ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Using Circles to Regain Lost Attention

Melissa has a 3.5 yr old lab who had extensive early socialization, but who has been frightened by rough play with other dogs, and now exhibits stress behaviors with some dogs. Melissa notes that she has "space issues" when on leash, and begins to react once the other dogs comes into her "safety zone." Melissa hs been trying to ignore the agressive behaviors and reward the positive interactions, but the situation is only getting worse. In part, Melissa states, this could be due to the neighbor's off leash dogs who run up to them when Melissa and her dog go for walks. She asks for suggestions.

Melissa, I think the key will be to become even more pro-active. You are doing a great job, and I think you have to click and treat yourself for your commitment to this lovely dog, and how hard you are working to bring her through this and out the other side. So my first suggestion is to pat yourself on the back and take a well deserved bow.

Second, you can see a very visible shift in her behaviors when the advancing dog gets close to her "space", or comfort zone. So, back up a few yards, and begin shaping what you DO want many feet from the edge of her comfort zone. This is what I mean by becoming "pro-active." You begin your program of systematic desensitization at a point before you begin to see the stress reactions, not after they have begun. If they have begun, then you have no choice but to react. So to set yourself up for success, become very pro-active in your approach.

For instance, if the oncoming dogs trigger calming signals in your dog at 40 feet, begin your program of shaping what you do want at 25 feet, at a point where the dog is not already throwing off calming signals.

One trick I use constantly with this is circling and arcing. I don't make the dog face his fears head on--usually, this only leads to intense focus on the oncoming dog and less attention on me.

Instead, I note that a dog is coming, and I begin continuous heavy reinforcement, getting the dog focused completely on me, and asking for well-known behaviors, such as sit, down, shake,--whatever.

Then, I begin arcing or circling INTO the dog. Why? When you move INTO your dog (and I don't mean a tight circle, or stepping on him), you force him to focus on YOU so he won't get stepped on. And each step he moves away from you, with his attention riveted on you, you can do heavy, rapid reinforcements.

Moving in that arcing circle, you incrementally get the dog closer and closer to the object he fears, but still totally attentive to YOU, because he doesn't have TIME to focus on the other oncoming dog. If he begins to focus on the dog, you move into him again, causing him to give you full attention so he won't get stepped on. This again gives you the opportunity to reinforce heavily, and re-capture his full attention.

I realize this is a bit of a stray from allowing the dog to always move of his own volition, by moving into the dog. He really doesn't have a choice but to move away from you. However, with dogs who are exhibiting fear agression, throwing off calming signals like mad, I find this particular technique extremely effective, and well worth straying from total volition for the results it gives.

I have now done this with at least a dozen dogs who have had fear agression issues, and I have never had it fail me. My service dog Peek was the worst of the lot. A kennel raised dog, he never learned to communicate with his own species except to do major territorial guarding while in his kennel.

At first, I tried punishers (this was pre clicker), and brother--did the problem escalate. With each tightening of the leash, with each correction--he got more and more anxious, stressed--it just exascerbated the problem and I had to abandon trying to socialize him. At that time I thought it truly was hopeless. He was a monster, a total monster and very close to being euthanized by my family when I had to spend a month in the hospital.

Once we began clicker training, things got a bit better but we still had the same problem with other dogs. And unlike Melissa's dog, my dog had no use for ANY other dog. Enter Turid Rugaas and Jean Donaldson. Once I realized the power of observing behavior, and moving from purely observable behaviors, our progress truly began. I was able to get him focused on me, and incrementally move him past his worst fears.

I circled and arced him down many a footpath, and he finally got to the point he could pass another dog without going into terror mode. This was a BIG step. Then we began using the same technique to allow the other dogs to come closer and closer. The hardest part was not tightening up on the leash. It's an automatic for Peek that he wants what he most fears: he would strain at the leash to get to the other dog, but they also terrified him.

So I kept moving into him, keeping that leash slack, and reinforcing any kind of attention to me. Finally, he was able to go nose to nose with another dog without sending off calming signals, and without stressing. It was like a miracle, and one I never thought I'd see. He's a different dog today, and though he still is learning how to play with other dogs, he can now pass and re-pass quietly and without stress.

Good luck and I hope you will try this. It's worked so well for me!

Debi Davis
copyright 2002 Debi Davis


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