Calming The Capricious Canine:
Week 1 - Emotions
Welcome to your first week in “Calming Your Capricious Canine”!
You are about to embark on a different sort of dog training and it will take some getting used to. We are so used to telling our dogs what to do and when to do it. However, for the next 6 weeks we will do very little talking at all. Instead we are going to learn to let our dogs make some decisions and then help them practice making better ones. With a handful of guidance and a truck load of treats. Let’s get started!
Before we can get very far, let’s talk about threshold. Dog trainers and behavior specialists use the term all of the time. It is important to have a working understanding of what it means. Threshold is the point where the emotional brain takes over. Your dog’s brain isn’t that different from ours. Most of the areas are just like ours and work the same way, too. They feel many of the same emotions we do and their brains get caught up in those emotions just like we do.
If you can’t imagine what I am talking about, think about the last time you get caught rage reading comments on social media. How thoughtful and logical were you feeling in that moment? Maybe a little, but most of your actions were fueled by feelings. Your dog, when they experience something emotionally arousing, will behave the same way - with fixation and little to no logic or concern.
This is why your dog doesn’t respond to commands, their name, or even food when they are staring, barking, lunging, stalking, or for some, just happens to notice something exciting. This is when they are over their threshold.
So now that we have that out of the way, we can get past the idea that we can command, cue, nudge, tsk, or otherwise distract our dogs out of being fixated on an emotional trigger. This is why so many training techniques and advice have failed in the past - because this is an emotional problem, not a cognitive problem. Instead of being labeled “untrainable,” we can work on changing our dog’s emotional association with the trigger.
To accomplish this, we need to understand how emotional associations and behaviors come to pass. Your dog observes something or has an experience. They either like or dislike the encounter to a great degree. They determine the outcome they need and proceed to act in a great emotional way to ensure the outcome. I bold “need” because this is an emotional need, not just an expectant cognitive outcome. Needs are not met with praise alone. To manipulate needs, we require something the effects the source - the brain. We use food.
Now a word on safety! If your dog has any history of attempting to harm a person or animal, use caution at all times. This may mean a basket muzzle for a dog with a bite history. I have included a very short video below the Homework section, on beginning to introduce a muzzle. Do not strap it on ahead of time. Instead start training with other safety measures like fences, dual leashes, safety tethers, or behind a window.
A word on medication…
For many dogs who struggle with sensitivity to noises, high anxiety, or dogs who have bite histories, it is a good idea to speak with your vet about medication. Medication is a tool that can significantly speed up the training we are going to be doing and for some dogs, without medication, this training will have no effect.
Exercise 1: Find Threshold
Use caution in exposing your dog to triggers for this exercise!
Think about what triggers you want to work on for this 6 week course. Then think about how close you usually are when your dog is reacting. Now, I want you to increase that distance by a factor of 8! Now that might be 80 feet if normally your dog reacts at 10 feet. That is 800 ft if your dog reacts at 100 ft. No matter how far the math takes you, you need to start at least that far away.
You can do this in the car if that is safer. Make sure you are in the back seat with your dog and someone else is driving. DO NOT attempt without a muzzle if your dog has a history of redirecting aggression. DO NOT attempt without at least 2 leashes attached to your dog if they have a history of biting through a leash.
Have treats on you and begin wandering slowing towards a trigger. Periodically offer your dog food. If they eat it, great! Move closer (SLOWLY!). If they are not interested in the food, remain where you are until your dog will eat. Here is a video of us finding threshold:
When your dog starts to glance, whine, pull or otherwise show awareness to the trigger, you are probably approaching threshold. If your dog begins to bark, lunge or strain on the leash, you are probably over threshold. If you go over threshold, don’t panic. Calmly direct and pull your dog back to a distance where they stop caring again. You may need to put them back in the car/house and start again after a few minutes. Remember, going over threshold happens to everyone. Just try to be aware and more careful next time. Here is a video of my dog Shinra accidentally going over threshold.
Exercise 2: Name Game
This is a simple exercise I want you to start and do daily for the next 2 weeks. Don’t apply it to anything else until I tell you to. Just practice where there are little to no distractions including normal household distractions like other pets or family.
Place 10-15 treats in your hand. Have your dog next to you. They can be in any position they choose (don’t cue a sit). Say their name and immediately shove a treat in their mouth (quickly, not violently…). Repeat till you are out of treats. Then without a word just walk away.
A word on treats…
Use something special like liverwurst, cheese, ham, hot dogs, chicken, steak, whatever. This is important! We are training the brain here. We need the brain to fire off very special happy hormones because of the special treats they are eating. No processed treats sold “for dogs,” only real human food.
Treats should be tiny. About the size of a pencil erasure. Have a lot. At least 1 sandwich bag FULL. Have 3 different bags of treats when possible to add more excitement. This creates more training for less repetition in the long run.
For this week, I want you to find threshold for your dog. This can be in the car, through a window in the house, inside the house in relation to guests or the tv, or outside the house. Working students please send be video of this! Don’t be afraid if you’re not sure if you are under threshold. Just post where you are and I’ll help you. Again use caution and keep all participants safe!
Also practice the name game daily. Feel free to post your progress with it if you want.
For those thinking about working with a muzzle, here is the video.
Be sure to offer tasty food through the muzzle and then when they offer to place their face in it. Do not place it on your dog’s face. Saga in the video is initially unsure but later offers to hold and chin rest in the muzzle because she has no bad association from this session. This is what you want to see from your dog as well. Just simple happy eating and curiosity.