Tuesday, March 24, 2015

You Get What You Pay For! Phoenix's Reactivity

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.

I pay her extremely well for paying attention to me and ignoring the environment. We play a lot of attention games and recall games. Since the shelter had warned me about her being a "flight risk", I wanted to make sure that I never needed to worry about that. One of my personal goals for every dog I've ever had is to be able to take the leash off wherever we are at, for that dog to be able to pay attention to me and to not run off. So that was one of my first priorities with training Phee. So I payed her the highest value treats (rare steak) for coming when called and we practiced everywhere we went. I used long lines attached to a harness for all of her recall practice. We would also use the empty dog park whenever possible, too so that we could get some off leash practice in.

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.


  1. What I love about this post, is that it shows how hard work it is to change behaviour. I make my living changing behaviour in individuals with autism. People often think it should be like a snap of the fingers and you get what you want. It is long, hard, work. Thanks for sharing everything you did. I feel the same about my LeeLee girl. Hard work, but worth it!

    1. Awe, thank you so much! I'm glad you liked the post!

      I often get frustrated with people who think that training is instant and that there's a quick fix for something. We are still working on things with her and probably always will be but I'm okay with that.

  2. I am glad you had such a great result. That long lead is an excellent way to teach recall. We started all of our pups that way. When Storm was young she really did not care about food which is why she was a trip to train...lol. Now that she is a senior food it it! But as a youngster she cared less.

    1. That's interesting about Storm! My family dog was like that, too. Training him was kind of a pain at times because he didn't care about toys, either. He was a super mellow guy, more interested in sleeping than playing my games.

  3. Maybe not a straight answer but packed with great information and experience!

    Your Pals,

    Murphy & Stanley

  4. What a wonderful success story. We used a Halti with Isis, and I was really surprised to learn later that some trainers find the head collars aversive. Certainly if the dog hates it or thinks she's being punished, it's aversive, but I don't think it was with Isis. It was simply a way to keep her from forging ahead on leash. We used it for a while with Leo, but he didn't love it, and since pulling on the leash was never his problem, we switched to a front-clasp harness with him. His leash reactivity is better managed when he doesn't feel he's being restrained. Maybe I should phase out the harness, but hey, it's working for us. Why mess with the system?

    1. Yeah, I've seen so many arguments about GLs! A lot of people forget that it's only aversive if the dog thinks it is. Certainly, the GL does work by applying pressure but I'd rather apply pressure than have her bite another dog and do damage. Back when I first got her she would get so anxious that she was unable to inhibit her bites, she'd take treats so hard she'd draw blood, accidentally.

      The other major thing people question about them is neck injuries. I've never heard of anyone's dog getting a neck injury and I've used them since they came on the market, with my family dogs and both of the girls. I guess the idea is that if they were to hit the end of the leash they could snap their head back. I never allowed anyone to hit the end of the leash and if I were to use the GL they don't get the full six feet of leash.

      I think it's awesome that you use a harness! Harnesses are great and I really recommend them. The girls are mostly walked on harnesses, unless I'm going to the big off leash hiking park or the beach. Then it's just a quick leash up from the parking lot to being off leash on the trails or sand. :)

  5. This is such a great post! I love how you don't rely on the gentle leader 24/7. So many people don't use training tools as actual TOOLS.

  6. Wonderful post!
    We've used gentle leaders and still occasionally must break them out depending on the environment. I like them because it's not a negative or pain reinforcer, but rather it allows me to turn their attention better. We walk circles or I will walk backwards until I have their attention again, no yanking ever of course.
    I think it's a better solution than people who choose to use prong, choke, or shock collars.
    Ziva had the same problem as Phee with reactivity and the GL really helped me to break her concentration on the other dog now she's much better and just like Phee its the fast and rude dogs then set her off sometimes.

  7. Very nice! This is something I need to work on with Tucker and not because of fear but over excitement with other dogs. He comes unglued. Its so great to read success stories out there!! Way to go ... and you give inspiration.

  8. Bar and I tried the gentle leader when I first got her, but she was already really good at heeling and her reactivity was worse with the gentle leader, so we just got rid of it and did a lot of "what's that" from safe distances as we walked by other dogs until she started getting more comfortable. I'm so glad that Phoenix has someone who was so willing to put in the work to help her live such a happy, full life!

  9. Crikey ..... you've given Mum hope. She's been working on me since the day she got me and sometimes feels like giving up. I'm a good bloke most of the time but can be a nightmare to recall if she misses the first sign of me going after a critter. Once I'm on a chase I'm DEAF!! Will she EVER be able to go out without her treat bag?? I sure hope not!!!!!!!

  10. Oh wow! Thank you for sharing this!! Absolutely fabulous info!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!


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