The Thinking Dog: Empowered Disengagement

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

The Thinking Dog: Empowered Disengagement

May 23, 2023 Uncategorised 1

If you’ve got a dog who barks and lunges at the end of the lead, I’m willing to bet you’d love for them to just take a look and move on. So many of our dogs just get stuck. They rear up on the lead, barking and shouting, and nothing we can say or do helps them move on.

If you’ve been following these posts, you’ll know there are twelve key ingredients.

The first four can help you lead a peaceful life.

Teach your dog the essential skills and make sure they can do them anywhere

Avoid the daily barkfest until you’re sure they’re ready to cope (and you’d put money on it!)

Make small changes that avoid trouble before it starts

Be able to get your dog’s attention in all situations, and keep hold of it too. That way, you can avoid most of the problems before they really set in.

Truth be told, you can live a pretty nice life with just those four basics. I have plenty of clients who stick with those four skills. Essentially, these allow us to manage our dogs most of the time. We also avoid problems before they occur.

The problem with management

Unless our dog is very old or management is easy, it’s likely that we’ll encounter the things that bother or excite them at some point. Management doesn’t help us when that happens. It also doesn’t change how they feel about things.

One of my favourite things to do with my clients is something I call ‘trigger bingo’. Many of the dogs I work with are a heady mix of anxiety and frustration. Many would chase livestock, wildlife or other animals. Some would also chase cars and machines. They may also be reactive to dogs or people. At the beginning of our work, I ask my clients to write down a list of all the things that cause their dogs’ behaviour. They may find that their dog has multiple triggers. We write all of these down on a bingo card.

The aim of Trigger Bingo is not to get a line or house. If your dog has 9 or 16 triggers, your aim on your daily walk is to cross off only two in a column or row. Most of my clients think they’ll never get a line or full house, only to realise just how many times they’ve got into sticky situations. Just this morning for example, on a very quiet walk, we had lots of birds, two other dogs, a car and a field full of very giddy lambs. All of those things are or have been triggers for my dog Lidy.

Why I use Trigger Bingo is to help assess the risks of a daily walk without the dreadful boredom of an audit. It helps us understand just how much their dog is struggling. Trigger Bingo also shows them just how hard management can be. It’s almost impossible to manage your dog’s responses all the time.

Behaviour change

For that reason, behaviour change is really important. We really need to change how our dogs feel about these things! Yesterday, we were walking up the road and a mobility scooter went by. Lidy has never seen such a thing before in her life.

So what did she do? She took a look and she turned to me for further information.

I stepped us out of the way. We played a few reps of our favourite simple games. The man on the mobility scooter went past. I waved. He waved. Miss Bark-Lunge 2018 ate some biscuits. Then when the scooter had gone, we carried on our walk.

It’s been a long time getting to this point. We’re still not all the way there. She needs a lot more support around dogs and wildlife, and that is fine. Just knowing that ‘mobility scooters’ are not on the trigger list is a big thing. This from a dog who once tried to headbutt and bite a van who went past a little too closely.

This… this moment is why behaviour change is so essential. It means that there are hundreds more places we can go and she’s learning to cope with them. Every single time she has a good experience, she gets to chalk it up on her little mental board of ‘No Accidents Today’.

So how do we get here?

From management, we move into considering whether we need our dogs to engage with the world or not. Most of the time, I’m finding that they need support in learning how to disengage, not how to engage.

They need support to stop looking, not look some more. There are times when changing their emotional perspective is important, and there are times when it’s a step we can miss out. It’s of little use for our dogs to engage with the world if they don’t feel positively about it.

It’s also of little use for our dogs to engage with the world if they feel a little too positively about it. If they’d happily chase after squirrels or sheep, then engaging with the world may not be their best option.

We also may need to build up our dog’s ability to follow our cues to disengage. We may need to ask them to step away, and we want that without the drama. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people trying desperately to pull their reactive dog away from whatever they’re barking at. Usually, this is to no avail. That’s why the first four steps are so important. They’re the only difference between success and failure.

But we don’t simply want to have to spend our dog’s life micromanaging them and telling them what to stop looking at, smelling or listening to…

Why we might want to build auto-disengagement

Wouldn’t it be lovely if our dogs could just move on well before they’d imploded? You know… they take a look, they take a breath and they go back to what they were doing once again. I know it barely seems possible for many of my clients.

When our dogs can disengage without any intervention from us, it means they are beginning to internalise the process. Auto-disengagement, rather than cued or prompted disengagement, means our dogs have learned how to disengage themselves before the situation gets too hot.

Like it or not, when our dogs are relying on us to help them manage their emotions, they may not be that in tune with what is happening. Relying on an external centre of control means that the dog is doing very little thinking or management for themselves.

While it is absolutely fine (and normal!) for our dogs to rely on us for support when the going gets tough, it means they are not internalising the learning. They’re like flotsam on life’s tides, doing what we ask. Sometimes, at least! When they are able to do things for themselves, they are managing their emotions themselves.

Now our dogs are dogs, in case you hadn’t noticed! They are not zen masters of self-control. While a well-bred and well-trained assistance dog may be able to do this all by themselves, our dogs will probably need more support than that. It wouldn’t be helpful if an assistance dog decided to spend five minutes barking at a cat up a tree, would it?

There are two hard parts for us. One is that we have to actively build our dog’s skills at auto-disengagement. The other is that we have to know when we can’t rely on our dog to manage their own emotions.

Building auto-disengagement

Transferring management for what our dog does from us to them is not always easy.

The first thing we need to do is set up the environment so that our dogs will disengage automatically.

The best place to start that is in the home. I usually put down three or four food toys with some interesting but low-value food in there, and a bunch of things that smell. This will always depend on how easy the dog finds it to disengage from things, but generally speaking, even the most hardened scent hound would not spend all night with their nose in a cloth that smelled of hares or deer. They’re going to disengage of their own volition at some point. It happens.

You may remember the video in the previous post where I got exactly that from Lidy.

Our job is to capture this movement. When trainers talk about capturing, they mean waiting until the dog voluntarily does a certain behaviour and then rewarding it. We can make it easier by using a marker word like ‘good!’ or ‘yes!’ or even a clicker, but if we do this, we must make sure that the dog knows that the word or sound predicts rewards.

Kathy Sdao calls this SMART training. See – Mark – And Reward Training.

We SEE the behaviour.

We MARK it by clicking or saying ‘good!’ or ‘yes!’

We REWARD the dog.

The first session

In our first session, we’d really like to catch five or six times our dog disengages from the interesting objects we’ve put on the floor. We need to observe them and watch for the moment their head moves up. The very second we see that, we say, ‘yes!’ and give them a treat.

It’s really useful to have mixed treats of very high value here: dig out your cheese, your fish, your chicken, your sausage, your steak.

We want it to be really, really rewarding to do that one thing: move your head up once you’ve sniffed or engaged.

This is not to say our dogs can’t or shouldn’t engage with the things we’ve put down. Of course they should! We’re just looking for that one moment when they disengage. We’re building up the value of disengagement.

After all, if our dogs can’t disengage easily from a smelly unwashed sock, they’re not going to disengage from whatever it is that they’re barking and lunging at.

The first session is really, really important. We want the rewards to be varied and surprising. We also want to make sure our dog begins to understand that the action of moving their head up is what’s causing the treats to happen.

Troubleshooting the first session

There are several problems that can occur.

First, the dog might not have a very strong understanding of our marker word like ‘good!’ or the clicker if we are using it. We want our dogs to have a good response to that word or sound. You should be able to stand in another room, say the word or make the noise and have the dog come running in, like ‘Heeeeyyyy…. what’s happening in here?!’

There’s no point setting up your environment if your dog is not clear on the marker sound or word. This is an easy problem to resolve just by charging your marker word or clicker. You can see a video here.

The second problem is that we’re not watching carefully enough and we miss the moment our dog lifts their nose up. We really want to catch that first moment as quickly as we can, but it’s not easy to do. Sometimes we miss it and their nose goes right back down again. Better to ignore that one and wait for a stronger disengagement that is more clear. If we’re not sending clear messages to our dogs about what worked, then we’re going to make it more confusing than it needs to be. We can resolve this by speeding up our timing.

We may also see the third problem. Our dog realises we have much better treats on our person than we’ve put in the interesting items. They just start hanging around us, staring hopefully. This is what happens in the video with my dog Lidy. Did you notice that she investigates the molehills less and less? She does it for shorter times too. It’s almost like she decides to cut out the middleman (the sniffing) and just start hanging around me hopefully.

‘Go sniff!’

Many, many dogs who were formerly obsessed with the world turn very quickly into dogs who just hang around hopefully. They stop engaging! This is actually easier to resolve than problems disengaging.

The first thing we can do is simply deliver the treat by tossing it near to interesting things. The interesting things will grab our dog’s attention, if only for a short while. They’ll stick their nose down. Eventually, they’ll lift their head up again, and that gives us something to reward. Yay! More disengagement!

The second thing we can do is cue our dogs to go and investigate. I find anxious dogs who do not want to investigate odours or objects are more likely to stop re-engaging. This makes sense: they are avoiding processing the unfamiliar that makes them feel cautious. But, as we know, investigating the unfamiliar at low levels of emotion arousal is great. It means the upstairs brain (cortical structures) get to down-regulate the downstairs brain. The rational bits of the brain get to process and make sense of stuff at low levels of arousal, then tell the amygdala to stand down.

Having a ‘go sniff!’ cue is great for dogs who are struggling with engagement because what they’re supposed to engage with is making them feel a bit ick inside. We need to be cautious that we don’t get a ‘hey! I’ve smelled it! Give me a treat!’ behaviour from our anxious dogs. We tend to see a lot of very hasty behaviour where they aren’t truly engaging with odours they’re a little uncomfortable with, and some avoidance too. Ironic that they’ll bark for hours at the very thing in all its splendour but then won’t engage with a single aspect of it, like scent!

An example

Lidy is not a fan of people, especially tall men who smell very manly. She quite normally feels afraid when they stride purposefully towards her. Here, I’m working with a t-shirt that has been worn by such a man. I’ve separated out the senses. We’ve also done sessions with men talking out of view focusing on auditory modalities. We do sessions with static men in view who she cannot (easily) smell or hear – usually in the car. And we also do sessions with moving men.

It’s helpful to separate out those sensory modalities into smells, sounds and sights, as well as movement. If our dogs can’t disengage from the smell of a man, then they’re not going to disengage from a man walking towards them saying, ‘hey there, doggie!’ with their hands out, are they?

In this video, you can see that she does not engage for very long with the t-shirt. No wonder! Would a rat engage for very long with a cushion that smelled of cat?!

But… we do know that processing uncomfortable things is helpful. It helps the brain turn off the early warning alarm system. So here, the ‘What’s that?’ cue needs to be the opposite of our disengagement cue: we gradually want to stretch it longer and longer so that we get more and more sniffing. You can hear her sniffing in the video – that’s just perfect. She is taking in the smell of some manly man at low intensity and it’s been paired up with disengaging as well which is exactly what I want. Take in the odour you need to process things, then step away.

Building up to more complex situations

We start with the easy task: can our dog disengage from the odour of something they find interesting or a little frightening? If they can’t do that in the home when they’re relaxed, then we can’t expect them to disengage when they’re out on a walk.

Then we create gradually more complex situations to disengage from. For a scent hound who is obsessed with the odour of animals, I may use a little synthetic scent from a gundog training shop, for example.

Or for an anxious dog who doesn’t like dogs, I’ll include odours at low levels of other dogs. I may ask my neighbours to wipe a towel over their dog, for example.

We can then move up to more complex sensory modalities to trial. For many dogs, movement is a real trigger, and so here, I’ll be using bolting rabbit contraptions from gundog training stores, or making my own with flirt poles or even making my own cheap bolting rabbit with retractable leads and a soft toy.

After that, we combine those sensory modalities again. I pair up odour and sound, for example. For Lidy and her dislike of stinky men, I may ask her to sniff a t-shirt while listening to men talking. She knows the difference between ‘artificial’ men through speakers and real men, so I’d ask a neighbour to stop outside my house at a certain time and talk loudly.

But won’t this take forever?

Dogs generally don’t need many sessions. If we’re clear about rewarding disengagement and we’re using high value and surprising rewards, we should find that five trials is enough. A trial is simply a short session with six or seven moments of disengagement in it. Five minutes is usually more than enough. The video with Lidy where she disengages from molehills is an excellent example of a single trial. She disengages four times. It takes place in less than a minute.

Leave a couple of days between trials. We want our dogs to sleep on their new skills. This helps the brain consolidate that information and concretise it.

Dogs are also very contextual learners. We need to make sure they are able to do this in a variety of contexts, and we need to help them generalise. Even small things can make a difference here. Do the second trial in a different room in your home with different objects. Do it at a different time. Then do it in a different room. Then in the garden. We want our dogs to understand, ‘oh! here too?!’

We can also start doing it on walks. I generally do it at the end of walks or I even ‘plant’ items on the walk that I know the dog will disengage from. Within three or four weeks, with a five-minute trial every other day or so, we should have started to rack up a hundred or so moments where our dog has been rewarded for disengaging on their own time.

Making progress

Of course they are going to need support as they move this to all situations. This is where Kathy Sdao’s SMARTx50 is excellent. We just count out 50 treats (and this can include a tally sheet for tug games or other toy games) at the beginning of the day. Then we aim to reward our dog every time they disengage from something. If we do this every day alongside the trials outlined above, within three weeks, we’ve got a dog who’s had a thousand rewards for disengaging.

It can also give us important data, like how quickly we burn through the treats. We might, for instance, only get five moments of disengagement on walks at the beginning of those three weeks. By the end, we might be struggling to get our dog to engage with the world and have burned through our treats in a few minutes because we’re also having to help our dog go sniff!

It’s not unusual for dogs to become total addicts to disengagement or not to engage at all. Having worked with dogs who were rabid scent vacuums one day and drooling beside their guardian the next, I was astonished at how quickly this can work when we do it right. Of course, then we have different problems, but I find once they’re over this hump, dogs reach a balance of engaging and disengaging more naturally by themselves.

Other benefits

You will also find that your dog pays more attention to you. This means we can practise our busy work, our games, our u-turns and static behaviours. I don’t use static behaviours much, but this morning, an ambulance stopped to ask for directions. It was early, so all my retired neighbours were sensibly still in bed – other than the one waiting for an ambulance!

The directions were complicated and we were talking quietly, so I needed to be quite near the ambulance and their manly-smelling paramedics, the ambulance itself (and Lidy has history with chasing vans…) and men talking to me. Of course, I don’t want to wave off the ambulance and leave the paramedics to fend for themselves in our rabbit warren street system, so I asked Lidy to sit and she did exactly that. We’ve come a long way from the days when she would have been at the end of the lead trying to get to the guys in the van to tear their arms off.

All that reward history counts.

We also see that our dogs are making sense of the learning and taking control of it for themselves. Because they truly understand what they’re doing (unlike cued behaviour, which relies on us to prompt) then something really clicks for them. Disengagement becomes voluntary and volitional. They’re in charge. Instead of their nose, head and behaviour being controlled by the world, they’re finally starting to understand that, ‘hey! I can make my body do stuff!’

All that frustration or fear does not feel nice. I find that as soon as dogs start to work out how to get out of that metaphorical corner they’ve backed themselves into, we get more and more and more of that disengagement.

Tensions of disengagement

There will still be times our dogs will need us to manage their emotions for them. Sometimes, disengagement is just too hard because the stakes are high and our dogs are already in a high-intensity emotional state. That in itself is a challenge – knowing when to support, and which of the previous steps we need to engage. We all need a little help disengaging sometimes.

When I get anxious, I tend to ruminate on things. Yesterday, I was feeling uneasy about a situation and inventing all kinds of scenarios and outcomes. One of my friends realised this and said, ‘Hey! Switch your big brain off!’

It was the reminder I needed to focus on the moment, not on 97 scenarios that will never come to pass.

It’s the same with our dogs. Sometimes they’re going to need a bit of support to disengage.

The problem is that most dogs don’t know how to tell us that they need our support, and like me yesterday, they often don’t realise that they do. That means it falls on us to help them out.

Generally speaking, I work off the notion that I’m going to need to cue most of the time at the beginning of our training, and that I’ll be able to work through to auto-disengagement as time goes on. I also understand that some things are easier to disengage from. It’s never hard these days to get Lidy to disengage from people, and she’ll often do it herself. Getting her to disengage from a field mouse this morning… much less easy. That was one time she definitely needed my support.

In essence…

If we set up situations where our dogs will naturally disengage and we reward them handsomely for doing so, we’ll get more auto-disengagement. It’s that simple!

We just need to make sure that we offer support when our dogs need it and we trial it everywhere before we ask them to disengage from the tough stuff. If I don’t want to ask my dog twice to leave something alone, then I need to do the legwork first. This morning, Lidy left the mouse the first time I asked. If we want that kind of disengagement – she was never going to leave that mouse of her own volition! – then we need to practise for it.

To find out more

You can read the posts about emotional resilience from the beginning

You can also learn how to teach other skills before you’ll need them

Improve your management by changing the situation or by modifying it as you go

Help your dog have a history of ‘busy work’ so they know how to let you keep their focus

Decide whether you need them to engage more or disengage more – or whether that depends

You can also check out the Lighten Up Teachable page for details of courses

If you’re looking for the FREE download of the entire Resilience Roadmap, you can find it here

And you can sign up to my mailing list here if you want occasional updates!

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