“This game is very useful for dogs that are FEARFUL, ANXIOUS, or FRUSTRATED around a specific trigger such as another dog, person, or a sound. The goal is to first decrease the dog’s fear/anxiety/frustration and then to teach the dog a new safe and appropriate behavior to do instead. “ – Alice Tong, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP
Most people are fortunate enough to own a dog that is, for lack of a better word, normal. They seem to get along just fine in life without any major behavioral issues. Sure, they may not come when called or maybe they like to chew on the furniture, but all in all, they’re “good” dogs. Then, there are the special cases. There is a surprising number of dogs who just can’t seem to get along with other dogs while on leash or behind a fence. Other dogs are triggered into hyper-drive by people, children, bikes, or any number of other things. They can go from normal to barking mad in no time! There are as many causes to leash aggression and reactivity as there are dogs in the world, but it is generally caused by one of three things: Fear, Excitement, or underlying Pain/Illness. These reactive dogs are not bad dogs, they just need a little bit of help to get closer to what we call normal.
Most dogs seem to come with a built-in “off” switch and know how to interrupt themselves before getting over excited, while other dogs need our help to learn this self-control. If your dog is getting over excited by their environment, and you have ruled out potential illness as a cause, you can help them learn to cope with their triggers. Engage-Disengage will help you decrease your dog’s excitement and stress level around triggers and will teach your dog how to self-interrupt before they work themselves up. You will first teach your dog to engage the trigger by looking at it or pointing it out. Phase two is where you will teach your dog to disengage from the trigger by looking to you. This game works well when paired with other Positive Reinforcement techniques.
To play this game, you first need to be familiar with what your dog’s triggers are, as well as the distance from these triggers at which they become too excited. We want to make sure we are working with our dog in a zone where they are not so over-aroused that they can’t think! If your dog is ignoring treats, is tense, and/or won’t follow simple cues (such as sit), you are too close and need to move away. Use the following illustration to help determine how aroused your dog is. We want to be working in the Green and Blue zones ONLY.
Fantastic illustration created by Grisha Stewart for her BAT 2.0 protocol. Learn the basics HERE. Behavioral Adjustment Training is also great at helping reactive doggies find peace and balance.
Now that you know what signals to look for in your dog’s body language, we’re ready to get started on how to play the game! Always use caution when working with your dog and NEVER place them in a potentially dangerous situation. If your dog has ever bitten a person or another dog, or you think they might, PLEASE consult a professional before trying this on your own.
- Prepare 3 to 4 types of high value treats for your dog
- Make sure your dog is already conditioned to a verbal marker or a clicker as a marker for correct behavior
- Make sure your dog’s collar or harness are humane and gentle: No choke chains, prong collars, shock collars, or any other equipment designed to “correct” your dog. A simple flat buckle or snap collar, a martingale collar, or a standard front-attach harness will do just fine!
- A leash that is of appropriate strength for your dog – about 1 inch wide is great for almost all dogs. I suggest using a regular leash – no bungee or retractable leashes.
- Practice fast U-turns and other methods of luring your dog away from a distraction
- When you have everything ready, choose a position that is a safe distance away from potential triggers. Usually at least 20 feet away, though some dogs may need more space.
When playing this game, play in about 5 minute increments, then take a break to walk around and let your dog relax. You want your dog to be having a good time while you do this – it is, after all, a game!
Our goal in level one is to reward our dog for ENGAGING their attention with a trigger. Always start a safe distance away from the trigger.
- Be quiet and still while waiting for your dog to notice a trigger. You should allow your dog to just “be a dog” and sniff around, exploring the environment. The only directing you need to do is to simply keep your dog safe distance away from trigger. Otherwise, just follow along with them if they want to explore, or simply stand quietly if they want to stay in one place.
- At the EXACT moment your dog looks at the trigger (ENGAGE), MARK using your clicker or marker word.
- When your dog looks to you, deliver one of you super tasty treats! If your dog is not looking to you after you MARK, then you are too close to the trigger and you need to back away so your dog has more room and start again.
Do this for 3 to 5 successful repetitions with the same trigger at the same distance before moving up to Level Two. A successful repetition is your dog looking to you for the treat after you mark the behavior of ENGAGING the trigger.
In Level Two, we are rewarding our dog for DISENGAGING the trigger by looking back at us! You should begin this level at the same distance from the trigger as Level One.
- Wait for your dog to engage the trigger, then wait 3 to 5 seconds for your dog to DISENGAGE or look away from the trigger on their own. If you dog does not look away after 5 seconds, return to Level One.
- As soon as your dog looks away from the trigger, MARK with your clicker or verbal marker.
- Deliver your tasty treat! If your dog does not look to you for the treat or is reacting to the trigger, move further away and begin again.
Repeat for 3 to 5 successful repetitions. A successful repetition is your dog comfortably disengaging from the trigger on their own. After these 3 to 5 repetitions, you are ready to slowly move 1 to 5 steps closer to the trigger. I suggest moving in very small increments first.
Always be aware of your dog’s body language and never rush to the next step – try to remember your beach diagram from above, or keep it with you to refer to, when you’re evaluating your dog’s state of mind. We are trying to teach our dogs self-control and how to be comfortable around things that send them over the edge. In order to do so, WE must keep them from getting overwhelmed and over excited by their triggers.
Here in Boone, we have a very active dog walking community. The Greenway Trail off of State Farm Road is a great place to practice the Engage-Disengage game! There is LOTS of room to move around (a must have) all dogs are required to be on leash (but keep an eye out for rule breakers!) and there are usually plenty of dogs or people around to act as triggers!