I have been engaged in an effort to find an acceptable way to explain to my clients how to provide structure and predictability to their dogs in a way that would make their dogs comfortably willing to abide by human rules. I explained that I’m uncomfortable when such programs invoke the concepts of dominance, “boss”, “alpha”, or even “leadership” — not because those concepts are wrong or unimportant, but because of the meanings and connotations that decades of popular dog writing have attached to these words. I also commented that I was uncomfortable with many of the steps in so called “leadership” programs because they struck me as being based on false ethology and having no real training value once the supposed ethological meaning was stripped away. Not much was left!
I attended the “Control Unleashed” seminar in Portland, Oregon presented by Leslie McDevitt, CPDT, CDBC, a very gifted trainer and behavior consultant from the Philadelphia area. Leslie has worked closely with Karen Overall, one of the leading veterinary behaviorists in the world, and has a strong understanding of brain chemistry. She works mostly with troubled dogs, but also with many sports dogs, including flyball and agility dogs with serious arousal issues. In an earlier blog entry, I reviewed her book (also entitled Control Unleashed) and talked about how good I thought the program was. In addition to the two seminar days, I was able to watch the following day which consisted of private lessons for “not ready for CU” dogs.
Control Unleashed was originally written as a series of articles for Clean Run magazine to help agility competitors with overamped dogs teach their dogs to focus and relax. Most of the dozen dogs at the seminar were competition dogs in agility (one in flyball), and two were non-performance dogs looking for improved life skills. The dogs’ stress reactions ranged from shut down to goofy to frantic. Leslie worked each dog in a series of games designed to promote physical and mental relaxation, calm focus, and the ability to raise and lower arousal with ease. Leslie uses lots of food, but she also makes extremely heavy use of the Premack Principle — the idea that a higher probability behavior will reinforce a lower probability behavior. (Being allowed to chase a ball will reinforce a sit — if you have a ball crazy dog.)
As I watched, it occurred to me that a lot of the CU exercises are what Leslie calls “rule structures” that incorporate into daily life. One lovely example is the reorienting exercise. Leslie suggests that each time you transition to a new space, you have your dog reorient to you. This involves having the dog sit in front of you, make eye contact, and pause. Leslie uses this moment to check the dog’s breathing (stress panting or calm breathing?), attention (calmly looking at handler, or ears swiveling madly about?) and demeanor (cringing? about to explode?). If the dog is not calm and focused, she will pause for some calming work before moving further into the space. She uses this reorienting technique when dogs go out the front door, out of the car, into the classroom, or out of their crate in class. The dogs know it’s coming and soon learn to relax themselves at each predictable transition.
So — the dogs have a rule to follow. It involves exercising self-control, which is always a good thing, especially for dogs with “issues.” It involves self-calming, which is great for dogs that are scared or reactive or just amped. It involves a highly predictable behavior that has them interact and connect with their handler. In short, it provides a highly predictable rule structure *and* valuable learning benefits *and* increased connection and teamwork between dog and person. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?
Control Unleashed is full of rule structures that can be incorporated into daily life with the same benefits. Instead of artificial, arbitrary rules “just to have rules” or imbued with some doubtful ethological benefit (do dogs really think we’re in charge just because we eat first?), these rules actually ease handling and teach the dog useful skills. And they provide a high degree of predictability and give the dog desirable ways to get what he needs.
I love this book so much that I’m considering ordering it in bulk to be able to get it clients fast!