Some time ago I started experimenting with incorporating circles into loose leash walking training. I asked everyone I could get my hands on to try it, tell me what happened, and to show me videos whenever possible. When I felt confident about what I was seeing then I pulled together a more formal method, created a webinar, and started teaching the circling method of loose leash walking online. Excellent! If you want to learn about circles for LLW, you can join me for my webinar on May 23rd. It sold out the first two times it was offered, so if you’re seriously interested then I suggest signing up sooner rather than later.
But wait, there’s more! Dog trainers began to report that as a result of incorporating circles on their walks there was an even bigger change than whether or not the dog pulled on the leash. Specifically, their dog’s reactivity went down. And not just a little bit down but a lot. And not over weeks and months, but over days. And it was working for their students too, even people who could barely figure out how to teach their dogs to sit, let alone manage reactivity.
I started to pay careful attention to cause and effect across a wide range of dogs and handlers. I asked questions. I requested videos and watched the results. I gave feedback and I observed changes – for better and for worse! I created factors to test and often moved two steps forward and one step backward. Slowly, I am finding my way to better understand working with dogs showing reactive behavior by incorporating circling into their training and walks.
But that’s not what this post is about.
This post is about integrating what I already know about working with reactive dogs. I am reasonably familiar with Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed, Grisha Stewart’s BAT, Amy Cook’s Play Way, and basic DS/CC (desensitization and counterconditioning) from the traditional behavior model. All excellent methods with a good deal to offer us as trainers!
Now, as I feel I am getting a better understanding of the circling method and when, why and how it seems to work most effectively, I want to move towards integrating those methods for individual dogs in individual circumstances. Should a given dog be moving or still? Should the distances be increased or decreased? How much should the handler be involved anyway? And…food….always the question of food. To add food to the process or not. And once again – When? Why? How often?
When you learn new things, don’t walk away from what you learned in the past, or soon you’ll be the guy with a hammer where everything looks like a nail. Instead, Integrate! See if you can mold an even better individually tailored approach – for the right dog with the right handler at the right time.
So that’s my plan. Continue to watch reactive and over aroused dogs. What happens if? That is the question to look at and to test against as many factors and across as many dogs as I can create a chance to observe.
This is how I worked through Brito’s over-arousal around horses. It took about a week. The first horse he saw at about 100 yards and he reacted strongly – probably fear and excitement and maybe a bit of Terrier anger too. And over the next week and maybe 10 different horses, I got him to the point where he could stand quietly while I chatted with an equestrian with no reaction at all.
So how did I do it? Primarily I used my Loose Leash Walking circles – I kept him moving and circling rather than allowing him to stare, because staring leads Brito to bad choices. But that’s not all I did. I used food too; Leslie McDevitt’s “Look at that” game helped me point out the horses before they were too close so that I could add in my circles at the right distances. I used the BAT principle of self direction – when Brito was calm he was welcome to lead the direction of travel. And I used personal reassurance, light play and calm observation when I thought those were the right answer, from Amy Cook’s social play approach. Now walks are a chance to see new things, play with mom, hunt lizards and eat a few cookies. What’s not to love?
The art of integration. Thinking in this manner, you are more likely to learn new things and add dramatically to your skill base, whether dog training, horses, art, gardening, or whatever might interest you. Rarely is there a right or a wrong approach. Instead, look for a good approach for the circumstances, integrate that with all that you know, and recognize that other combinations may well have worked just as well.