There you are, minding your own business walking your dog – who just happens to be environmentally sensitive and prone to emotional outbursts to certain triggers. The sun is high, a mild breeze is playing around and everything in your world is rosy until you turn a corner and find…
Cujo and his owner, Mr. Weird-Smyth, coming the other way – and they’re FAR too close for comfort! Uh oh…
time to PANIC!
Actually no. That’s not the best response. Read on to find out a much more proactive way of dealing with these panic-inducing situations.
When you have a reactive dog it’s sometimes necessary to remove yourself (and your dog) from a potentially nasty situation. Stuff happens and real life isn’t totally predictable or controllable. Sooner or later you’ll suddenly find yourself with a dog on his toes and very little distance between him and his target/nightmare. Your best bet is to exit the situation quickly, calmly and safely. The Emergency U-turn is one very effective way to do it.
Teaching the move
Teach the move at home in a quiet place. Once it’s fluent for you both (and any other handler who may need it) move on to practicing in the yard, then on the street and in the park. Practice until you could do it in your sleep! We want your dog to give a ‘thoughtless’ automatic response to your signal and that will ONLY happen with bucket loads of repetition.
By ‘bucket loads’, I mean hundreds and hundreds of reps. Think of how long it took you to be able to steer your car without thinking about it. Or, if you drive a manual, shift gears smoothly. How long did it take you to be able to use your latest phone or gadget without thought? Now can you understand what I mean by ‘bucket loads’ of practice?
Step 1 – lure the behaviour
Firstly, have your dog on lead next to you on the side he’s usually walked (your left or right). For clarity I shall assume he’s on your left, just reverse the instructions if he’s on your right. Take a piece of food in your left hand. Place it at your dog’s nose and take one step to your right; as if you are planning to pivot on the spot. If your dog makes a move to follow the lure, release the treat to him. Repeat, step by tiny step, until you have turned 180 deg. (So, if you were originally facing north, you should now be facing south.) Take a break – don’t go dizzy! Do the same thing again, only this time ask for two steps before you treat. Repeat but gradually increase the number of steps until you can turn a full 180 using only one piece of food.
Step 2 – add the verbal signal
Now add the verbal ‘turn’ word. Many people like to choose a word or phrase that is the most likely thing for them to say in a moment of near panic! Others like to say something that sounds happy and upbeat and so covers the stress that may be in their voice. Choose something that will roll off the tongue without thought and is easy to remember. My phrase was an expletive so I won’t repeat it here!
To add the verbal signal, have your dog at your side again, say your word/s, count silently “one banana” and then turn in the same way as you have done before – still use your hand to guide your dog round with you. Repeat this process as many times as it takes for your dog to start anticipating the turn on your word/s alone. Remember to keep up the payment; keep it unpredictable but still well worth your dog’s effort.
Here’s a short vide of me teaching 6 month old Mystic the basics of the move. It’s not very clear in the audio, but once I have him turning with me reliably I’m adding ‘let’s go!’ just before I make that turn.
Step 3 – get rid of the lure
Do your 180 turn as before; however, when you halt, reward from the other hand. If your dog refuses to follow your empty hand, make a show (pretence) of taking a treat from your supply and ensure that your hand looks identical when it’s both empty or holding a treat. Making sure that your fingers still have food smell on them can help. If you’re having problems, go back to baby steps but with an empty hand and treat from the other after each step, building to the full 180 in stages. (You can find out more about curing ‘lure dependency’ here.)
Repeat as many times as necessary until your dog is happily following your empty hand as you make a 180 turn and is being rewarded from your other hand. Make this a really fun thing to do by using many good treats as well as thrown toys as rewards if your dog likes them.
Make it automatic
Practice, practice, practice! Have turning 180 your dog’s favourite trick. Try turning and then running for a few steps to excite your dog into wanting to keep up with you. You want the end result to be a VERY rewarding thing for your dog to do: when it happens for real you might both be stressed/excited and paying attention to you may be one of the last things on your dog’s mind! Do the ground work, build it strong and keep it very enjoyable. One day it could avert a nasty situation.
All the best,
~Sarah and the Gang