When in doubt… stuff their face! - The Popcorn Game
If you have taken one of my classes on CouchWolves.com or you have taken private lessons with me, you’re probably familiar with the Popcorn Game. But if you’re reading this because you’ve never heard of it, that's absolutely perfect because today I am going to explain it.
Simply put, the Popcorn Game is generally the missing piece of most training situations. You apply it to most situations where you can’t get your dog’s attention and it bridges the gap between old behavior and new behavior. It assists in fixing aggression, reactivity, over-arousal, overexcitement, selective hearing, stubborn disregard for commands and much more! It’s the “Veg-O-Matic” of training techniques (I’m so dating myself here).
So what is this mystery technique I have never heard of and why is it so effective?
To understand the Popcorn Game, let me give you a visual:
This is where the name was born. The Popcorn Game dials back reaction into calm observation and with practice, shifts your dog into a place where they really don’t care anymore and are able to focus on your wants and needs instead. Pretty cool huh!?!
The Popcorn Game works very simply on the premise of desensitization. Using food, while watching a trigger/distraction, we are literally rewiring the dog’s emotional association with the trigger. When high-value food is inserted into the mouth and consumed, whatever the dog is perceiving gets those happy hormones attached to it.
There are some nuances that come with the Popcorn game so I don’t recommend running outside to find your dog’s worst enemy, armed with a fist full of steak. There are a few other things that must be taken into consideration when finding the right therapeutic setting for the Popcorn Game. Distance from the trigger is very important. Safety doubly so.
How did you “create” the Popcorn Game?
To be fair I created the analogy. Desensitization techniques were originally developed in 1947 by Joseph Wolpe so I take no credit here. But the reason I am so vocal and insistent about focusing on it independently of other techniques is because most trainers forget it, skip over it, or incorporate alternative counter conditioning behaviors without enough desensitization.
I began focusing on desensitization in a pure form because all the other methods were failing my own dogs and I was committed to finding a solution that worked, was founded in science, and was fear/force/pain free. Once I implemented strict desensitization into my own dog’s training protocols, all other training in their background became stronger, distractions diminished, and reactivity and aggression were erased.
So how can I use the Popcorn Game?
If you want to play around with the Popcorn Game you have to do so carefully and considerately. If you are using a live distraction or trigger you have to ensure that it’s safety and wellbeing are secure. This may mean 1 or more leashes on your dog, a barrier like a fence, a muzzle, or a window, and proper assistance is necessary. No one should ever be at risk of injury, be it distractor, trigger, helper, or the learner (dog).
Once everyone is safe, you’ll need to find a therapeutic distance from the trigger/distraction. We call this “working distance”. Working distance should be close enough that your dog pays mild, passive attention to the trigger and is still calm and comfortable enough to eat high value treats. If your dog is pulling, straining, barking, or lunging, you are much too close to the trigger. You want your dog to be able to stand still (without being told to or restrained) and watch the trigger for at least 10 seconds without reaction. This is a good working distance. This could be anywhere from 10ft or 250ft+ away from a trigger.
Once you have achieved working distance, every time they set eyes on the trigger, stuff their face! What I mean is put a piece of food into their mouth. Do not turn them away, or around to you to get the food. Their face should never move.
If after a repetition your dog says “OH! You have awesome food!!” and turns to face you, calmly watch the trigger and keep an eye on your dog in your peripheral vision. This will encourage your dog to look at the trigger again. This is very normal and a good sign, but don’t feed them for looking at you right now. That is for MUCH later. If they insist on looking at you, or they start offering other behaviors, move 2-5 feet closer to the trigger. However never get close enough for your dog to reach the trigger if there is any risk of aggression.
If at any time your dog begins to lunge, jump up, bite the leash, bark, or otherwise get obsessed or sucked into trying to get to the trigger, move back (increase distance) 5-10+ feet and restart. Keep sessions short. 10-15 minutes max with breaks every 20 or so treats. Keep treats tiny too. The size of a pencil erasure.
The food will make your dog much calmer. As this happens, move slowly move closer. Once they are within 20 feet of a trigger, you can start counter-conditioning training in addition. But that’s for another day and another blog.
So remember friends: When in doubt… stuff their face!
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