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Training Tidbit September 2023

Training Tidbit September 2023

Rewarding Disengagement in Threshold work
Training Tidbit By Aly Straw

There are many techniques you can implement when working with fearful and/or reactive dogs;

rewarding disengagement is something I teach a dog early on. An older dog training philosophy dictates that a reactive dog shouldn’t even be allowed to observe a trigger; I don’t follow that sentiment in the long run, but this is a good starting point.

In this type of training you can teach the dog how valuable it is to handle big emotions toward a particular trigger by creating space and/or not giving it their attention. There are a couple ways this can be done.

The first involves creating space by moving the dog back until they are no longer having a big reaction to whatever the trigger may be. I do this by giving the dog a gentle leash pop while saying “let’s go” with an upbeat tone with a treat in hand. As the dog follows me away from the trigger I mark the behavior with “yes” and follow it up with a treat.

How far away you need to move will differ based on your dog. You can move away in 5 foot intervals, stopping to observe their reaction, and continuing to move if the dog is still having a big reaction. There is an exception to this; if my dog is still pulling back towards their trigger, I will keep moving until they are turned to focus on me.

In addition to teaching the dog to create space without fully fleeing, it also allows the handler to determine their dog’s threshold (the minimum distance the dog needs to be from a trigger without having a reaction such as lunging, barking, growling etc…). With consistency the dog will begin responding immediately to the “let’s go” cue and follow without much coaxing, and in some cases the dog may see a trigger and automatically create space.

Once you’ve moved behind the dog’s threshold you can step back and allow them to calmly observe their trigger as long as they aren’t having a reactivity outburst. I like to step away from my dog and give them space to process their decisions without my body language and behavior directly influencing them.

Anytime they look away from their trigger, enthusiastically mark with “yes,” and offer them a reward. If the dog chooses to look away and offer their handler eye contact, they can enthusiastically mark with “yes” and give them a jackpot of multiple rewards at once. The most tedious part of this method is waiting for the dog to look away. I try to avoid asking the dog to look away, or doing anything to get their attention; this is all about letting a dog make their own choices.

The point of this exercise is to let the dog know that making the right decision on their own is what gets them a prize. They also learn to start managing their own emotions without their handler having to give them constant guidance either via verbal guidance or body language.

By doing it this way, the dog learns that looking away from their trigger is rewarding; and looking from their trigger to their handler is even more rewarding! Another helpful piece of advice is to make sure their reward is high enough value. Hot dogs, spam, and beef liver are great high value rewards; their favorite toy is also a great option!

I would love the opportunity to work with your reactive dog.


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