The Art of Teaching Your Dog to Ignore Triggers

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

The Art of Teaching Your Dog to Ignore Triggers

May 16, 2023 Uncategorised 0

When you have a dog who barks and lunges at the world, it can be really embarrassing. You’re taking a quiet stroll and then your dog is at the end of the lead, going nuts. And all just because another dog went past!

There are twelve foundation skills our dogs will need.

The Foundation Skills

The first thing we need is to make sure our dog has all the skills they need. We need them to be able to disengage from the world. We also need them to be able to move away if we ask. Finally, we may occasionally need them to be able to sit and wait while we deal with things.

We also need to provide a supportive environment for our dogs to learn these skills. There’s no use in throwing them into the deep end and hoping they’ll swim. Sometimes, we’ll need to make changes to the world. Other times, we’ll need to modify the world we’re in. While our dogs are learning new skills, we won’t just be able to keep doing the same daily barkfest, expecting things to change.

That will mean we might need to find quieter walks, or walks were we can actively practise the new skills that our dogs are learning.

We may also need to make small changes on the walks we do to head off trouble before it starts. We can often anticipate that problems are going to occur, and we can make small changes to minimise the damage. For instance, right now, I can hear one of my neighbour’s dogs barking at another dog on their walk. If my neighbour were just to slip to one side and limited how much her dog could see, she could have kept her own dog busy. The other dogs could all have gone past with minimal damage.

At times like that, it can also be helpful to have trained our dogs to pay attention to us when asked.

The science of attention

Anxious or frustrated dogs will often pay more mind to the world than other dogs. Many anxious dogs spend much of their walk on the lookout for things that trouble them. If they’re scared of humans, they’ll be watching for humans popping out from behind every bush. If they’re afraid of dogs, they’ll expect dogs to parachute in from all angles.

Dogs who like to chase things will do the same, particularly when they can smell another animal is in the area. They are waiting for squirrels to jump down from trees, for pigeons to suddenly fly off or for sheep to appear as if by magic.

Individuals who struggle with their emotions often struggle with their attention too. Anxious dogs will ironically spend more time actively seeking out things that make them anxious, for example. Predatory dogs or dogs who love to chase will spend a lot of the walk actively seeking out things to chase.

In the past, traditional rewards-based methods have focused on letting dogs cognitively appraise the world. We have encouraged dogs to ‘see’, to ‘look’ or to ‘watch’. This process is no longer one I usually take unless the dog is not engaging with the world at all. Our dogs don’t need more encouragement to engage with the world. Noticing things has never been their problem! They’ve been like sensitive little smoke detectors, on alert for the least whiff of stuff they’re afraid of or stuff they’d like to chase.

The Lighten Up Model

Now, I focus on two key skills instead. The first is disengaging from things. I don’t teach dogs to engage with the world if they are already. They don’t need my help with that.

We work through a process of constructed and staged teaching situations where they get to practise disengagement once they know what they’re doing. Of course, they’ve been disengaging from the world: it’s not like they find a smell and their nose is glued to the ground for the rest of their life. But this has largely been a non-volitional process. In other words, our dogs aren’t really aware that they’re doing it.

They’re in automatic mode.

I work to help the dogs I work with learn that disengaging is not only fun, it’s also something that they know how to do when they want.

That’s only one side of things. Much of the science is suggesting that anxious individuals who struggle to control their emotions are actually struggling to pay less attention to some stuff, but they’re also struggling to pay more attention to the rest of the world – especially the good bits.

We know this, right? We’re mindful, journalling monsters these days, practising gratitude for what we have. If anything has characterised the 2010s and 2020s, it’s probably the boom of mindfulness and journalling. It’s all good – it’s helping us reprioritise our own attention.

With dogs, we can do this with scentwork and mantrailing, Hoopers and agility, enrichment and sniff walks. There are hundreds of ways to build up our dog’s pleasure at being a dog.

Moving from fixation to disengagement

As our dogs learn to disengage, they’re going to need a little support. This is fine. They’re dogs. They may have had years and years of practising. They could be the best barkers-and-lungers at the end of the lead. If there were championships in rearing up, tangling the lead up, spotting other dogs in the distance and making a scene about it, our dogs would be world champions.

By the time I get to this point in my training plans, I’d like the dogs to have a strong history of disengaging from things.

We start in the home with something easy. Often I start with low level items that I’ve put out for the dog to investigate. That can include low-value food items or interesting smells. As soon as their nose disengages – the very moment that there is space between their nose and the thing they were smelling – I mark it by saying yes and then I give them a high-value treat or we play an interactive game. I keep the rewards interesting, surprising and varied.

And that’s it!

It is based on Kathy Sdao’s M-A-R-V-E-L-L-O-U-S SMART 50. You count out 50 small treats at the beginning of the day, and you use them to reward the dog for things you notice them doing that you want more of. It’s that simple! I’ve adapted it slightly so that we simply use the 50 treats for disengagement, and we include staged teaching to help.

An example in practice

This month, I’ve been working with a dog who has been digging up the local dog fields. He is very motivated by small creatures under the ground. Hardly a surprise! He’s a dachshund!

His guardian didn’t want to take him to a place he could run only for him to get a lifetime ban for fixating on one spot and digging a hole. She couldn’t distract him at all. We’ve been teaching him to disengage in the home (Step #1) and we’ve taught him the value of a marker word. We’ve also had time out from the field and some other activities (Step #2). Once he could do that, we were disengaging in the garden. Then we practised on some easy walks. In the first three weeks, he became a world champion at disengaging. He’s had one or two other skills as well which we’ve also practised.

This week, we went back to the field. The scene of the crime.

He was managed on a 10m lead (Step #3) and we practised around the edges first. This just helps him understand that the same rewards are on offer.

Then comes the sticky bit… would he disengage from a hole that looked ripe for digging?

As you see in my video, my dog Lidy does not need help disengaging. My client’s dog would escalate from sniffing to digging, so he needed some support before he got to that point.

Cued disengagement

A cue is simply a word or gesture that we use to prompt a behaviour that will be followed by a reward. I use verbal cues for disengagement simply because the dog is not always looking at me.

Sounds are the most useful cues, be they words or noises. Think how powerful the word ‘walkies!’ is for some dogs. Lidy still goes nuts for the alarm on my phone that reminded me to give Heston his medication. She runs straight into the kitchen. That alarm means ‘now is cheese time!’. I was watching a video on Tiktok where a man had trained his dog to respond to a music track. He’d simply played the music track every day before a walk, and now the dog is going nuts when he plays that same track.

We’re working on the same principle. It’s great to have a noise. Sounds are the only sensory modality designed to cut through everything else. It’s for this reason we have smoke alarms and sirens and alarm clocks. No matter how focused we are on something, a sound will cut through. Our sensory processing systems are designed to listen to those noises.

The behaviour that we want in this case is disengagement and a return to us so we can move away. Usually, that happens when the noise we use predicts really great rewards. Our dogs are pretty context-specific though, so it doesn’t work to say ‘walkies!’ when your dog knows you only say that word in the home.

Teaching the cue

Teaching a new paired sound is easiest. First, you pair up the noise with great food or a game, and you deliver that from your hand. Then you practise this until your dog is delighted to hear that word or sound. You just practise this in situations where you would happily bet that your dog would disengage from whatever they’re doing and turn to you for a reward. You preferably need a clear, distinctive sound that they’ve never heard before. That will make it easier for them to make the connection between the sound and interesting rewards.

This works best when you keep the rewards varied. When your dog knows that the reward is predictable, they’ll then be able to do the mental processing to think about whether they want the reward or not. Unless you’ve got a reward that your dog would 100% drop everything for, then you may find you also have to build up the value of the reward a little. We can make it more interesting by making food move or varying the types of reward we give. It’s best not to use the dog’s normal recall (which they’ve been ignoring anyway!) or their name, but to think of a novel and interesting new word.

For instance, I use the word ‘ready?’ which means the fun stuff is about to start. My dog know that this could be games or food or training, and she’s always back to me like a shot when I say it. It works better than any other word. I could use this word, of course, or teach something entirely new. Whistle training is often very successful for a recall, but it’s not always a convenient or necessary noise if you just want to get your dog’s attention.

Proof the cue

Proofing behaviour just means putting it to the test in all sorts of situations ranging from easy to hard. That’s what we did with the dachshund. We put his recall cues to the test hundreds of times. In the three weeks we were doing this, he was having 50 trials a day at recalling on cue. That mean he had almost a thousand trials by the time we got back into the dog field.

Always make sure you’d put happy money on a bet on it working. If in doubt, don’t gamble. If you aren’t almost 100% sure that it would work to get your dog’s attention and get them moving back to you, don’t do it. The situation is probably too hard.

The only difference between dogs who follow cues when surrounded by hundreds of distractions at events like Crufts, for example, and your dog right now is the amount of proofing.

You’re simply putting it to the test in reliable trials. Trainer Jean Donaldson calls these ‘cold trials’. The notion of them being ‘cold’ or unemotional without emotional intensity is absolutely right. The more of these we can get in, the better.

The limitations of cues

Trainer Jane Ardern of Waggawuffins Canine College says that she doesn’t teach always her dogs a ‘leave it!’ cue because she ends up saying, ‘leave it! … leave it! … leave it!’

As she says, there are probably 97000 things you want your dog not to be involved with. If you have to tell them every single time which things they should or shouldn’t engage with, it’ll probably get pretty tiring.

Unless you want to be prompting your dog to disengage when they’re sixteen, we do want to start internalising the process, as you see in the video with Lidy.

This takes the pressure off us. We don’t have to micromanage our dogs all the time if they find disengaging reinforcing. We can also start to transfer the decision-making over to the dog. Instead of them relying on us for cues, they learn to disengage by themselves. Ultimately, we don’t want to have to tell our dogs every single thing they should do or not do.

Why you should have a cued disengagement

Despite the limitations, there will be times when they’ll need a little support. Having a handful of really rock solid cues that prompt your dog to disengage and move with you is an absolute blessing. For me, we have ‘let’s go!’ and ‘Allez!’. ‘Let’s go!’ means we’re going to do a u-turn, so move with me. ‘Allez!’ means move – do whatever. It’s our release cue. We also have ‘ready?’ which usually gets her attention because it means I’m about to get interesting. She also knows ‘leave it!’ which kind of means ‘Allez!’ I guess.

While four cues is fine for me, one is more than enough for most people. It also makes things more clear to the dog. Having simple cues like this means we can step in and offer support to our dogs when they need it. If they’re struggling and they’re about to start pulling, rearing up, barking or lunging, then we need some way to help.

A cue can do exactly that. Just like your friend saying, ‘Come on!’ when you’re threatening to get in a row over something ridiculous in public, sometimes social animals need more support.

Even better, when your dogs understand that this cue or prompt comes with rewards, it makes it even more likely to happen.

So for the little dachshund in the field, we needed to be able to offer him something fun in return for disengaging. We got his toys out and we had a huge game every time he disengaged from the holes. As long as you practise these skills regularly and in different contexts, there is no real danger that your dog will start doing these behaviours just to get your attention.

In essence…

Our dogs won’t always be able to disengage from things that have got their attention. We can’t judge them for that given how easy we all are to distract! Even so, as we move to help them beyond barking and lunging at the end of the lead, we will need to be able to prompt them to move away.

This is not rocket science. I’d bet that you’ve already tried this! The difference will be that you haven’t yet done step 1-4 of the 12-step protocol, and you won’t have proofed the cue as much as you need to. Sadly, we only rely on our cues when we need them and we forget the amount of practice that’s needed to make sure it is reliable.

To find out more

You can read this post about cognitive reappraisal and this post about why our dogs pay more attention to things that bother them than would be healthy.

You can also sign up for the Lighten Up courses on our Teachable page.

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