No, not merchandise! Behaviors! Well, merchandise too but today we are going to talk about dog behavior.
Recently one of my blogging friends and I were talking about dog reactivity and I said that I used to use a gentle leader on Phoenix. My friend wanted to know how I faded it out while maintaining the behavior. It took me a while to figure out how to answer her. It was around 2 years ago. I wish I had started the blog back then and logged the process more thoroughly. It's a pretty long answer and I figured I'd share it with everyone.
When I first got Phee she was afraid of everything and skittish! She was so skittish that the shelter workers told me I'd never be able to safely remove her leash. They were afraid she'd take off and get lost. I knew she was going to be a "project dog" but I wasn't sure how much of a project she'd turn out to be! When I realized that she was dog reactive and would actually bite other dogs I decided that a gentle leader was a must. Controlling her face was one step I could take to help reduce MY anxiety while we trained. We live in the city, there are dogs everywhere and she was going to need to get used to it. We had already been working on conditioning Phee to wearing a basket muzzle so she took right to the gentle leader. It wasn't her favorite thing in the whole world but she didn't spaz out about wearing it. I introduced it to her in a very positive manner, lots of tasty treats and it was not a huge deal.
Phoenix will hold her paw up when she's either cold or nervous.
I believe on this day it was a little chilly out.
So now onto the fun question, how did I get rid of that pesky training tool while maintaining behavior? I payed Phoenix extremely well for things that freaked her out. We took bags full of high value food/treats everywhere we went. I fed her for maintaining a loose leash, sticking by my side and also for things that were scary. I also did a ton of counter conditioning at the parks we used to frequent. Dogs and scary people = chicken or steak. Loose Leash Walking = natural balance food roll mixed with kibble or string cheese. I'd also mix it up so she never knew what sort of treat she was going to get. I was NEVER stingy with treats and payed her well for everything she did right. If we ran out of treats we went home.
Phoenix offers "heeling" when she sees other dogs!
This is what that looks like.
One of the things I do with her around other dogs is to play the "Look at That" game. She looks at a dog and I stuff food in her face. It's a great way to establish that dog = good things. She is also being reinforced for being close to my side as we play this as well. So the behavior becomes: sit in heel and LAT. She will give me more attention than the other dogs and then we celebrate with a cookie party. When we first started training this I had no criteria for her other than for her to stay calm. She could sit, stand or lay down it didn't matter as long as she was calm. If she wasn't able to stay calm we'd turn around and walk away. She was never corrected for any mistakes.
It did not take long to establish that I was a valuable person worth giving her attention to and our reinforcement history was great. She was able to go completely off leash by the 6 month mark and I could recall her off of anything even a dog reacting at her on the beach. (Which would previously trigger her to want to fight.) High value treats + high rate of reinforcement = behavior wanted. She learned very quickly because I payed her so well. Soon, I had a dog that was able to walk on a loose leash and she would offer "attention heeling" for the most part. She will still occasionally pull but not very often. I've also moved on to a variable rate of reinforcement so she doesn't get the treat every time but at random. She still gets verbal praise every time, though!
Nowadays at the park we go to, when she sees a dog she will either avoid the dog completely or offer attention heeling by my side. If the dog is calm I will let her greet if she wants to but I don't force her. She will still occasionally react if a dog pops up out of nowhere and startles her but that depends on the other dog's personality. It's the hyper/rude dogs that cause a reaction. Sometimes she will even play with dogs other than Zoe!
It's also pretty funny, she has a whole thousand acre park to run around and a lot of the time she will be by my side offering heeling in exchange for cookies or attention. I release her to go do what she wants and she will run off and play and come right back. Or she will race around and then come back and check on me. It's exactly what I want.
I know that's a pretty complicated answer to how I faded the gentle leader out and it's not a straight answer either. I put a lot of work into her, hours of training a day. At one point she just didn't need the GL anymore and I wanted to fade it out as quickly as possible because I didn't want a GL scar on her face (they rub, no matter how well they fit) and the loop around her nose is not cute for pictures!
I will still occasionally use the gentle leader if we are going to be in a high dog traffic area. The last time we were at a dog event it was a sight hound race and I took the GL but didn't even need to use it. We ended up taking it off her and leaving it in the car. She was able to watch the dogs racing past without getting upset about it. One of my whippet owning friends commented that she would of never known that Phoenix was reactive if I hadn't told her.
Not all of her training was/is rainbows and butterflies! We both made mistakes, me more than her. Phee was a ton of work and she still can be. I've learned so much from her. She can handle most situations now and we work on the areas that bother her all the time. I think she will always be a work in progress but that's okay. She's a great dog and I'm still really glad she's mine.