One of my favorite topics to teach dog owners is “focus and self-control” and it goes hand in hand with K9 conditioning. Slow and controlled movements in specific positions cannot be obtained if your dog is over threshold. Learning to work with a dog under threshold is a puzzle. It is a truly rewarding experience to help a handler see that their dog is able to work under threshold by making a few adjustments to their own movements, props (such as food or toys) and tone of voice.
A few weeks ago while teaching a workshop and I saw a dog that was completely over threshold the minute he came into the room – not focused on the owner, completely focused on the other dogs, at the end of the leash and he wanted ACTION. The owner was being pulled here and there and was trying to get the dog’s attention. I am immediately drawn to this dog as I love a challenge. I continued to teach and watched the handler try to focus the dog without treats or toys with no success. I then went to the handler and asked if the dog liked toys or treats. The answer was “yes” – BINGO. I knew right then I could show this handler a different way to work with his dog. I had a tug in one hand and a few treats in the other. In just a few minutes I was able to get the dog to focus on me – reward alternating between treats and tugging. I got much calmer movement from the dog, a sit stay, and an offering of behavior. Now this isn’t a ‘fix all’ it was a brief moment in time and I used ONE puzzle piece and found a match. Could have easily gone the other way and then I would have had to look for a different clue fit the pieces together.
A more personal example:
I see many handlers (and I was one of them) trying to match their dog’s energy with their own. It is an important lesson to slow down with these dogs and teach them that life is not always full of “action”. When I got Riley at 5.5 mo old he was easily over threshold at the site of other dogs, a toy, or any sort of fun. It was a true challenge to get him to focus and have any ability to settle. I remember being in a “manners class” where I basically tugged with him the entire time to keep his focus on me….hmmm was he focused on me or focused on the tug? What I learned is that moving slow, talking quietly and a tug/release game was very effective in getting my dog to focus on me and what I was asking of him. These were the puzzle pieces I needed to make our training more effective and rewarding. I can now train almost anything with a tug in my hand, but it took work, understanding, and time to try different puzzle pieces until it all came together.
Telling students to SLOW DOWN, giving commands in a soft voice, no cheerleading and reward sparingly has become a daily request of those handlers with dogs who are easily over excited. That said, I truly believe that there is a time for a super happy voice, such as when working with a softer dog that needs more encouragement. But if your dog is easily over threshold, then they do not need that type of inspiration to work and learn. In fact it can hinder the process.
Whether working with my own dogs or a client dog it is truly rewarding to find those puzzle pieces that improve the training process. The examples above will not work for every dog but there are many other things to try. For some dogs food is a super high motivator, for others food will put them over threshold or the dog will not even want food if easily stressed. The same goes for a squeaky toy or a tug toy. For some these tools may work great for focus and for others it will impede or just not improve the process.
There is not a one size fits all answer, that is what makes finding the puzzle pieces so rewarding. My intention in writing this blog is to just encourage those of you that have highly excitable dogs to slow down, take a look and see where the puzzle pieces fit together. This step can teach you so much about your dog and it will improve the success rate of your training as well as improve the relationship between you and your dog.
Bobbie Lyons, CCFT, KPA CPT