Is your dog really excitable and easily distracted?
Do you dread taking him anywhere that he might see a squirrel or a bird and take off running?
Does he seem to have very little, if any impulse control?
If so, this blog post will give you some tools to begin to teach your dog how to control himself – even when he is in the most exciting of situations.
For a dog that is permanently in a state of excited anticipation of the next adventure and ready to race off in pursuit of fun at a moment’s notice, the level of cortisol in his brain will be very high. It can take a long time for this cortisol level to come back down to normal – as long as 72 hours. If your dog continuously encounters one exciting event after another, then these levels will remain extremely high, causing your dog to become well over threshold most of the time. This means that he will be so aroused that he is physically unable to think at all – he will be purely acting on impulse.
Once over that threshold, self-control becomes impossible.
It follows, therefore, that one really important element of his training has to be teaching him how to relax.
Relax on a mat:
I love to begin teaching this on a mat or bed at home where it is pretty quiet with few distractions at first.
It helps if your dog is used to thinking a little for himself and doesn’t rely on you to show him everything that you would like him to do.
I begin in a small quiet space – just me, a bed or mat, my dog and a container of treats. No clicker for this one as it will have an arousing effect.
The space should be small enough for your dog to notice the bed or mat.
When he looks at or sniffs at it, begin to treat by placing a treat on the bed itself.
When he gets on the bed, continue to treat – very slowly – one treat at a time for as long as he remains on the bed.
Do this by putting the treats onto the bed and not directly in your dog’s mouth.
Feeding directly to his mouth is likely to excite him more and put too much focus back on you.
We are aiming for him to begin to enjoy being on the bed for the treats that appear there.
If he chooses to get off, don’t worry – just stop feeding and wait.
As soon as he chooses to get back on, begin the slow feed once again.
It is important that you stay really calm and quiet throughout this process, maybe giving the occasional yawn (as a calming signal) to help relax him further.
Each time you practice this, you will find your dog more and more willing to stay on the bed for his treats.
At this point you might begin to put a treat down on the ground as a distraction. Continue to treat on the bed as previously described. If he gets off the bed to reach the food on the floor, cover it with your hand and wait for him to choose to get back on the bed again. Resume feeding on the bed.
Take this exercise – “On the road” and practice in all sorts of locations.
Begin in places with very few distractions, but gradually take it to more and more distracting venues including your agility class.
Being able to relax around exciting things and being able to return to a relaxed state after becoming very aroused, is a very important life skill for any dog and is essential if you are to have any success in dog sports.
Here is a link to a short video showing this process in action.
You’ll see that the dogs in the video need a little more practice to be relaxed, though they are really happy to choose to stay on the boundary.
This is obviously the very first stage of teaching this relaxed behavior. However, it is a very important first step.
The dog in this next video becomes very excited at the sight of and opportunity to play with agility equipment.
His handler has been working on his calm boundary behavior.
Once we have a really strong boundary behavior, we can begin to add a couple of exciting behaviors into the training.
Release your dog from his boundary and walk him calmly to a more exciting location nearby. Work on something fun with him for a very short period and then return to the boundary work as described.
You are working on his ability to become excited when you play / train your sport or activity and then return to a relaxed state bringing cortisol levels down to a point where he can think again.
Think about how useful this would be with your agility, flyball or obedience partner.
Take a look at the video below to see some of this training in action.
We also thoroughly recommend working on Dr. Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol, which can be found by following this link.
Yes, that’s right – predictability (not to be confused with consistency) can often be the trigger to unwanted, over-aroused behavior.
Just think for a moment how your dog reacts at the sight of you reaching for your training bag, putting on a leash or heading for the door.
The predictability of the outcomes of these human behaviors, soon become triggers for excited behavior from your dog. If we then reinforce that excited behavior with the longed-for walk or training session, an unfortunate behavior chain has been taught. (Yes, sorry taught – by you!)
Try instead to collect training things, leashes, treats etc. and then sit down for a cup of coffee, read a book or work on the computer.
Head to the door, open it, close it again and sit back down.
Arrive at your training building and work on mat relaxation around the agility obstacles.
When your dog is calm, you can add in those other more exciting activities.
Being unpredictable is the best way to avoid unintentionally training excitement and arousal triggers in your dog.
Thinking in Arousal:
There is, however, a completely other side to training your dog to be able to think and show self-control in exciting situations.
I like to think of this as “Thinking in Arousal”
Often students will tell me that their dog finds it very difficult to concentrate and may run off to chase the squirrels.
However, when I suggest that we work with his favorite, exciting toy in training, a common response is that, “Oh no! We can’t do that! We will never get him to concentrate!”
In fact, I think that working with his most exciting toy is exactly what we should do if we are ever going to get him to concentrate in exciting situations.
I point out that, if a dog cannot concentrate around his favorite toy, then he is very unlikely to be able to concentrate around the squirrels or at your future sporting competitions.
This is when we introduce a wonderful game named the “Whip it toy Game”
I was first introduced to this game many years ago by a British trainer named Kay Lawrence.
Basically, we are going to teach the dog that, if he shows a little self-control, he really can have his very favorite thing!
“Your biggest distraction is your biggest motivator!” – Kathy Sdao
We begin by giving the dog lots of fun chasing, catching and tugging the Whip it Toy.
As long as I know that he is going to want to chase and tug, I always use the cue, “Get it” right from the start.
In the early stages of the game, it is important that you establish a very high value for this toy and allow your dog to have lots of fun catching and tugging on the toy.
Remember, the squirrel already has a very high value for him.
Having firmly established this, you are ready to move on to Stage 2 of the game.
This requires you to be very quick and whip the toy up and out of the way if your dog tries to get it without your cue to “Get it”.
As you proceed with this stage, there will come a moment (and you will have to observe closely to spot it for it may only be a very brief moment at first) when your dog stops for a millisecond almost as if to say,
“Why won’t you let me catch it?”
As soon as this happens, give your cue to “Get it” and let him win and play with his toy.
Pretty soon you will find that your dog begins to realize that grabbing the toy results in it disappearing out of reach. Being still, controlled and waiting for his cue, “Get it”, allows him to catch and play with it.
You can then begin to increase the difficulty of this game by asking for other behaviors, before releasing your dog to his toy.
This means that you must have a couple of ready trained pretty reliable behaviors on cue for this to work.
If you are consistent with this, pretty soon your dog will give you the behavior you are looking for – i.e. concentration and waiting for his cues while in a very high state of arousal. He will be learning that self-control is the way to achieving his goal of obtaining his most prized possession.
Watch as online student Kathy Wolfe plays this game with Gabe, her very enthusiastic and impulsive rescue dog. See how quickly he works out the rules of the game since the stakes, for him are so high.
Now watch as I put this principle to work in my own agility training with Bizzy.
The tunnel is one of her favorite things.
The toy is another. (Though this wasn’t always the case – a subject for another day!:))
In this scenario, the toy and the tunnel are taking the place of the “Whip it.”
You will now begin to see the Premack Principle at work.
This principle says that if you reinforce a less likely behavior (i.e. sitting) with a more likely behavior (i.e. catching and tugging the toy), then the value of the less likely behavior will increase.
The result of this is that his responses to cues such as, “Sit”, “Down” or any other that you might have taught him, will become stronger, quicker and more reliable even when excited.
Now wouldn’t that be nice in the face of that squirrel!