Friday, August 26, 2011

Lamar's Happy Trick

When you have a reactive dog, most of the good advice you'll get is about having the right kind of equipment, working sub-threshold, knowing when to get out of dodge...a lot of stuff that can feel serious and heavy.

For example, we know that when our dogs get into their fearful reactive mode--lips drawn up, snarling, lunging, snapping--they're not in a state where they can learn, and all we can do for them is protect them from the thing that's making them feel that way. Take the other dog out of the room, back up and go on a different trail, etc. 

There's another idea that's way more fun--thanks to Michelle Mange at Your Dog's Friend for discussing it. If the dog is sub-threshold--is maybe gearing up to lose it, but hasn't yet, or has just lost it and is starting to settle down--what a great time to ask her to do something she really loves, that has a strong reward history and that is just plain fun. If you teach and practice tricks regularly with your dogs, you will find that there is one or a few that she really really enjoys--that makes the ears sail out, the mouth relax, the whole body just transform--more energy, less tension. 

When you find your trick, whip it out during those tense, yet sub-threshold moments. The other night, Lamar and Fozzie were both looming over me and my handful of treats--which I had so I could reward calm behavior while I tried to write--and Lamar was starting to look cross-eyed and growl at Fozzie. 

"Lamar, Whisper!" I told him. And he did that thing we both love, where the mouth opens and snaps closed but no sound comes out except the hollow sound of the air inside his cheeks being compressed. Followed by full-on smile, wags, and relaxation. 
Lamar "Whispers"

Steps to teaching "Whisper": Best for a dog who has an automatic bark reflex
  1. Next time your dog barks, click and give him a treat. 
  2. Praise joyfully. If he looks at you and barks again, then click and treat. 
  3. Dog may well be looking at you in wonderment by now. Hold treat up by your face, and wait for him to bark. You can jiggle the treat around to tantalize him. 
  4. If he doesn't bark, step away and take a break for a moment. Return and do something that you think will get him to bark.
  5. If he does bark, click and treat. 
  6. Name it: Say the word "Speak". Click and treat if dog speaks. 
  7. To shape "Whisper": If your dog is barking away, there will be certain barks that are quieter than the others. You want to withhold rewards for all but the quietest bark. 
  8. Start withholding rewards for progressively quieter barks until there is no sound at all (except the sound of one jaw flapping :))
  9. You can add a hand signal--finger to lips--and a word--Whisper--to put it on cue. As you add the finger to lips, fade the treat by your face.
This is Lamar's Happy Trick. If I remind him to do it, the stress evaporates and he is a smiling muppet face again. It was also easy for him to learn, as he already had a quiet bark. I wanted to reinforce this one, as it is so much more pleasant than the shrill one...and Lamar's Happy Trick was born!


  1. I have just started reading your blog and I love your information. I have a 6 year old shepherd mix foster dog that is reactive to other dogs when he is on leash or on the other side of our fence. He is very nervous and sometimes paces and walks in circles in the house. I have had him for nine months now and am still hoping to find that right person who will continue to work with him and learn to manage his behavior.

  2. Thank you for stopping by! I'm so glad you are fostering dogs like Whitley! He's a beaut. I'll post come comments on your blog, and will keep visiting--I love hearing about other fosters who take on challenges :)


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