By Dr. Sophia Yin
Download the poster with the Focus Exercises here.
My dog knows how to walk on leash but when he sees a cat that he wants to chase or a dog he doesn’t like, he goes bonkers, lunging and barking, and I can barely control him. I try to use treats to get his attention but it doesn’t work. Is there anything else I should do?
You might think the answer is that if you try treats and they don’t work you should move to a method that’s more severe, such as yanking with a choke chain or pinch collar or something so aversive that it makes the dog want to stop. What you really should do is improve your technique and work at the distance from the distraction where you can keep the reactive Rover focused on you. That means not only rewarding the dog for appropriate behaviors to replace the unwanted ones, but also rewarding quickly enough (within 0.2 seconds). It also means making your body cues clear, and leading the dog to perform exercises in rapid succession so that it’s easy for him to have fun focusing on you rather than finding you boring compared to the environmental distractions. You’ll want to learn to guide your dog through exercises in rapid succession the way a dancer would lead his partner through a series of different steps. No time to pause and figure out what move you should do next or fumble around trying to get the rewards to Rover. You need quick and clear treat delivery technique, to move in ways that provide clear guidance, and to be able to flow right from one exercise to the next fluidly. The more you pause the more you allow your dog to wonder what you want and then lose focus and pay attention to something else.
Changes of Direction
Pattern 1: Repeat sit backwards, change direction by turning 90°-180° and continuing with repeat sits backwards.
In the following exercise, perform repeat sits backwards 3-5 steps, ideally backing up at a speed of about 140 beats per minute (use a metronome) and rewarding your dog on a variable schedule for sitting when you stop. Then after 1-5 repeat sits, change directions 90° in a backwards L or to a backwards U turn and continue with the repeat sits backwards. Backwards exercises are especially good for keeping your dog focused on you. Remember that the goal is that your dog is focused and looking at you while catching up and while sitting.
Pattern 2: Repeat sits backwards, then change direction by turning 90, 180, 270 or 360° and heeling forward.
If your dog heels on your left side, then you should turn clockwise. If your dog heels on the right side, turn counterclockwise. Make sure that when you walk forward, your dog is at a comfortable trot. For most dogs, your pace will need to be 135-140 beats per minute (bpm). You’ll know if you’re going too slowly because your dog will switch between walking and trotting or your dog will just amble. In cases where there are distractions, traveling that slowly allows him to be more interested in other things.
Pattern 3: Heel forward, then change directions by switching to repeat sits backwards 90° (L pattern) or 180°.
The L pattern is simple. Just heel forward and then back up 90° in repeat sits. The 180° turn is trickier because it requires a complete change of direction on your part. You heel forward at a brisk pace (135-140 bpm for most dogs) and then suddenly back up in the direction you came from, ideally at 140 bpm. He should be watching you when heeling forward and he should be used to following quickly after in repeat sits backwards. So this change of direction should be fun and exciting for him.
Pattern 4: Heel forward, then change directions by turning 90°-180° and heel in the new direction.
The exercises involving backwards movement are generally required for the more highly reactive dog and dogs earlier in their stages of training. Exercises where dogs can heel forwards and focus on the owner around distractions should be used only when you know you can keep the dog focused heeling forwards. You can heel forward and then do a 90° turn away from your dog or an about-turn.
Pattern 5: Heel forward and change directions by turning towards the dog either 90° or 180°.
Similar to pattern 4, in this case you’re turning towards the dog. The 90° turn is simple. The 180° turn requires your dog to walk up and down the same line and you to walk up one line and down a separate parallel line.
Pattern 6: Changes in speed—speeding up.
Another method for keeping dogs engaged with and focused on you is with changes of speed. Go from regular focused walking (135 bpm) to a sudden jog of 180 bpm for just 3-5 steps. Then decrease back down to a regular walk.
Pattern 7: Changes in speed—quick stops with repeat sits in heel position.
This exercise works best if you’re walking at 135 bpm and even if you sometimes jog 3-5 steps and then stop. Make sure that you lean backwards when you stop as that motion is the clearest indicator that you are slowing down. If you accidentally lean forwards, your dog will actually walk past you before he realizes he should stop.
Now that you know the patterns, intersperse them into your regular walk with the goal that you can keep your dog focused on you the entire time you work on these. Once he can do these with low distractions, work with him around higher distractions on the walk. In other words, if you see a dog that he might react to, work at a distance from the dog where your technique is good enough to keep him focused on doing the exercise with you rather than on the dog. As you improve, you should be able to graduate from doing more of the backwards exercises to using the easier forward heeling patterns more often.
Stay tuned for the next blog where you will learn how to incorporate these patterns when you need to get by a distraction or let a distraction pass.
Download the poster with the Focus Exercises here.
Dr. Yin passed away in 2014 but her legacy lives on here.