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Clicker Training in the Greater Phoenix Area By Gary Wilkes

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Dog Care and Behavior Articles

Coercion and the Gift of Touch

The other day I was working with a Dorkie – half Dachshund and half Yorkie. This little guy is territorial, fearful and aggressive…a perfect mix of the two breeds. When I first met him, he charged me at the front door. I dropped my soft brief case right in front of him and he turned and ran in the opposite direction, screaming as if he was being killed. After that experience there wasn’t any way he was going to warm up to me. Well, not exactly. I knew how to jump start our relationship. I had the owner put him on a six-foot leash and then I sat on the ground. I took the leash and he hit the end of it like a tuna – trying to get away from me. Then I did something I have done literally thousands of times. I pulled him about two feet toward me. I waited until he stopped struggling for a second and then pulled him toward me again. I did it one last time so that he was touching my legs. Then I let him run to the end of the leash, where I started the process again.

To conventional trainers, pulling a totally freaked-out dog toward you might seem to be a short-cut to a nasty bite. In reality, it’s a great way to start an immediate relationship, even if the dog isn’t cooperating. I learned this method when I worked and shelters handling hundreds to thousands of animals per year. Many dogs come to shelter with absolutely no knowledge of leash manners or proper social skills. On top of that they are terrified and have no functional behaviors to solve their problem. If you have to handle that animal, what choices do you have? The animal isn’t going to take a treat from you. The last think on its mind is food. You can’t “pet the nice doggie” to calm it down. It doesn’t want to be touched. i.e. You have nothing this animal wants other than to escape your presence. The one-dimensional mantra of “be nice and all will be well” ends when you stop looking at the dog in front of you and understant that cookie-cutter bromides do not work in the real world. To get this Dorkie to like me would have taken weeks and many appointments - which the owner would never pay for and there was no logical reason to use methods that take months to succeed - if at all.

The origin of the process: The critical difference in book-learning knowledge and real experience is that experience allows you to transcend what you already know. Book-learning limits you to what someone else knows. For instance, there are not books that teach you how to be an expert shelter dog handler. Academics never go there. They write vanilla explanations and descriptions taken second hand from vets. Shelters lack the civility of a vet clinic. Many dogs come into shelter never having been on a leash. If you try to pull them, they splay their legs and hit the ground like a sack of potatoes – or fight the leash violently forever. If someone sees this, the will post it on YouTube and your shelter will be picketed by animal rights hobbiests. Meaning your donations will drop. You may go out of business even though no harm came to the animal and it was fearful before you ever touched it. That is why it is desperately important to find a rapid way to get a dog to walk to a kennel while allowing any casual bystander to see that it is causing less stress and less pressure on the dog.

The Counter-Intuitive, Subtle Insight: It all starts with a simple thought – the dog dislikes the leash pulling him toward you. His innate reaction to the leash is to fight it, not you. If you can make him concentrate on the leash he won’t really notice that he is being reeled every closer to the evil, scary human. The trick is to take this in stages and make sure you don’t turn his attention to you rather than the leash.

Intermittant Contol:
The primary rule of life is that constant force causes constant resistance. If something grabs, pinches, holds or pulls you at a constant intensity, you will keep fighting it until you get free. If the grab, pull, shove, or pinch changes intensity depending on what you do, you will rapidly change your behavior to neutralize the pull, grab or pinch. That means that if you simply put a dog on a leash and reel him in, he’s going to fight tooth and nail. If you take it in stages and back off whenever he stops fighting, he will rapidly become passive. The rule is, if he struggles, I pull him closer. If he is passive, I let him rest for a moment and then reel him in a little further. The goal is to get him so close that he’s touching me. This allows me to touch him the way his owners do – gentle touching and rubbing. Many dogs have an intimate zone inside three feet where they will allow contact they would never allow at four to six feet. Be very cautious about the rubbing. There is a tendency to keep rubbing for long periods of time. It is far better if you rub for a second and then see what effect it has. Some dogs object to prolonged fussing. Again, try to present intermittent contact to allow the dog to rapidly get used to what you are doing.

If you want to learn how to use this technique, here are some tips for getting started.

  • CAUTION: I have never been bitten by any dog I handled in this way. That doesn’t mean it is without risk or that you can’t be bitten trying it. On the contrary, if you barge into this you will probably get nailed. It has to be done correctly. It is simultaneously the most risky (your face is at about the same level as the dog’s teeth.) and the safest (you are less threatening if you are lower to the ground and immobile) thing you can do. Since I can’t be there to guide you through it, start cautiously and practice until you feel comfortable. Don’t start with a vicious, demonic dog. Start with a dog that is aloof and not comfortable with the leash. Gradually work up to handling dogs that are seriously upset about being in the salon or being touched by people. When in doubt, ask for help or bail out.
  • Smooth pull: The pull on the leash is a smooth, firm pull – not a sharp snap like a choke chain correction. The tension is more like an oar pulling through the water.
  • Eye contact: Use your peripheral vision to watch the dog. Studiously avoid direct eye contact. The idea is for you to resemble an inanimate object. Let the dog fight the leash and try not to draw any attention to yourself.
  • Touching the withers: Do not touch the dog on the withers. For some dogs this is a trigger for directed aggression. If the dog is fearfully aroused by the leash, your goal is to be as non-threatening as possible.
  • Touch the rear end first: Once you get the dog close to you, swing your elbow out and let it touch the dog for a moment. Watch the dog’s reaction. If it has no effect on his behavior, try to touch the dog for a few seconds near the hams or rump. Keep it short and gradually increase the time.
  • Tension on the leash: When you to this correctly, the dog will be right next to you. Whichever hand is holding the leash needs to stay lightly taut. Look at the direct line to your face and then be ready to pull the leash to the side if the dog attempts to bite you. This will turn the dog’s head so that the teeth do not connect with your skin.  
  • The mainstream philosophy of modern trainers and behaviorists relies on using calm, gentle, slow-acting therapy for fearful dogs. Apparently they are not under the same time restraints as the rest of us. Taking weeks to months to get a dog comfortable with the process of being handled isn’t practical for anyone. This is an example of people pushing an unrealistic ideology in spite of a multitude of examples where it didn’t work. The logical, optimal solution is to use firm, safe coercion to force a dog to come to you. Consider that it’s no more invasive than a groomer putting them in a tub or a vet tech expressing their anal glands. If we let an animal’s irrational fear stop us, we might as well close up shop. In reality, dogs are highly resilient creatures. As long as you give them a way to negotiate the fear factor, the vast majority will get used to the process of being handled. Teaching them to readily come to you on leash pays off by making your presence and your touch a normal and harmless event. After a generally fearful dog learns a single new person is harmless it makes it that much easier for them to generalize to more people. Considering that the alternative is to leave them in fear, what dog lover would do otherwise?


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