How I took my Reactive Dog to a Training Conference
Last month, I took my recovering leash gremlin, Taylor, to ClickerExpo - a 3 day event with over 550 dog trainers, and 100 dogs. The conference put my training and management skills to the test, and also served as a great reminder that some of the most simple concepts that I teach my Reactive Dog students are some of the most important. I'd like to share what worked for Taylor and I with those who are just beginning their training journeys, because even if your dog is still playing Jeckel & Hyde with dogs 3 blocks away, these tools can make a big difference.
Training with $1000 bills
"Don't be stingy," "Use the best treat you can come up with" and "train with the food equivalent of a $1000 bill" are all common phrases new students to reactive dog training are likely to hear. A more techincal way to put it is, the strength of your reinforcer should match the challenge level of the trigger -- in other words, bring steak to your first training session!
Taylor & I had to skip perishable reinforcers due to the 12 hr drive we took to get to the conference, and we needed treats for her training labs that were already bite sized and easy to deliver, so here was our big 3 for the weekend:
Sometimes we worry that we're giving too many treats. "Won't my dog get fat?" is a question I hear from students frequently. I admit that even I found myself worried about what Taylor's tiny terrier belly would look like at the end of the first day.
Our primary solution to this was skipping meals. During this high intensity weekend, all her food came from working. As long as you aren't in the process of housetraining a puppy, this is fine. On a typical day, you probably won't need to cut out all kibble, but you can certainly skip breakfast, or give half or third sized meals. Notice that 2 of the 3 types of treats I selected for our adventure are actually really exciting types of raw dog foods (the ZiwiPeak & Instinct freeze dried meal). This helped me keep from worrying about nutritional balance.
Let's take the Instict raw food, for example. For my 12lb pup, the recommended daily feeding on the back of the package is about 1cup/day. This equals about 139 pieces a day (yes, I counted!). When do you think the last time was that you reinforced 139 behaviors with high value treats in one day was? You very likely may have done so in Grumpy Growlers class, or in a session with your trainer. You very likely don't need to on a given walk. However, if you usually reward maybe 10 or 20 times in a walk, for fear of a fat dog, look how many more rewards your dog could be earning. The recommended feeding for a 50lb dog eating Instinct is 3 cups/day - 417 reinforcers, without going one calorie over your dog's daily recommended intake!
Do our dogs really do that many things we want to reward? What exactly should you be rewarding outside of whatever training, counter conditioning, or management plan you have for passing another dog?
If another dog barks, reward your dog
This is a "rule" in hundreds of group training classes across the country. I've seen it in multiple trainers' curriculae, and I say it in the first week of almost every class I teach. The problem is that I usually never say it again, and most students do this once or twice, and then forget to keep it up.
Working Taylor through our conference, I came to appreciate just how important - and helpful - this concept is. When we were in the hotel room, or in a quiet lecture session, it was really important to keep Taylor quiet. I didn't want one dog's woof or whine to turn Taylor over to the dark side, so every dog noise I heard, every sound that made Taylor's ears prick, was followed by a whispered "yes" and a treat on her mat. It really wasn't long before she was starting to look at me rather than the direction of the sound when something happened in the room.
This is something owners can do in the home, or passing by dogs that bark behind fences or in houses as you pass by. Just because your dog isn't barking back, doesn't mean he isn't stressed, and the more we reinforce for them the idea that they should check in when a collar jiggles or a dog woofs, the easier it will be to work with him when you find yourselves face to face with your dog's archnemesis.
Automatic Check In Points
There are always places where things can be a little unpredictable. You may not be able to tell if a dog is about to pass your front gate, or whether a dog is around the corner.
There were two major points of concern in the hotel that I needed a quick plan for. One was the elevator, and the other was the stairs. To avoid surprises, I taught Taylor to check in automatically in several key spots. She was able to learn this quickly, so we had it in functional use by the end of the weekend. Here were the places we used check in points:
The door out of our hotel room
Doors in and out of classrooms
Waiting for the elevator
In the elevator whenever it stopped
At each landing of stairwells
For the doors, we already had a wait cue which I continued to use. Once through, I stopped, waited for her to look back, and rewarded when she did with food and/or walking. I wanted her to learn in these low-risk zones to re-orient towards me right away, in case another dog was in the area.
In stairwells and on the elevator, I called her name or waited for the check in before we resumed walking. I tried to fade the use of her name as quickly as possible, in order to teach her to slow down as she approached each blind landing. We got to practice this a ton, staying on the 4th floor & with 2 landings per floor!
Waiting for the elevator I needed a longer stationary attention cue - you could use watch, stay or wait - a few feet away from the door, since I never quite knew when it was going to open, and I wanted to be ready. Only after the doors opened & the elevator was clear did we step forward and get in.
Finally, there were the real trials. The times we were in a thin hall and a dog needed to pass, or she was peeing and a new dog came to the lawn. This is where all the training we've done comes together, and why it is so important that we practice with our dogs when stressers are low, so we're ready to go at show time.
Stop, breathe, and remember what you've practiced. Trust that your dog can handle this, and that you know what to do to help. Every day you're one step closer to having the walks you want, and living with your favorite leash gremlin will get easier.