Not long ago, I taught a seminar for people who work with the foster dogs in rescue, preparing them for their forever homes. I told them that, although the seminar was billed as "Clicking to Calm and Challenge" if there was a sub-title it would be "The No-Labels Tour."
Almost all my private lesson clients these days are rescue dogs. There are many opportunities for the well-balanced, nicely behaved dogs but where do the rest go? Their owners try the local obedience classes, because that's what they've always done before. Only this time, with this dog, the stimulation is too much. Sometimes they shut down and mentally flee. Sometimes they lash out at people or other dogs. In the worst case scenario, unskilled trainers advise the owner to put a prong collar on the dog and force it to march around in endless, yanking circles. Or they suggest the owner step in front of the fearful dog to block it's view or a host of other useless parlor tricks.
Without ever teaching the dog what our desired behavior is, it is patently unfair to correct it. Don't tell me that your dog is "leash reactive!" How can it be anything but reactive if it never learned how to sit or heel properly? Additionally, if your dog is fearful you must take him out of that environment in order to learn. Group classes are not helpful to these dogs until they have the skill set to be able to perform alternate behaviors.
Enter Sophie. I can't give you a full appraisal of what Sophie has been through in her training except that she attended *special* classes. Her handler, Matt, started attending my schutzhund club training and showed him how to work with some of my dogs on basic obedience. Matt is a quick study and grasped the concept of using verbal markers and the clicker. Instead of maintaining her original label, Matt chose to teach her basic obedience using the same methods. He showed me the work he had done and demonstrated beautiful and correct heel position. It was time to bring her into a group environment. In order to make that transition, we first begin by pairing Sophie with a calm, obedient dog who is not going to make strong eye contact or threaten her. The dog must first learn that it is safe working near another dog before you can ask it to hold things together with an disobedient dog. This is why group classes, filled with dogs that do not know how to sit and behave or heel, is a recipe for disaster for the dog that believes its life is in danger.
If the dog cannot sit in the face of stimulus or distraction, begin there. Don't label the dog or make excuses, address the behavior in front of you. With the many rescue dogs I work with, I seek to challenge them and their owners as we develop their confidence. So here are some photos of a recent session with Sophie. She worked opposite two different male dogs that day, Quinn and Cooper. We take the behaviors she knows and work them in the presence of different dogs; we do not ask her to learn new behaviors then, we merely change one thing in the environment to reinforce to her that she is safe and capable. The photos below are of her session opposite Cooper:
The first photo does not show the attentive obedience Sophie is capable of, but she is not lunging, she is using calming signals by attempting to sniff the ground. She discovered that Cooper was nothing important in her world, and turned her attention back to Matt.
If you are working a dog that responds aggressively toward another dog, the best place for you to be is on the RIGHT. That is because any correction you give moves the dog to your right and away from the other dog. It also requires the dog to look at the handler fully. In this photo, I have just crossed in front of Sophie and Matt is about to make an about turn.
Both dogs sitting and giving their handler's attention. Sophie is at a stage where Matt is using lures in the presence of another dog, so that there is ample reward for good behavior but you can see her posture is relaxed and open and she isn't worried about the dog nearby. Since this was Sophie's first time working opposite another dog like this, we were also careful not to encroach on her parameters where she would begin to worry.
Pretty darned close, and no concern. The most difficult position for a worried dog is the down. Not only is it a submissive position, but it does not allow for the dog to run for it's life quickly if circumstances require it! If you have a dog who barks, the dog is the least helpful position for making calm because you do not have a means of enforcing quiet. The sit position is a dog handler's best friend. Sit= quiet. You do not need to add an unnecessary command, it only serves to bring your own emotional state into play. Simply teach and reinforce that no barking is allowed in the sit position. Teach attention to the handler. While I can address more about this in the future, that does not translate to the cutesy trick of having the dog sit in front of you as you wave treats. Attention is not relative to the dog looking at your face because as you heel your face will be forward, and if the dog thinks it is only rewarded for being in front/looking at your face, you will struggle to keep it in proper heel position.
With Sophie obviously relaxed, we had some fun doing synchronized obedience! We would count 1-2-3 and then.... spin... or down... sit... or touch! Both dogs know the finger touch on command, which is also a very helpful tool. As you can see, Sophie is totally into it. Again, not a new behavior, simply taking something she already knows and putting it in a new environment.
NOT THE END.
THIS IS THE BEGINNING!