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Influencing Behavior - Turning Scary Into a Party!

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

I often feel like training happens when I am making other plans. On this busy workday, I planned to use this pup to demonstrate how to introduce a young dog to goats for the first time using a long line. To prepare for my session I put the pup in a stall and moved his siblings to the field I would later put this pup after I was finished with my training session.

This is a six-month-old Roxy x Bonavento male pup who has always been brave and gregarious, so when I went to the stall to harness him and bring him out I was quite surprised to find a cautious, worried pup. I harnessed him slowly, using lots of encouraging words, and asked him to come with me to the goat pen. It took us several minutes to make our way across the barnyard; I let him set the pace. If he had told me "no," I would have put him back with his friends.

The video begins with me just outside the goat pen. Throughout this training session, you will see that I made it up as I went along, every step of the way, taking my cues from the behavior of the pup. After I returned the pup to his friends, I reflected on how I had known what to do with this pup and what he needed from me. The answer is that he told me! It is also true that a couple of years ago I would not have understood this pup's language as well as I did on this day; makes me wonder what I'll know a year from now!

Usually, when I am working with a cautious pup I slow my body down and be soft with the pup, and usually, when I am working with any of the dogs around livestock I make sure my body language is slow and my voice soft. With this pup, though it was different, and here's why:

When this pup was frightened, he froze. His eyes moved, and sometimes he'd move his head to follow my hand target. When he'd have a flash of "brave," he was explosive. As a trainer, I can do a lot more with explosive than I can frozen, because a moving dog will offer me behaviors I can pay him for. When this pup moved quickly if I had followed him calmly, it would have lowered his energy level, as well as his confidence, so out the window that plan went!

Obviously, on this day, goat training was going to be done a little differently. Mostly we forgot about the goats as the pup and I played and played. We had a great time! Sometimes the pup would give me brief moments of calm, and what we call a "learning brain", which is a calm, receptive state of mind. In those moments, I went back to asking for cued behaviors.

This short video shows the pup and I headed to his pasture after the training session had ended. Look at how loose and happy his body is as he travels with me; a big difference from when we started!

This pup and I learned a lot in this session! I learned more about how to read a dog's body language and how to give him what he needed from me. The pup learned that scary can turn into a party and that he can trust me to keep him safe by not asking him for more than he can give me.

Oh, please forgive me for not remembering to put Casey in the house! When I was working with the pup, I never even noticed her incessant barking, but every time I watch the video now, she seems to get louder! Grrr.

Canine Behavioral Cues

(.04) Just before we come into the field, the pup stops and does a full-body shake; this behavior has a name. It is called a "shake-off." In canine language, it is the dog letting go of some of the tension he has been feeling. When I saw him do this, it was additional information to me about his level of anxiety and that what we were doing together was allowing him to relax rather than becoming more fearful.

(.45) Our pups understand how to target to our hands. I invited the pup to come with me by using a cue he was familiar with; he was too worried to move his body, but he did move his head a bit.

(.51) When I stepped away from the pup, he turned his head away; this is called "breaking the sightline". It is a canine conflict resolution behavior. When he gave me his eyes again, I took up the slack of the long-line and asked him to come with me. He did. As you can see, it kind of un-locked his body. This often happens with pups. If he had not moved toward me, though, I would have gone back to him and had a little more cuddle time. Notice that the second he moved his body, I gave him a slack line and only used my body, voice, and energy to encourage the pup to come with me; his choice!

(3.48) A bit into the video, he gives me another big shake-off, this time followed by a loose and happy body. This lets me know our training is headed in the right direction! Also, notice how much of the time I give this pup a slack line. That line is a safety line only; I do not use it to direct the pup. Everything we do in this field is about the choices he makes on his own. I pay him for offered behaviors that I like. I give him the time and space to consider his situation. I set him up so that he is likely to give me behaviors that I like when I can, but mostly I just follow the pup and play a game.

(4.43) When the pup jumps up and moves, I tell him, "Yes!". This is our verbal marker word. I wanted to mark that behavior, which lets him know that is what I was looking for, but I don't want to click to mark the behavior because that would stop his movement; a dog that gets a click comes looking for a treat. In this case, a verbal marker and verbal reinforcement allowed us to keep moving; my happy pup told me this was the right choice.

(7.07) Notice that he goes from happy to stuck again. Why? Who knows, but he knows, and I will respect that and wait for him.

I take a big step, and he moves with me. This was an environmental cue, and part of shaping for the full behavior of traveling with me. If you think back to before we came in the field, I needed to use the long-line to get the pup un-stuck, but at this point, I have a more confident pup with a learning brain, so I am able to use cues to ask for behaviors.

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