Behavior and emotions are connected
The relationship between behavior and emotions can be very interesting. If you’re happy (emotion), you smile (behavior). More interesting, however, is the fact that if you can only manage to smile (no matter how upset you are), your mood will improve as well.
That doesn’t mean I am going to suggest that we teach angry dogs to wag their tails on cue when they really don’t like something, but there are actually other examples of how we can use this principle to our advantage in dog training. However, I do believe that you could capture a tail wag when your dog is actually happy, put it on cue, and when you ask for a tail wag as a trick, chances are your dog would really be happy when doing the trick.
I have recently started working on heelwork with my puppy Twix. Well he is not really a puppy anymore as he is 19 months, but to me he is still my little pupper do. I noticed that if I worked with Twix on heelwork, he would get so anxious and either bark at me or run ahead of me. For some reason heelwork was frustrating to him. Could it be me? Was I doing something different in my training that was causing him frustration? Was it that he hated heelwork and would rather be chasing a frisbee or running circles around me? It really could be all of the above... If I changed and worked on tricks (fast tricks, jumping tricks, stationary tricks), he would focus back and become the dog that I know. So, I decided that I needed to make some changes. I needed to change his emotional outlook on heelwork, because he was completely out of control and clearly not in a thinking state of mind.
Here is what I did to help my little Twix...
I implemented the following training plan:
- Take him for some play/trick time with some running and frisbee play to get him a little tired before working on heelwork.
- Since he already knew how to find the heel position due to working on rear end awareness on the box. He was ready to work on finding the heel position as I was walking and moving. I turned this into a fun game but clicking him every time he got to my left side and then I would move away again. At first I did not care that he was straight or perfect. I just wanted him to really enjoy finding the heel position.
- Next, I started moving with him in the heel position. I started with one step, if he moved with me, I clicked and rewarded him with a high value food or toy. I made sure to reinforce slightly behind me, since he liked to forge ahead when we worked on this in the past. I wanted that reward to happen behind me and prevent him from wanting to drive forward after the click.
- Once he got really good at moving with me, I noticed that he thought that touching my leg and just about pushing me over was what he thought he was supposed to do. So, I had him touch my hand out and away from my body as we moved and as he was still moving with me, I clicked and treated him for not pushing me over.
- Now it was time to get him to straighten out. I used a wall for this... I positioned Twix in between me and the wall. I did a few games of him standing still next to me, finding the position and then standing still in a calm manner before getting a click and a treat. The heel position was a place of calmness and not a place to bark, jump, run ahead, and be frustrated or anxious in.
- I also started using a variety of rewards. I took a ziplock bag and put cheese, dry kibble dog food, freeze dried raw “Stella and Chewy’s”, and some baked chicken in it. This way he never knew what food reward he would get. I also would sometimes give him food or sometimes reinforce with a toy. I had to be very careful when reinforcing with a toy as that could get him too over aroused, which defeated the purpose. So, if I noticed him getting too excited, then I would just go back to reinforcing with food and possibly even putting the food on the ground when rewarding him. The more I was unpredictable the more he paid attention to me. It was quite a change from how he started out. i.e. before this training plan.
- As he was focused and calm, I would then start to move. When he moved with me calmly, I would click and either feed to his mouth to keep his head up or drop the food on the ground. I eventually want a nice prance and keeping his head up will also get his feet to come up into a prance. However at this time it is more important to me that he remains calm.
- Eventually I would move forward, backward, have him turn toward me and face me as I walked backward he walked forward. Having him next to the wall really helped him learn to be straight. He loved the randomness of my movement. I think it kept him thinking and wondering what I was going to do next.
- Now I am at the point where we are increasing our criteria by adding more duration before clicks and reinforcement.
A few Training Tips:
- I always quit training while he was still wanting to work and was still having fun.
- If he forged ahead, got over excited, barked, or did anything that was not acceptable, then I would wait for him to calm down and I would click and treat him for calmly finding the heel position. The last thing that I wanted to do was to build in the over aroused, stressed or anxious behavior into the heelwork.
- If I got frustrated for any reason, then I had Twix do something fun that he loved, rewarded him for that behavior and ended the training session. There is no sense in trying to work through frustration. Just take a break and try again later.
Explanation of my training plan
The reason might be obvious, but in case it is not. The reason I felt it was important to only reinforce calm heelwork was to condition a new emotional response to that particular behavior. A response that allowed him to be able to think and not just react.
Why did I chose to place treats on the ground at times? Well emotions and behavior are connected. So, sniffing the ground (for the treat) and being stressed are incompatible (just like being upset and smiling don’t go together). Therefore, by getting Twix to sniff the ground (which is also a calming signal) I was also helping him becoming calmer.
By the way, it’s also great to reward by tossing treats on the ground when you are rewarding the dog for behaving nicely around other dogs, people or things. Then the other dog will think that your dog is giving out calming signals, and so both of them will become calmer. I recommend watching my video “The Surprise Party Game” to help reactive dogs, if that is something you are interested in.
So Far it is working and Twix’s heelwork is really coming along nicely.