Monday, February 17, 2014

Behavior Solutions Training Class, Week 6

Our regular Monday night Behavior Solutions training class was rescheduled to yesterday afternoon. Instead of meeting in a classroom setting, our reactive dogs took a field trip to the real world! We met in the condo community of one of the owners, hoping there would be lots of dogs out and about. Why did we remove the dogs from their safe zone at the training center? They're ready to be challenged by real life scenarios. 

Here's what we worked on:


We had been practicing passing other dogs in our classroom since day one, but trying it in the great outdoors of a condo community changed things up. In class, we sit with our dogs and give them a constant stream of high value treats for paying attention to us. The atmosphere remains calm for the most part. Out and about, especially in a new place, our dogs are easily distracted by the new smells, sights, and sounds, and their attention is harder to come by.

Still, we all managed to do our walk-bys with no discernible incidents. After five weeks of respecting each other's boundaries in class, all the classmates seem very comfortable with each other and don't really trigger each other's reactivity at this point. Luckily, there were three extra dogs in the group today, Delilah included. Some random dogs being walked in the neighborhood also provided new stimulus.

We kept about 5-10 feet distance today in our pass-bys, and did whatever was necessary to redirect our dog's focus if they started targeting. Targeting refers to a dog starting to lock their focus on their trigger, in this case other dogs. You can tell Spartacus is targeting when he raises his ears forward, creating creases in his forehead. Also, if his mouth was open, he will close it. Sometimes his hackles will raise as well. I found that I sometimes need to step in front of him to regain his attention. Then I will walk backwards a few steps, while Sparty's eyes stay fixated on me. We can then resume a normal heel position and carry on with the "watch me" game.

Fence Fighting

The condo community had its own little dog park. It was empty, but the fenced in structure allowed us to work on issues around fences. Spartacus has really improved his behavior around fenced dogs in the last month. He's never been reactive to fenced dogs, but he used to pull us and become anxious when fenced dogs were barking and running the fence. We responded with lots of counter-conditioning in our neighborhood practicing sit stays and down stays with lots of treats next to fenced in dogs. Now, he is overall quite calm when he's on the outside of the fence. I can put him in a sit-stay half a foot from a fenced dog, and pet the dog on the other side while Sparty patiently waits.

Put him inside a fence, and it's a different story. At least in our own fenced yard, he can be very territorial. When we let him off leash by himself in the fenced dog park during class, he was more curious about the smells inside than the dogs passing the fence. However, once we added Delilah inside with him, their excitement grew and they started fence fighting the outside dogs. We quickly resolved this with simple body blocking. We've been working with body blocking in class to basically teach the concept "leave it". We literally just stand in front of our dogs in a strong stance and block them from whatever caught their interest. Our dogs respected our corrections and did not resist our body blocking by jumping up at us.

After our turn off leash in the park, we leashed up and exited, and two other siblings from the class went inside. One side of the little dog park is practically up against a wall of bushes, with only about a foot and a half of walkway space between the fence and the hedges. Several of the dogs in class reacted to the fenced in dogs when we squeezed through this narrow walk-way, including Spartacus. The great thing about being in a training class is we get to recreate scenarios that trigger our dogs until we get it right. Our second time around, I used body blocking to keep Spartacus' attention on me instead of the beagle behind the fence, just half a foot away. He didn't react and was thoroughly spoiled with hot dogs.

Hanging Out

The last portion of class was spent hanging out on a patch of grass while we asked our trainer questions. Two of the dogs who came from the same house were playing, and Sparty tried to be "referee". Sometimes when he sees two dogs playing, he barks like he's got to keep them in check. It's not an aggressive bark, but it's annoying and not what we asked of him. On the other hand, Delilah seems able to just zone out her surroundings and think about squirrels. She was a foot away from the playing dogs and couldn't care less. Sparty wasn't totally calm, but he wasn't aggressive either. Though he was barking a bit, it made me happy to see that he was laying on the ground with relaxed hips within feet of other dogs without responding aggressively. Still, he's got a little ways to go before he can mind his own business like his sister. 

When we spoke with our trainer after class, she seemed really pleased with our progress. She did suggest we keep the Gentle Leader head halter in our pocket, in case we want to try do-overs in public places on our own. We used the G.L. for a long time when we first started training Sparty to heel and anytime we were heading somewhere potentially crowded. For the purposes of his current training, the G.L. allows us to redirect Sparty's head, whereas our current training collar, a parachute cord slip, doesn't affect what direction he is looking in. Overall, I prefer that the slip collar forces us to try harder to get Spartacus' attention, but the Gentle Leader is always a great tool to have as back-up. 

Our last two classes will also be field trips. We love this class so much, and are so grateful we have such a creative trainer who really shapes each class based on the needs of the individual dogs. 

Have any of you taken training classes to work on behavior issues like reactivity?


  1. How cool testing your new skills in the real world. It sounds like you did great!

  2. Sounds very productive! We have a ton of dogs barking behind fences in our neighborhood that are great to walk by to practice focus with my dogs even though they are not reactive. I think people underestimate the effectiveness of a solid heel to help with reactivity...good job!

    1. Totally! I used to think heel was just about your dog not pulling you, but now I understand it's about your dog being in sync with you and understanding that you decide how the walk goes. It can help with so many behavior issues...