There are a number of exercises you can practice and behaviors you can train to help lower your dog’s arousal level and strengthen their abilities for self-control. The “watch” behavior is an excellent example. It is relatively easy to teach, however, watch needs to be practiced and reinforced a great deal, initially with no or low distractions, in order for it to be successful out in the world when you need it most. In this post I will outline how to teach watch, practice it, and apply it to everyday life.
Using the “watch” behavior can be very useful, especially if you are dealing an adolescent or reactive dog. When a dog learns to look at his handler (directly) on cue it means the dog is no longer looking at another object (stimulus) that might cause him to get aroused. By using an incompatible behavior, watching you, your dog cannot also be staring at something he’s prone to react to.
TEACHING THE “WATCH”
In a non-distracting environment, no other dogs or activities going on take a very yummy treat and hold it right up to your dog’s nose. Before he grabs for it raise the treat up to your nose and pause for a moment or two. As long as your dog looks toward your face mark the behavior (with a click or “yes”) and give the treat to your dog. Note: you should not move your hand until after you have marked the behavior! You can use verbal praise as you deliver the treat.
You will not be adding the word “watch” yet, because your dog doesn’t understand the behavior, so the word would not have meaning or context.
If you are wondering why you would mark the behavior of looking at your face vs. looking in your eyes it’s because some dogs are not comfortable offering direct eye contact. This is because direct eye contact can be confrontational, especially in dog-to-dog interactions. You will want to pace your training based on your dog’s confidence and comfort level with the exercise.
As your dog gets more comfortable looking directly at you, gradually extend the amount of time your dog holds your gaze before you mark the behavior i.e. count to three and then mark the behavior and give the treat. If your dog looks away before the full count to three just say “oops” and restart the behavior. Now that your dog is looking in your eyes you can add the verbal cue “watch”. To introduce the word you will say it just before you present the treat in front of your dog’s nose.
Once your dog is consistently looking at you when you raise the treat to your nose, you can make the exercise harder by using both hands. Have a treat in each hand, place both hands/treats at your dog’s nose, then raise both hands to your nose, and now separate your hands to the left and right. Your dog may look from left to right (or vice versa), the moment your dog looks in your eyes, even for a nanosecond, mark the behavior and give the treat. This will help him understand that it’s eye contact you are looking for.
Practice this for several days in a non-distracting environment and reinforce generously every time your dog looks at you when you say “watch”. Try to make it into a fun game. When your dog’s just hanging out and not paying any attention to you say “Dog’s name watch” and mark the moment he turns his head toward you and shower him with treats, praise and/or have an unexpected play session.
Now that your dog understands how rewarding it is to look at you when you say “watch” it’s time to start using it in the real world. For our example we’ll assume the dog’s issue is a desire to chase cars as they drive by. You will want to pick a training location that is close enough to periodic traffic that you will have a chance to train but not so close or with so much traffic that your dog gets over stimulated/threshold*.
Preparations for training:
• You’ve selected a training area perhaps at a local park or near an intersection in your neighborhood where you can safely be away from the traffic as you gradually refine your new skill.
• Your dog has been well exercised.
• Your dog is hungry.
• You have lots of tasty treats.
As you approach the training location with your dog keep an eye out for traffic. The moment you see a car approaching you will ask your dog to watch, do not wait until the car is near you, that will be too late. Position your body so that when your dog looks at you he is also looking AWAY from the oncoming vehicle. As your dog turns to look at you mark the behavior and give several treats. Continue feeding your dog as the car passes by. If your dog was successful, stop feeding once the car has passed you and ask your dog for another behavior like a sit or down and reward that calm behavior. If your dog was not successful it’s likely you were too close to the road and the vehicle. Next time try to be at least an additional 10 feet away, continue to add distance until your dog is able to be successful.
Continue working in this same location until your dog is giving you a quick watch at least 8 out of 10 times you ask for it, and is able to be calm throughout the training session. Once you have achieved this level of success in the initial training location you can try a new setting. If your dog regresses in the new setting don’t be discouraged. Dogs do not generalize well and your dog may just need you to take it more slowly. Add more distance between you and the traffic and continue the training as you did in your original location.
Good luck 🙂
* Threshold — The point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced. Merriam-Webster.
TEST 4: OUT FOR A WALK (WALKING ON A LOOSE LEASH)
Loose leash walking (LLW) is a real challenge for a lot of dogs & handlers. Why do dogs pull on leash? Probably the #1 reason why dogs pull is that it works! Scenario: Dog pulls handler follows, dog gets to go where he wants to. From the dog’s perspective, what’s not to love!
So, how do you modify this behavior? When you first start out you might find it helpful to use a training aid i.e. a no pull harness or head halter (see my earlier post “Collars and other equipment” for more information). The reason for this is that if your dog doesn’t practice pulling it will be easier to teach him what you expect/want which is loose leash walking.
Set yourself up for success: start your training in a low distraction environment, make sure your dog has already been well exercised (at this stage LLW is not meant for exercise), have lots of tasty training treats in your pocket and allocate sufficient time to allow yourself to be successful i.e. don’t start LLW if you only have a few minutes to practice. Start off by folding up your leash so that your dog only has about 3 foot of leash to work with — LLW can be done on 3′ (unless you have a very short dog). If you give your dog too much leash he’ll have a greater opportunity to pull. Hold your leash in one hand and have your treats in the opposite hand. Your dog should be/walk on the same side where you’re holding your treats — yes your leash is crossing your body. Bend over if needed and place a treat just in front of your dog’s nose and give him a cue, something like “let’s go” and take 2 or 3 steps. If your dog’s walking right with you use your Marker (see earlier post as reference: Positive Reinforcement Training and using a Marker) and stop & give him a treat. Continue stopping & reinforcing your dog every 2 or 3 steps. Set a goal for yourself, can you get 50 feet without your dog pulling? If so Yippee! Practice at this distance and rate of reinforcement several times a day if possible for about a week, all with low distractions.
If your dog starts to pull STOP your forward progress — be a tree. Your dog will likely turn back and look at you like “Is there a problem?” at which point you can coax him back to your side, with a treat if necessary and then start again. If your dog doesn’t turn back they will likely sit, if necessary say their name and proceed as if they had turned back to you.
The key is consistency. Dogs live wonderfully on random reinforcement, so if you aren’t consistent and let them pull sometimes then they will continue trying to pull. However, your dog will not be able to LLW all the time. Longer duration LLW is something you will work up to. So make sure you set the stage for LLW with these steps: shorten your leash, have treats ready in your hand (on the same side as your dog), use your cue word “let’s go”, reinforce every 2 or 3 steps and don’t go more than 50 to 100 feet at a time.
LLW is VERY hard for many dogs, so make sure you lay a good solid foundation. Once your dog is walking well with you as outlined above, see if you can raise your hand (away from your dog’s nose) and carry the treat tucked in your hand at waist level. Continue to mark the good LLW behavior every 2 to 4 steps stopping and bringing the food down to your dog’s nose, or dropping it on the ground. (If your dog starts jumping just wait him out and only mark his behavior when all 4 feet are on the ground — it sometimes takes a lot of patience.)
Only when your dog is successful at this last step do you want to add distractions. Perhaps trying LLW in the back yard, even squirrels will provide significant distraction at first. Increase your rate of reinforcement and reduce the distance you travel when you add distractions.
Once your dog is LLW well you can start to use “life rewards” like “go sniff” as reward, alternating between that and tasty treats.
Now you should be on your way to having fun walks with your dog. Wishing you much success on your walks 🙂