Click to Calm

For most of the past two weeks we’d mainly been taking Beanie and Biggles to the dog enclosure in one of our local parks. We’d been working hard on keeping them close and attentive. Beanie was doing brilliantly. It didn’t matter what was going on around her – she’d be stuck to my side like glue following my commands without hesitation. Biggles was capable of this too, but it was hard work getting his attention and he had more of a tendency to get distracted. He got so excited on the walk to the enclosure that he’d be baying, squealing and screeching. Totally out of control. Rather than getting better with practice he was getting more and more excited each day. We don’t allow him to pull on lead – if he tries we just stop until he calms down. Sometimes it was taking half an hour to cover the 200 yard distance from the car park. But once he got into the exercise he’d do very well.

On Saturday morning we decided to take them to our regular park to see how they’d do there. Biggles was first. He was perfect! If we could rely on Saturday’s behavior being consistent then I’d go as far as to say we have the perfect dog! The balance was just right – he’d run a little ahead but keep looking back for guidance; he’d have a little play with another dog but would break away the moment we called or walked away; he happily played fetch, tuggy and did tricks with us as we walked.

Beanie wasn’t quite as good. She ran a little further ahead of us than Biggles and looked to us for guidance a little less. But even so, she stayed in sight and for the most part responded well when we called or changed direction (The little clip shows the worst of her behavior – and it’s really not at all bad). But she was ‘twitchy’ and our feeling was that she could easily dart off at any moment.

Both of them are capable of behaving perfectly and will faultlessly follow numerous commands and do endless tricks. We’ve realized that the secret to consistency is to get them into a calm attentive state before asking them to do anything (I think I’ve been watching too much Dog Whisper!). They are both very good at excited attentive, but things are unpredictable when they are in this state – because it’s all too easy for their attention to flit from us to something else such as a scent, a rabbit, a fast moving dog. And when that happens they are over the horizon before you can blink! They always come back very quickly (2 minutes), but god only knows what they’ve been up to whilst out of sight.

So this week we’re working on rewarding a calm and attentive state (and therefore gradually making it their default state). We’re taking them to lots of stimulating places. If they start going ballistic then we’ll watch for a slightly calmer moment and click and treat it. Then we’ll try and build on that – each time clicking and treating calmer and calmer behavior. Once we’ve got calm then we work on attention. Although to be perfectly honest, once they are calm, attention becomes second nature to them. Next we’ll start walking them on a loose lead. If they pull we stop until they look at us calmly. If they keep looking at us calmly we’ll click and treat. Gradually they need to look at us for longer and longer between treats.

At this stage we’re ready to start working on our off-lead exercise. For now we’re keeping them on a very long training line. I don’t think we need it – the dogs behave perfectly. But it’s early days and we don’t want any setbacks. We aren’t giving them any commands at this stage. They associate training with excitement so by telling them to do something we can ramp up the excitement – we don’t want this. They’re sticking to us like glue so it’s not necessary to say anything. The commands (tricks etc) only start when we’re confident that they are completely calm and attentive. And they only get rewarded when they follow the commands calmly.

It’s working well. It took a lot of patience at first. At one point I think Paul stood motionless in the middle of a field for 30 minutes with a baying, screeching Biggles straining on the end of his lead. But gradually Biggles figured out that the only way to get what he wanted was to be calm and attentive. They key is to say and do nothing – just wait for the dog to figure it out. In each new stimulating situation we’re finding that the excitement starts out slightly lower, and we are able to ramp it down much more quickly.

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