A couple of weeks ago one of my dog training clients noted that her dog was “freaking out” at a neighbor’s Halloween ghost decorations that were attached to a tree and moving with the wind. My thought was, “What a great training opportunity.”
Puppies go through a socialization period of between 8 and 12 to 14 and maybe even 16 weeks of age. That’s when it’s good to expose them to different people, various sights such as busses, trains, a crowd, and sounds such as a fire truck, thunder, and an overhead speaker in a big box store for instance. Trainers and owners socialize their dogs in this manner so the dogs see these as good things in their everyday environment and aren’t scared of them.
But Halloween only comes once a year and many dogs, such as my client's dog, have already gone through that critical socialization period by the time the yearly observance rolls around.
Large inflatable decorations or decorations that move with the wind can be scary for some dogs. So what do you do when your neighborhood is decked out in scary decorations?
The method I use to teach clients to help their dogs not be afraid of Halloween decorations can also be used if the dog is reactive to other dogs on a walk. It’s called “Look At That” (LAT).
Look At That rewards the dog for being calm when he looks at another dog, for example. These are the steps I teach:
1. Find an object like a toy or water bowl (I use a blue one because dogs can see blue).
2. With the dog standing or sitting in front of you, hold the object behind your back. Bring it out to the side and say “Look at that.” When the dog looks at the object say “yes”, “good dog”, or whatever your marker word is and give him a treat.
3. Repeat this until the dog looks at the object and then looks back at you. Then reward when the dog looks at you. If the dog stares at the object, bring the object toward your eyes until the dog looks at you. Then use your marker word and reward.
4. After you’ve practiced in several rooms of your home, you’re ready to take LAT on the road.
5. Get really high value treats such as string cheese, meatballs, hotdogs, etc. whatever the dog will do anything to get as a reward. If your dog doesn’t work for treats or is on a limited diet, use a tug toy to reward him.
6. Head outside and go for a walk. When your dog sees another dog or a decoration and looks CALMLY at the object, you can say your marker word. The dog will then turn his head around to look at you and you can give him a treat. You don’t need to say “Look at that” at this point because he’s already looking at the object.
7. When he looks at the object again and remains calm, repeat the marker word at give him a treat of have a short tugging session. You can do this a couple of times and then move on. Make sure you are calm while doing this exercise because any tension you have will travel down the leash to your dog.
Try to have a large distance between your dog and the object if possible. Many times the closer the object gets to your dog, the harder it is for your dog to remain calm. You can move closer over time.
But what happens if a cat jumps in front of you and scares you and your dog or if the other dog is too close and your dog begins to react?
I like to use the word “retreat” because it has the word “treat” in it and most dogs know what that means. As soon as your dog begins to react, say “retreat” and happily move for dog away as far as is comfortable from the object. Begin playing with your dog if you have a tug toy or you can drop several treats on the ground and have them “go search”. Then when the other dog passes or your dog regains your composure, you can continue on your walk.
What we’re doing is changing the dog’s feeling toward the other dog, scary Halloween decoration, or whatever your dog focuses on that results in lunging, barking, etc. The object is to have the dog focus on you rather than the object in the distance.
In time, when your dog sees another dog, he will look toward you for a reward and praise instead of lunging or barking. After a number of successes you can decrease the number of treats over time if you like and have your dog work for praise and petting.
Back to the story. . .when the owner and I tried this exercise, her dog walked over to investigate the ghosts and even touched them with his nose! She’s since reported he’s seen other decorations in the neighborhood and has become comfortable with them as well.
Do you have a reactive dog? Try this exercise and let me know how it works for you.
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