I talk quite a bit about acclimation and teaching dogs to opt in to work via engagement training. I love it! Here’s why.
Once dogs have had their basic curiosity about a working space satisfied they are much more able to focus on what we are doing together. This is especially important for fearful dogs who truly cannot focus if they don’t get their needs met – how can one focus when there might be a tiger hanging out behind the door?
In addition, teaching acclimation and a way to opt in for work is one of the easiest ways to ensure that the dog recognizes that work is a privilege; no one is going to force them to do it. It’s amazing how having choice can allow a dog to recognize how good they have it. Dogs who get regular training with dog friendly techniques? Continuous and positive attention from their handler? It’s a good deal – doggy Disneyland! Some dogs have never had an opportunity to recognize that, because their handlers keep dragging them to Disneyland. I don’t do that – I train the dog to let me know when they are ready, to the point where they actually demand that we start.
So what’s the problem?
I never intended for dogs to be allowed to walk away from work AFTER STARTING while the handler waits for the dog to come back. Once the work has begun and cues are being given, the expectation is continuous work and that the handler is paying sufficient attention to the dog’s well-being that they don’t push the dog beyond their capacity to remain engaged. The dog must be released from work before the dog is tired of the whole thing – and the handler must do the releasing or, if the dog self-releases, there needs to be a plan.
Allowing dogs to opt in and out of trained work leads to a nightmare situation if you ever try to compete. If the dog pops out of work/focus, then it’s up to you what you do next. I usually call my dog back for a few more seconds of work, and then end the work altogether.
I am not talking about a shaping session where the dog is learning the expectations. I am not talking about an eight week old puppy. I am talking about a trained dog that is being asked to perform work in cued situations. So visualize a dog that has opted in, knows exactly what the expectations are to proceed with work, and checks in and out.
But the point of this blog is not to tell you what to do because that is a long story. This blog is to tell you what not to do! What you do not want to do is sit around waiting for your dog to come back.
What does that mean? It means that I should never see you standing in heel position, waiting for your dog to be ready, while your dog is looking around. Never. Because once the dog shows up in heel position, a sacred space, continuous work must ensue. And if the dog checks out? You need to make a decision. But don’t stand there waiting.
I wish I had provided this clarification earlier because I feel like I have contributed to teaching trainers to allow their dogs continuous freedom and choice. Not only is this bad for your competition goals but it also causes problems for the dog over the long run because of something else I talk about frequently on this blog: a dog’s need for structure, clarity and leadership in novel or potentially stressful environments to allow them to feel strong and confident.
Think about it like this. Acclimation and engagement are trained activities specific to dogs preparing for competition. There are things we look for while we allow the dog to acclimate and expectations that we hold for after the dog opts in, and specific things we do and do not allow once that process is underway. If the dog opts out – you need a plan. I call my dog back to attention, ask for one tiny thing, and then release. Then I have choices (end the session, let the dog look at the “thing” and start work again, etc.). But the dog may not opt in and out at will – while you patiently wait.
On another note, classes and FDSA begin instruction today. check out your options, and get enrolled!