In high school, I played on the varsity squash team. Squash is not widely played in the United States, so many readers won’t be familiar with it. It bears some resemblance to handball, though it is several centuries older, and the court has foul zones, so accuracy is required. Players on the indoor court use racquets the same length as tennis racquets, but with smaller heads. The ball is small, well under two inches in diameter, and one must have good hand-eye coordination to hit the ball reliably and well.
In the last half-century, a single Pakistani family has supplied numerous top players to the sport. Hashim Khan, the the most influential of the multitudinous talented Khans, wrote a small booklet about playing squash. The following advice therefrom is burned into my brain:
“Keep eye on ball. Is one most important thing I tell you.”
Anyone who plays a ball game knows how important this is — “keep your eye on the ball” is a standard metaphor for staying focused on what is important. In doing behavior modification with our dogs, what is important is our dog!
Anyone with a reactive dog tends to do what the dog does: Scan the environment for triggers. If we can see the dog, the squirrel, the bicycle first, we can head off the big reaction (we hope). We spend a lot of time dodging stuff. When I bring my dog to help a client’s dog learn an alternative behavior around strange dogs, my clients generally have a hard time taking their eyes off my dog, because they are used to needing to monitor the behavior of the trigger. (Or possibly they are just admiring my very beautiful and talented dog… but I digress!)
Part of each training session involves reminders and practice in the client keeping their eyes on their own dog. Not mine. Their dog will tell them everything they need to know. Can their dog take food? Can he reorient toward his owner? Then he is in good working order. Is he chomping fingers and unable to turn his head? Too close. “Too close” is not a number of feet — it is defined entirely by our dog’s behavior, by his ability to cope equitably with the stimulus. Get in the habit of watching your dog, especially his head. For the most part everything else is secondary.
Now, you do need to look around. You need to not walk into a telephone post or rose bush. You might spot triggers before your dog does. You need situational awareness to function well. But if you do not keep much of your attention actively on your dog, you are going to overshoot, or undershoot, or miss warnings, or punish good behavior, or reward undesired behavior. With practice, you will learn some key indicators that your particular dog shows. It might be an ear position, or a tail position, or a weight shift. Some dogs’ tails telegraph their mental states with complete accuracy; others’ tails are uninformative. You’ll learn what specifically to watch and what you can relegate to peripheral attention, just as you do when driving. With some practice, then, you can do both — maintain contact with the environment so you can walk safely and anticipate trouble, and keep steady attention on your dog’s key indicators. But without that attention to your dog, there is no way to avoid blowing it.
Keep eye on dog! Is one most important thing I tell you.