The key is keeping your dog under threshold while you work.
Imagine a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 means your dog is calm, cool, and collected, and 10 means your dog is lunging and crazy to go eat/sniff/play with/kill the thing that has him all wound up. Ideally, we train when your dog is at level 2 or 3. At this point, your dog sees the trigger and is interested, but not yet moving towards it or vocalizing. If your dog is moving towards the trigger or vocalizing, he is too high on the scale and you should use some of your management games (Back-Away Game, Focus Game, Tricks) to get some distance between you and the trigger.
When your dog acknowledges the trigger
hen your dog alerts to the trigger, listens for, looks for (maybe the dog or person or squirrel was there, but left), feed your dog. YOUR DOG DOES NOT HAVE TO LOOK AT YOU! This is the biggest mistake people make. This game is all about your dog and the trigger, not about us. If you reward your dog looking at you, you are actually teaching your dog to just ignore the trigger, which is a handy management tool, but it does not fix the root problem.
That’s it in a nutshell. When your dog alerts to the trigger, feed your dog. Repeat. If your dog is not taking the cookies, and you are sure you are using something of high value, it means your dog is over threshold and is too high on that scale. Use your management games to move him away from the trigger.
After a few reps
Once you’ve delivered up to 10 treats, or fewer if your dog starts to go over threshold, use your management games to get your dog away from the trigger. Then trot him out a bit, ask him to go sniff the grass or pee on a tree, or play tug if he will play. Do something to get your dog moving and relaxed. Many dogs will shake off the stress or pee on a tree at this time to diffuse the tension. Now you can go back towards the trigger and repeat!
So how does this actually work??? Why don’t we just punish the dog for bad behaviour?
By giving your dog an awesome treat in the presence of a trigger, but when your dog is under threshold, you are creating a ‘conditioned emotional response’, or as us behaviour geeks say, ‘CEU’.
Imagine you are afraid of spiders. If I left you in the kitchen, filled with 20 tarantulas, and tried to teach you how to cook quiche, we probably would not be very successful. You would not be in a good mind set to learn or think about anything really. Imagine I yelled at you, or yanked on your neck, or gave you an electric shock. Now do you feel like cooking quiche? This is why shock collars and corrections of any kind do not work for reactive dogs.
Instead, imagine I take you to a huge field. Waaaay off in the distance, you notice what you think is a spider. I give you some cheesecake. You eat the cheesecake, then look for the spider. You get more cheesecake. You are happy to eat the cheesecake because you know the spider is way too far away to be of any danger. Eventually, as we play this game more and more, you will start looking for spiders in anticipation of cheesecake, instead of in panic. The more we play, the closer you will be able to be to that spider. This is counter-conditioning the dog’s current emotional response to a trigger.
For those of you with the happy go lucky dog or the dog with a high prey drive, this game teaches your dog to be calm and relaxed in the presence of the other dogs or squirrels etc.
You can learn a lot more about this technique by reading “Control Unleashed”.