How to Teach a Dog to Check-in

Strategically positioning your body in-between your dog and a distraction can help to de-escalate your dog in moments that they are experiencing higher levels of excitement or stress. Consider this: trainers that are training dogs for police or protection work will generally use back clip harnesses and position themselves behind the dog to fuel barking and lunging behavior desired for protection training. Many pet owners unwittingly do the same, without understanding that this is actually making reactive behavior worse. Restraining your dog in this way creates oppositional pressure on the leash which fuels reactivity. It is for this reason that we are using a front clip harness. Standing between your dog and distractions will naturally prompt attention from some dogs. Regardless of whether or not this behavior comes naturally we will fortify this behavior by training the desired response in much the same way that we would train a sit, by reinforcing the desired behavior. While we will ultimately want to work up to high level distractions like dogs or skateboarders, or whatever your dog’s particular challenges may be, we will start this exercise with a controlled distraction – food. When first training this behavior we will want to use a food distraction that is of lesser or equal value to the food that is being used to reinforce the desired behavior.

You will not need the mat, so you can roll it up and put it away at this time. You are going to need two strips of food and your dog should already be on a front clip harness and leash from the previous exercise. One piece of food will be used as a distraction and the other for reinforcement. Start off so that your dog is standing in front of you with a few inches of slack on the leash. Hold the leash in your left hand and take one strip of food with your right hand and drop it to your side, approximately 3 feet behind you. The goal here is to teach your dog to check in when there is something in the environment that catches his attention. Here’s how we’re going to do it. When your dog starts to move towards the food, you are going to step in front of your dog and create steady tension on the leash to restrict access to the food that’s fallen on the ground. If your dog shifts focus from the food on the ground back in your general direction you are going to mark, by saying “yes!” and reinforce. If your dog gets “stuck” and remains fixated on the food that is lying on the ground you are going to maintain steady tension on the leash and then make a slight kissy sound to get his attention. The moment that he shifts his focus back to you, mark by saying “yes!” and reinforce.If your dog maintains focus you can can reinforce for duration of attention at a 4 second intervals of time or sooner if your dog looks at the distraction and checks back in with you. If he attempts to move towards the food, use your body and steady tension on the leash to restrict access to the food that has been thrown on the ground, and once again, mark and reinforce as soon as he moves his attention back in your general direction. Last but not least, you will need to give your dog a few inches of slack on the leash the very moment he shifts his focus back to you and away from the food distraction that has been tossed on the ground. Now shorten your leash, create a stiff arm, pick up the piece of food lying on the ground and you will proceed to do a second drop. I want to emphasize the fact that at no point in this exercise does have to sit. If your dog defaults to a sit, that’s not a problem, but it’s desirable, whenever possible to build value for calm, controlled behavior in a stand as standing will be more practical in most real life situations. It is also ok if your dog is not offering perfect eye contact. Eye contact will come organically as you work through the exercises each week, your dog will be learning to look to your hand gestures, body language and facial expressions for information about what to do next. Don’t try to force something that isn’t coming naturally. Make sure that you are setting yourself and your dog up for success. [Show After Effects with Invisible Boundary Line] There should be a minimum of 2-3 feet between your dog and the restricted food at any given time. [Show After Effects with Invisible Boundary Line] Avoid the temptation to test your dog by dropping the food closer, or by doing this exercise without the assistance of harness and leash. If your dog ever decides to “go for it” and gets the food, he will start to look for loopholes. It’s not necessary to test your dog in this way, and it can lead to unnecessary issues in training. You will ultimately do four drops total. It’s important to do multiple drops because the moment that the food “falls from the sky” is arguably the most challenging moment for your dog. Repetition of this exercise will teach your dog to have better impulse control, it will also teach you how to be more effective at handling the leash. You are going to do 4 drops total in each training session.

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