Recently I was talking with a group of people about how I trained my neighbor’s free-roaming dog not to come through her gate and harass me and my dog.
First I tried talking nicely to the dog. That had no effect.
Second, I tried crossing the street. That seemed promising until I almost got her hit by a car. I don’t want that.
Third, I went and talked to the owner. I was perfectly calm. I discovered that the owner is about 80+ years old and clueless. I recognized that the conversation was going nowhere so I gave up on that option.
Finally, I decided to train the dog using a pressure release system.
Someone is going to want to understand what I did, so here it is in a nutshell: Turn and face directly and verbally harass, move forward until the dog looked at me – stop verbal harassment with the mutual eye contact. Hard eye contact and frontal pressure until the dog backed off; stop hard eye contact and frontal pressure when the dog backed off. Within a couple of days she was charging but looking at me- at that point standing still and staring was enough to stop her. Wait a few seconds with the pressure on, and she would turn and leave – remove pressure and move on myself. I continued on this path until just a slight turn in her direction would cause her to stop, turn and move away from me.
In effect, when she did what I wanted, I released the “biggest” source of pressure. For example, eye contact with me released the verbal pressure. Turning away released the physical pressure. Walking off caused me to move on. After a couple of weeks, it was done. I have no issues walking by that house anymore. She starts to charge; I briefly turn and look at her and she recognizes me – and she moves off.
After I explained this basic procedure, a series of questions followed. “Would it work if…” and then a range of scenarios….enthusiastic dog, truly aggressive dog, different breeds of dog, if my dog were reactive, etc. and the thing I came to realize is that it all boils down to one thing – are YOU on the dog’s radar? The one that you want to influence with your presence? So let’s talk about that because at the end of the day, no training can take place with a dog if the dog doesn’t even know that you exist. It doesn’t matter if it’s your dog or your neighbor’s dog – you have to register on the radar. Training comes after.
If the dog is hyper-focused on your dog and oblivious to you? You cannot train that dog. If it’s your own dog and it’s behaving aggressively towards something “out there” with no awareness of you? You cannot train your own dog. If the dog is super excited about something; anything – your own dog or someone else’s, and it is throwing itself in that direction? You cannot train that dog either. If you’re not on the radar, you’re powerless.
You have no influence until the dog has registered your existence. Your own dog. Your friend’s dog. Your neighbor’s dog. Incidentally, this is just as true of people; trying to instruct or interact with another who is oblivious to you isn’t going to work. At best it will make you irritable and at worst it will ruin your self-esteem, so you might as well stop trying; get on the radar first and worry about the goal of the interaction later.
But…that’s not enough! Not only do you need to show up on the radar, you need to show up the right amount, depending on what you want next.
In some cases, you want to be the center. 100%! That is the level of engagement most of us want when we are training a skill like heeling, where we really do want the dog oblivious to most everything.
But how about a sport like agility, protection or herding, where you need the dog multitasking and splitting their attention between you and something else which is specific and “out there”, like equipment or livestock? The handler still needs to be on the radar but not smack dab in the center. Now we want the split to be something like 50/50% – specific to you and the equipment/livestock, but not inclusive of the environment.
And how about a service dog? The dog may need to be working all day long with you clearly on the radar, but resting most of the time in order not to become exhausted. In that case, the dog needs to be able to turn on and off as needed; always slightly aware of you and the general environment but without the energy draining focus of many dog sports.
How about basic behavior in life and within your household? I’m pretty sure my dogs always know where I am in the house. I register for them, but as a fringe element. And as a result, I can quickly and easily influence their behavior (call them to me, ask them to go outside, etc.) as needed.
In most discussions of training, we’re talking about being the center of focus – the center of the radar. We talk about focus training and engagement and we work hard to gain a huge amount of value to our dogs so that we have most or all of their mental energy.
But life is much more than structured training, and being ‘somewhere on the radar,’ is important because your dog will develop a habit of considering your opinion (and support) when making random life choices. It’s just like a person! if I am aware that one of my family members is sleeping, studying or talking on the phone somewhere in the house, I will make an effort to be a little quieter….and if I think a strange person is trying to break into my house? My first thought is going to be…who else is in the house? That will influence what happens next. And my dogs? Very likely the same. While I doubt it occurs to them to be quiet when I’m on the phone, I am quite sure that if someone were trying to break in, they would behave differently if I were home than if not. Should they let me know a stranger is trying to enter or act on their own volition? If I’m not on the radar, that wouldn’t be a part of the equation, which would be quite unfortunate.
It matters that your dog knows they can turn to you if they are unsure – you’re on the radar. It matters if your dog is aware that you have an opinion about their behavior in public or in the house – it will gain you natural cooperation even when you have nothing tangible to give. It also matters because it’s the basis of relationship; not the cookies or corrections or training or many other things that are a very minor part of the actual minutes of life.
It also matters that both the dog and the handler can shift their focus so that the “other” is sometimes at the center of the radar and sometimes on the periphery, but always there…
This relationship….the more you exist somewhere on the radar most of the time, the more relationship you have. It may be a positive relationship or it may be otherwise, but it’s an awareness of…the first step before considering whether or not to take the “others” opinions, power or support into account. How much you’re on the radar at any given time is strictly contextual; more is not better. Just ‘enough’ so that awareness can skyrocket to 100% – if that becomes appropriate.
Too much you on the radar and your dog will miss the world – and maybe they need to be seeing the world! For example, a dog working on problematic reactivity that is staring at you isn’t learning anything useful. But how about too little? A dog working on reactivity that isn’t aware of you may well miss what you have to offer in terms of support or education!
If you find that your dog is struggling with you in training or in general life or in behavior training, check how much each of you is on the radar for the other.
In a future blog, I’ll talk about how much you might want to adjust your presence on the radar under different circumstances, and how you might change your behavior to get there.