Its been a while since I read a really GOOD dog training book … lots of “so-so”, but haven’t read anything I really loved …
Until the other week, when I picked up a copy of Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt. Leslie is an agility competitor, behaviorist and contributing author for Clean Run magazine. She’s a student of animal behavior icon Karen Overall and the book is endorsed by some noteable people in the field, including some of my favorites like Sue Sternberg and Patricia McConnell.
Control Unleashed, which expands on Leslie’s class by the same name, is entertaining and well written with dozens of innovative, scientifically-sound exercises aimed at creating confidence and focus in dogs who are reactive, lose control or shut down due to various environmental stressors and their own inability to relax. They are presented in a logical progression that you can use at home or in a class setting.
For example, one of the techniques presented is a game called “look at that” – where instead of reinforcing a stressed/reactive dog for focus on the handler, she reinforces them for glancing at the source of their anxiety. For example, she clicks dogs who are reactive to strange dogs by clicking them for looking at other dogs.
Doesn’t make sense you say? Well, actually it does, because in teaching them that it’s OK to look, you reduce the uneasiness and insecurity that causes the behavior AND you GET their attention because the dog is also being patterned to glance at the other dog then WILLINGLY turn their focus back to the handler.
This exercise in particular brought a smile of recognition to my face – I can tell you first hand this approach really works!
Years ago, my sheltie Tiffy was the poster child for “reactive dog”, flying off the handle at virtually every change in her environment, from people and dogs to cars passing by. I was grass-green at the time and at first tried addressing it with “obedience” and “corrections” – which of course didn’t work, as they both were just “band-aids” to suppress the behavior without addressing the cause.
When she was 6 years old, Tiffy injured her neck in a freak household accident, from which she eventually recovered about 75% of her mobility but I was told never to use a collar on her again. So my collar corrections went out the window… and my reactive little shark came back.
Glad she was alive but desperate for a way to deal with her outbursts, I read a couple of articles about clicker training and turned up a few others about this behavior-modification process called desensitization. Clicker training was relatively new at the time, there were no internet lists or local mentors to work with, but I didn’t have anything to lose so I decided to give it a try.
My very first clicker-training experiment was clicking and treating Tiffy every time a car passed by the house. I started behind my house where she was barely aware of the cars, gradually moving closer to the street as she learned to cope. By the time I had worked my way to the end of the driveway, I had a dog who would look at a passing car and immediately whip her head back to me to see if it was good enough for a cookie. This took all of about a month to teach, the results lasted the rest of her 15.5 years.
That crazy dog and that silly game made me a clicker convert.
Just one example of the good stuff in this book. If your dog has stress issues or you deal with clients dogs who do … forget that – if you have a DOG, Control Unleashed is a must read!
Four paws up!