a stranger. Maybe the fact that she generalizes so easily made her more susceptible to becoming a socially cautious dog. As far as strange dogs are concerned, Grit generally does well with them, but she has opinions about dogs and the way they are supposed to behave in social situations. She can also be a bit of a bully.

What kind of intelligence do your dogs excel in, and in what areas don’t they do as well? Do you see a connection between them? What kind of intelligence is most important to you when it comes to choosing a dog to join your household?

Building Courage Around Town

Grit is not a fan of the urban world. People, cars, concrete, motorcycles, and the hustle bustle … Not exactly her favorite thing. We used to live in a teeny tiny town, at the end of a dirt road. I could open my gate and would pretty much be in the middle of the woods right away. It was perfect for her.

Now, we live in a townhouse in a dead-end street. It took Grit a while to feel at ease downstairs, with the large glass front looking out into the street, and it took her even longer to feel safe in the fenced-off carport in front of the house. But we got there, just by means of living life rather than consciously working on it. We can now play and train here, and it has become part of her comfort zone. This brings us to yesterday! I’ve started taking Grit on “city” walks in my street. Up until now, I hadn’t asked her to go out into the street – she told me very clearly she wanted to go from the house into the car, and from the car right back into the house. If I asked her to get out of the car before opening the door to the house, she’d wait at the door with her tail tucked between her legs. So instead of expecting her to spend time in our street, we just took the car and went to the beach, or to the park, or to the plantations where we could go for a nice, real walk. I’m all for giving dogs time, plus I totally agree that walking around palm trees and orchid plantations is way more fun than walking in streets anyways.

Now that Grit considers the carport a safe space, it’s time to expand her comfort zone further: I put her on a 5 meter lead and a back attachment harness, and she gets to explore our little street. Not because I tell her to, but because she would now choose to. We go in the middle of the day, when most people are at work. We start by walking in and out, in and out of the carport. I want her to know the gate is open and she can head back home anytime. Should someone show up unexpectedly, we will retreat. I have hotdogs in my pocket – just in case I need to distract Grit or lure her away from something that might overwhelm her. My goal is not to train, just to let her explore on her own terms. I’ll talk to her when she looks at me, I might comment on her sniffing spots – but I’m not asking anything of her as long as she makes good decisions. We’ll add food to the experience a little later – you’ll see. For now, I want Grit to take the lead.

This is a clip from today’s city walk; the second one overall. We just meandered around the street for a few minutes. And not only did Grit sniff, she also peed! For her, this is a big sign of confidence. She’ll only pee in places she feels safe. Does this look like a normal dog taking a normal walk? That’s exactly what it should look like. My favorite way of building confidence is to stay right at the edge of the dog’s comfort zone – at a place that allows her to look out of her comfort zone, but doesn’t require her to step out of it. Looking will push the boundaries further back, and make her comfort zone grow. (I know the neighbors are all gone because their carports are empty. So it is safe to let Grit explore on a long line without her unexpectedly running into a stranger behind a gate.)

Satiation vs. Deprivation: Ethics and Smart Training Choices

 

If you are like me, you probably love chocolate. If you wanted to teach me something using a high-value food reinforcer, chocolate would be the way to go. However, there are times when chocolate loses some of its reinforcing power: right after a big lunch, I’ll be full and not particularly interested in chocolate. And if I’ve already had a sundae that day, I’d rather work for something savory – maybe riffle chips (the red pepper flavored kind). In order to be an effective trainer of Chrissi, you should know these things about me.

And there is more: if you deny me access to chocolate for several days or even weeks, chocolate will be much more attractive – it’ll feel special and gain even more reinforcing power. You could also get a particularly high value kind of chocolate (Swiss chocolate truffles, for example) that I don’t have access to on a daily basis and achieve a similar reward-boosting effect.

A third way to strengthen the power of chocolate as a reinforcer is to not feed me all day, and then ask me to work for chocolate. I’ll be hungry, and when I’m hungry, I’ll crave that chocolate bar even more. (Note that if I haven’t eaten in a very long time and my blood sugar is low, my performance will suffer – no matter how much I want the chocolate, I won’t be able to concentrate well.)

Let’s say you don’t want to work with chocolate. You’d rather use a healthier reinforcer. How about seafood? It’s supposed to be good to have some on a regular basis! Well – I don’t like seafood. I’m not going to work for your seafood. Unless, that is, I’m SO hungry that I don’t care what I get as long as it’s edible. Starve me for a day, and I’ll be more willing to perform for a shrimp.

The variables you’ve manipulated in these examples are satiation and deprivation. I’m not the only one who is affected by them: the same goes for our dogs. (Note that these diagrams are in no way scientifically accurate – they are just meant to illustrate a point.)

Satiation Diagram A

Diagram A: The relationship between satiation and reward value

In Diagram A, the X axis depicts Satiation. The further to the right, the more satiated the dog. On the far right, the dog has eaten a bit too much, and now his tummy aches a bit. On the very left, the dog is starving and desperate for something – anything – to eat.

Let’s assume you’re working with a medium to low value reward. Your dog will always take it, unless he is feeling sick or has eaten way too much to care. The blue dots show that the more deprived your dog, the higher the value of the same reward. It’s a linear development.

Satiation Diagram B

Diagram B: The relationship between satiation and performance

Diagram B shows the relationship between your dog’s level of satiation and her training performance. As in the previous graph, we have satiation on the X axis.

The Y axis depicts your dog’s performance. The red dots show the relationship between the two. Unlike in the previous graph, the development of the performance is not linear. Up until a certain point, the dog’s performance increases with deprivation. However, at a certain point, it starts to decrease again. In the example of reinforcing Chrissi with chocolate, the peak of the graph would be my best performance. It would likely occur after starving me for a few hours, but not an entire day. If you starve me for too long, my blood sugar will drop too far. I won’t be able to concentrate on the task you ask of me, or perform a well-known behavior at top speed.

The Ethics of Working with Deprivation

Satiation Diagram C

Diagram C: Where do you draw the line?

Diagram C has a dotted grey line parallel to the Y axis. This line is defined by your ethics, and it’ll look a little different for every trainer, and for every reinforcer that trainer uses in her training: you’re okay working to the right of the dotted grey line – on the green line parallel to the X axis that defines the satiation level. You aren’t okay working to the left of the dotted grey line: you feel like it’s not fair to deprive your dog to this level for no other reason than to strengthen the reward value to the point of top performance.

Where do you draw the line?

Think about where YOU draw your line. What satiation level is both in line with your ethics, and gives you the highest reinforcement value (the double-headed green arrow on the X axis)? That’s your ideal training space.

Primary Reinforcers: Food and Water

When it comes to food, my line of ethics doesn’t go all the way to top performance/high satiation. I won’t deprive my dogs of their daily food in order to increase the value of their reinforcers. However, I am perfectly fine using their regular meals for training, or training right before or during their dinner or breakfast time. Naturally, they’ll be more hungry at this point than after a meal. My ideal satiation level is right before and during regular meal times. When I want to make my food reinforcers extra valuable, that’s when I’ll train.

If you train for quite a while, you may see your dog’s interest in his treats decrease as the session goes on: the fuller he is, the lower their value gets. While some dogs never lose interest in treats, others show this effect consistently. If that’s the case with your dog, make sure to keep your food training sessions short, or use high value treats!

Water is something my dogs always have access to when we’re at home. I won’t ever deprive them of it. Therefore, water isn’t a reinforcer I can use in my training – it’s a primary reinforcer (all animals need to drink), but its value tends to be low because it’s freely available. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t use it as a reinforcer when the opportunity just happens to present itself! On hot days, I’ll bring water for myself and the dogs on a hike, to the beach, or to the training field. After lots of running around or a high energy training or play session, my dogs will be thirsty, and I’ll offer them water. They are going to get the water anyways, but why not throw in a quick recall or ask them to walk up to the water bowl on a loose leash? You could also practice impulse control by asking them to hold their position while you put the bowl on the ground, and then release them to it. If my dog just happens to be thirsty, it’ll be heavily reinforcing. If he doesn’t comply for whatever reason, he’ll get his water anyways, of course. Using things your dog has free or regular access to in moments when they just happen to be stronger reinforcers than usual isn’t the same as depriving your dog of his meal or his water – it’s making a smart training choice.

Game’s recall is being reinforced by an opportunity to drink some fresh water (I don’t use a marker cue for this):

https://youtu.be/1KKKbGpLzyo

Secondary Reinforcers: Toys, and the Opportunity to Train

When it comes to toys, dogs tend to be highly motivated at the beginning of a session. However, the more often they have already chased the ball or tugged their toy, the less interesting the toy gets: your dog – unless he is a ball junkie – is becoming satiated by the play.

If you have a dog who doesn’t like to play for hours on end, the smart training choice is to keep your training sessions short and end them before the dog is satiated by your toy reinforcer. That way, you’re always training with a strong reinforcer.

Another secondary reinforcer is a more specific kind of attention: training time! While some dogs are training junkies and never get tired of working for their human (Phoebe would fall into this category), others are more easily satiated by training. It’s not that they don’t like spending time with you – it’s just that training is fun for them, but so are lots of other things like taking a walk, relaxing on the couch, playing with your other dog, or watching squirrels through the kitchen window. Their training drive is satiated easily, and then they are ready to move on to a different activity. If you have a dog like this, less can be more: rather than training 3 sessions a day, train only 1 or 2! And instead of training 7 days a week, take the weekends off! Reducing training time and keeping sessions extra short can boost the motivation of a lower-drive dog. Of course, reducing training time doesn’t mean that you can’t spend as much time with your dog as you want – it just means that instead of spending every free minute training, you’ll have a cuddle session on the couch or a nice walk instead.

What are the primary and secondary reinforcers in your dog’s life? How could you manipulate them in terms of satiation/deprivation? And where is that sweet spot of strongest possible reinforcer, best performance, and an ethical training session?

These are just some of the questions we’ll be looking at in my upcoming FDSA class, May the reinforce be with you! We’ll also talk about marker words and reward placement, how to select reinforcers based on the emotional state you are looking for, and how sometimes, small changes to your reinforcement protocol can have a big impact on your dog’s precision and enthusiasm. Join me in class if that’s your kind of geeky!

Adolescence: Working on Opting In, Engagement, and Pushing Me to Work/Play

As a 9.5 months old adolescent, Game thinks the world is very interesting. So many things to explore, to sniff, to look at or roll in! People to greet, and dogs to play with!

I don’t want to correct my dogs for lack of attention – but I do want them to give me 100% when we’re working: we’re either off duty, or we’re ON. And on means ON in a the-world-around-us-ceases-to-exist kind of way; only me and my dog and whatever it is we are doing together. That’s the kind of attention I give to my dog when we work or play, and that’s the kind of attention I want in return. No halfhearted checking in with me and then going back to sniffing the ground in between reps!

With a puppy, it’s easy to overwhelm the environment with food or toys. As the dog gets older and more independent, this gets more difficult. Eventually, it won’t work anymore unless you have a naturally handler-focused dog (Phoebe is an example of a dog like this). This is the point where people will often add corrections to the picture: work with me – get rewarded. Lose focus – receive a correction. This works well enough, but I don’t want to train this way. It doesn’t seem fair: what I’m asking of my dog isn’t “natural.” Tuck-Sitting, heeling, fold-back-downing, retrieving stuff on cue while ignoring all environmental temptations … It’s not our dogs who want to perform perfect heeling patterns; it’s us – the human on the other end of the leash. Correcting a dog for being interested in something that is inherently more interesting to dogs – like looking at the cat walking past the training field or sniffing – doesn’t seem fair to me.

I still want that perfect state of ONness, focus, and engagement though. So I need a different strategy – one that relies neither on corrections nor on overwhelming the environment with my rewards!

Game finds the environment very interesting. I could already tell she was environmentally focused when I got her at 10 weeks of age. Even when she was a puppy, I made an effort to not overwhelm the environment with my reinforcers, but wait till she asked to work or play. Game is a working-line Malinois. Enjoying work is in her genes, so I didn’t doubt that I would get what I wanted if I was just patient and set her up for success.

At 9.5 months of age, Game’s environmental tendencies have been flaring up again. (As they should – any decent adolescent will challenge their human to be creative and become a better handler.)

Game is highly confident, highly social, nose driven, and interested in everything and everyone. Of course, that makes the world pretty exciting, and working away from home comparatively boring! Here’s what I’ve been doing.

The Set-Up

  •  I imagine a square or circle of 6 to 10 meters in diameter. That’s the area Game will get to explore on leash.
  •  I set my timer to 15 minutes. If after 15 minutes of acclimating, Game hasn’t asked me to work, I’ll end the session, and put her back in the car.
  •  I walk her into my imaginary square or circle, and keep walking her around this area. I want to give her an opportunity to sniff to her heart’s content, to look around, to move her body. If she pulls on the leash, I’ll stop, and if she is about to step out of my imaginary square or circle, I’ll stop her with the help of the leash.
    The reason I’m walking is that I know if I stood still or sat, Game would engage me before she was ready. Sitting used to work very well when she was a puppy, but now that she’s a little older, I’ve found walking her around to be the better strategy. Otherwise, she will ask for work too soon, and likely disengage during work. In order to avoid this, we stay in motion.
  •  There are two ways Game can ask me to work: she can sit and look at me, or she can make eye contact while walking and keep up her eye contact for at least 4 steps. The moment she does one of these two things, the game is ON, and we start our ritual.

The Structure of Our Engagement/Play/Work Sessions Away from Home

Our current ritual is personal play (play without food or toys) – food play/training – toy play/training – food play/training – toy play/training – trade the toy for food (cue: “Let’s trade!”) – end the session. From the moment Game asks to work by sitting or making eye contact for 4 seconds until the moment I end the session, I expect 100% of her attention. I make sure I set her up for success by keeping the length of our sessions realistic. If I were in a cooler climate, I’d probably use whatever remained of the 15 minutes my timer was set to for play and training. That way, the sooner my dog asked to work, the longer the fun part would be. Here, in the hot and humid Thai summer, I end the session after a few minutes. Especially when playing tug, I’ll be all sweaty and tired after just a few minutes! Even if Game could keep having fun, I wouldn’t be able to keep up much longer.

For now, I keep all “Ask to work” sessions separate from walks, hikes, and exploration/just-be-a-dog field trips. I want it to be as clear as possible that during an “Ask for work!” session, there are only two options: walk around in a boring square or circle, or work and play and have fun with me. If I want to take Game on an off-leash walk in the same area I want to work, I’ll just put her back in the car for a few minutes in between the work and the leisure part of our field trip.

This is what it looks like at the agility field. Behind my camera, there’s a guy watching us and a dog in a crate – further distractions!

Can you see the difference between the acclimation part and the “Ask to Work!” part? Both last approximately 4 minutes. Game hardly ever looks at me during acclimation, and she never takes her attention off me while we are working/playing. I gave her the time she needed – and when she was ready, she was all in!

In more exciting places, there will be times at first when we acclimate for 15 minutes and then go back home. That’s okay. With an adolescent, being out in public is not really about what I train or work on. It’s all about shaping the mindset I want! I won’t accept any less than 100% engagement, and it’s up to Game to decide that she’s ready to give me these 100%. I am laying the foundation for a dog who will love to work in public later in life. Right now, it is secondary whether we actually get any “work” done or not.

Here is a session at the parking lot of a big supermarket. Note how quickly Game asks me to work! (Ugh, I’m not wearing the right pants for putting the toys back into my pocket, which is a little annoying and interrupts the flow of our session.) We’ve been at this parking lot three times in the last three weeks or so. The first time, Game acclimated for 15 minutes without looking at me at all, and then we went back home. The second time, she acclimated for about six or seven minutes, and then we had a perfect play session. This time, acclimation only takes 17 seconds before Game starts pushing me to work by means of initiating enthusiastic personal play!

Tesco Parking Lot Sam Phran; Game almost 10 months:

This is huge and really good. However, there are two tiny lapses of attention in this 4-minute play and training session. They are small, but they are there (can you spot them?). I’ll try especially hard to not have any lapses of attention the next time we go there!

Here’s the play-by-play:

00:38 Out of the personal play, I ask for a sit and reward with toy play. The sit leads us into the first toy play section.
00:49 “Switch!” (one of the reinforcement/toy play protocols we’re working on)
01:00 Switch!
01:13: Aus! (Out cue, rewarded with food.) Now we’re entering the first food play/training portion of our session.
01:33 Game struggles with her fold-back downs in this environment and in this arousal state. That’s okay – it’s information that I need to work on this some more.
01:57-02:05 I cue “Platz!” (down), reward with food in position (marker cue “Good!”), and then reward with a game of tug (marker cue “Tug!”). This leads us into the second toy play/training part of today’s session.
Note that it’s always important to me that Game voluntarily brings back the toy, and pushes it into me. I want her to insist on playing – never the other way round!
00:53 Out cue, automatic sit, food as a reinforcer … And we’re in the second food play/training part of our session.
02:47-03:51 Down cue rewarded with food in position (marker cue “Good!”); staying down gets rewarded by a throw of the tug toy (marker cue “Chase!”). We’re back in the last toy play part of the session.
04:27 “Let’s trade!” followed by food sprinkled on the ground. This is our end ritual.

Training notes to self – pay special attention to the following things next time:

  • Wear pants or jacket where it’s quick and easy to hide the toys during food play parts of the session.
  • Make sure Game acclimates for at least 30 seconds – this may avoid the tiny lapses of attention during work.
  • Make sure there’s no obstacle behind her when asking for a down – it might make it harder for her.

Responsibility, Recalls, and Risk Taking

Letting dogs off leash (or not) seems to be the new raw vs. kibble debate. Recalls and off leash reliability are among my favorite things to teach. So clearly, I have an opinion here as well, and I’d like to share it with you. Note that I’m talking about my opinion here, not about The One and Only Right Way to Do Things. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all answer to whether off-leash privileges are a good or bad idea, but I do think there are three factors that can help you make your own decision: your responsibility towards other dogs and people, your responsibility towards your own dog’s safety, and how you, as an individual, feel about the risks of being off leash. Maybe teasing apart these factors will make it easier to understand why other people may come to a different decision than you.

Your Responsibility Towards Others

I’m coming at this from a European perspective. Being socialized in a society that defaults to giving dogs a lot of freedom, seeing dogs off leash is very normal to me – I don’t see it as something inherently good or bad. I feel privileged to have lived in one of the world’s most dog-friendly cities, and this privilege goes hand in hand with a great deal of responsibility I feel I have as a dog owner: the responsibility to ensure we keep the city as dog friendly as it is (and make other cities more dog friendly) by making sure I, in my role as a dog owner, respect the rights, choices, and feelings of other dog owners as well as of people who don’t have a dog and people who are scared of dogs. This responsibility includes things like always carrying a poop bag and picking up after my dog, and it also includes …

… never letting my off-leash dog run up to a dog who is on leash. It doesn’t matter whether my own dog is friendly or not – what matters is that the other person has a right to walk his dog in peace. On-leash always trumps off-leash. If I am not sure that my dog’s recall is reliable around other dogs, she won’t be off leash in places where I might meet other dogs. I don’t want my dog’s lack of a recall to be someone else’s problem.

… never letting my dog run up to a stranger. Other people have a right to walk without being approached by my dog. It doesn’t matter whether my dog likes people or not. My responsibility is towards the other person, who might be scared of dogs. I need to ensure they can feel safe in the space they share with my dog. When I meet someone else on a walk, I will call my dog, and keep her by my side, at a distance from the other person, until we have passed them. If I can’t recall my dog away from people, she won’t be off leash in a place where we might encounter other people.

Your Dog’s Quality of Life

Does your dog have to be off leash in order to be truly happy? In my opinion – again, that’s an opinion, and entirely subjective: no. Off leash hiking is one of many ways to keep your dog happy and healthy, but neither is it the only way nor is it the best way for every dog/human team. Not all dogs will learn a reliable recall. Not all dogs will be safe off leash. Not all owners will be comfortable with their dog being off leash. All of this is okay! It’s not better or worse than giving your dog off-leash privileges – it just means that you have chosen a different way to ensure your dog has a happy, healthy life.

Let’s get back to the owner’s comfort level for a second. Your opinion counts, too! If it stresses you out to let your dog run free in an unfenced area, don’t do it! Do something else with your dog instead – something you both enjoy. Whether that’s hiking on a long line or a leash, or something completely different.

Risk Taking vs. Our Dogs’ Safety

This is probably the most tricky one of the factors, because we’re basing our decision on our subjective perception of safety. What we perceive as being safe or dangerous varies widely from one person to the next. I think that’s the reason people often get into fights about off-leash hiking: we have a tendency to believe we are making a rational decision, even when we are truly making an emotional one. If you perceive being off leash as horrifyingly dangerous to a dog, you want to speak up to help someone else’s dog stay safe.

It’s okay to make a decision based on your subjective perception of safety – there is nothing wrong with it. Sometimes, the way we feel about something is all we have to base our decisions on. However, I think it’s important that we acknowledge that it is just that: subjective. It’s not “the right” or “one true” decision – it’s just a decision that feels right for you as an individual.

I have done things that other people would consider dangerous: I’ve backpacked in so-called developing countries. I’ve walked home through dark streets at night by myself. I’ve ridden a bikes and motorcycles without a helmet. All these things are based on my subjective perception of safety vs. danger, joy vs. risk, and I’m aware of it. I’m aware of the subjectivity because I have friends who do these things very differently. I have friends who always wear bike helmets, and friends who would never leave the socially and politically (supposedly) stable country they grew up in, and friends who will call a cab instead of walking home alone at night. At the same time, I don’t do some things these friends might do: I don’t ride rollercoasters, for example. They scare me. They feel dangerous to me. Based on my subjective feeling about them, I choose to stay away.

The difference between these examples and the off leash debate is that in the former case, we’re only putting ourselves at risk, and in the latter case, we’re also putting someone else – the dog – at risk. That’s why it’s easier to accept the former examples than the latter ones. A better parallel might be allowing your child to ride a horse or ski or go out (hoping that they won’t drink and drive). In these cases, your decision puts someone else at risk rather than yourself: your child. We feel more emotional about the choices adults make for their pets or their children than we feel about the choices they make for themselves. If someone else makes a different choice for their pet or child than you do for yours, it’s easy to feel provoked. I think this might stem from a subconscious fear that we can, in fact, not know what is truly “best”: all we have is subjective opinions. We need our own choice to be the right one, but there is no right choice. And we really don’t like it when someone forces us to acknowledge that by choosing differently.

Can we at least integrate some objective information in our off-leash/on-leash decision making? Yes, of course. We can collect information about the environment (who are we likely to meet there? Are there foxtails, ticks, snakes, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats? Are there other dogs or other people? Cars?). And we can try and assess our dog’s recall around various distractions as objectively as possible. We can test his reliability on a long line, for example. Both these things will allow us to make a slightly more objective decision about whether we want our dog to be off leash here or not. Still, I believe these two factors – environment and reliability – have actually a much smaller impact on a person’s choice than their emotions surrounding off-leash freedom. It’s also hard to measure how dangerous foxtails, ticks, snakes, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, or bobcats really are. Some people would never walk a dog during foxtail seasons, while others will choose a trail where it’s less likely to come across foxtails. Replace foxtail with any other potentially dangerous environmental factor. The same rules apply. I respect both decisions – and really, I believe we all should. There is no right or wrong answer here. It’s okay that people make different choices for themselves and their dogs (and their children), just like it’s okay that some people ride roller coasters, and others don’t. Off leash hiking isn’t risk free – but neither is driving a car, or running agility.

The Choices I Make for My Own Dogs

My dogs get to hike off leash a lot, but not because I believe they necessarily need it. I think they enjoy it very much, but I think it would be equally possible to replace our hikes with some other activity that fulfills their need to run, sniff, and explore. Nature walks are probably my favorite thing in the world. I’d do it without a dog, too, but it’s more fun with a dog (or two, or three, or four). I could do it on leash, but again – for me, it’s more fun when I see my dogs running towards me with lolling tongues, leaping over creeks and fallen trees with shining eyes. It’s part of that particular hiking experience I seek. If I walk with a dog who isn’t reliable off leash, they will stay on leash or on a long line. But my ideal way to spend my time off doesn’t require leashes. I love feeling like my dogs and I are on this adventure together, my arms swinging freely by my side, my dogs moving their bodies, yet choosing to stay close to me. It gives me a feeling of freedom and peace that I crave and haven’t found anywhere else. For the person I am, the cumulative joy my dogs and I get from these hikes make up for the dangers they come with. I, the human, may need these walks more than my dogs do, and I’m okay with that. The fact that I love training is the reason I have the breeds I do, but the fact that I love hiking is the reason I have dogs in the first place. If I had to choose between giving up walks or giving up training, I’d give up training. I could live without training, but I’d really, really miss our walks. My dogs, I’m sure, could be equally happy either way, as long as we kept doing stuff together.