Thursday, August 16, 2012

Long Term Change

Recently someone posed the question of whether or not the exercises of Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed program effect long term change in a dog.

I think this question is an excellent one, and in my experience, the answer is a resounding "Absolutely"!!

My first experience with CU came with Dean back when the first book had just come out.  He had been taking Agility classes, but he went ballistic, barking and lunging and losing his head, when dogs ran on the course.  I used all of the conventional methods that are recommended for that.  I tried distracting him with incompatible behaviors.  He would have none of that.  I tried playing tug, which really only got him even more riled up.  I tried moving far enough away for him to remain somewhat calm, and had him watch me.  Didn't help.

I had reached a point where I had to make a decision.  Option 1 - manage the problem instead of trying to help him work through it.  I did not care for Option 1 because I wanted to trial with him and he needed to actually be in the ring with a running dog in order to do that.  Option 2 - resort to correction.  I knew in my heart that was not the answer.  Option 3 - do some legwork to try to find a method that I did not yet know to help him through reinforcement.

I chose Option 3.  I knew there had to be a way.

Before finding CU, I purchased Susan Garrett's Shaping Success, hoping to find the answer there.  I didn't.  I started keeping my eye on internet message boards, and one day something caught my eye - a recommendation for the Control Unleashed book.  It had just come out.  I went on Amazon, read the description, thought it sounded perfect, and I ordered it.

I'll never forget the day it came.  I was out in my front yard, and I remember alternating between being moved to tears and being absolutely shocked by what I read!

Leslie McDevitt was the first author I read who didn't blame issues like motion trigger on the handler.  She was the first author I read who didn't insist that lack of focus is a result of the handler not being interesting enough.  Her approach was completely reinforcement based, and much of it was new to me.

One of the shocking parts of the program was the Look at That Game.  I had always learned "what you click is what you get".  I was appalled at the idea of clicking when my dog was looking at something other than myself!  I envisioned the result as a dog who ran around looking at other things all the time!

But then I remembered something.  Years before, when I was working with Speedy on desensitization to the presence of other dogs, I had used a technique from the book "Click to Calm" that worked wonders for him.  I would sit with him, at a distance from other dogs that was comfortable for him, and I would watch his eyes.  When I saw him looking calmly at another dog (instead of having a worried expression), I would pop a treat in his mouth.  It wasn't long before his eyes were lighting up with joy as other dogs walked by.  And it wasn't long before I didn't need to stuff treats in his mouth for him to be comfortable around other dogs.

I knew that I had to try LAT with Dean.  I had nothing else and I knew it couldn't make things any worse.

I put Dean in a beginning level Agility class where the other dogs wouldn't be running around at first.  While we waited our turn on the sidelines, I taught him CU Mat Work, and I began to teach him LAT.  The results surprised the heck out of me.  By the fifth week of class, he could be on the floor while a dog was running or jumping, watch the dog, and remain calm.

What surprised me even more was that the result generalized to other situations.  He had been triggered by moving cars.  No more.  He really learned that he could remain in his right mind around things in motion.

Dean is almost 7 years old and he has never regressed back into being a motion triggered dog.  And yes, even when I don't have treats on me!

CU came to the rescue for Dean and me again when he was having a particularly difficult time with stress.  Even though I have always trained using reinforcement, Dean went through a period of time where he would immediately become stressed any time I would try to do a training session with him.  I was on the verge of giving up on training him for sports when I saw Leslie do a demonstration of the Give Me a Break game at camp.  Later that same afternoon, I took a few minutes to work Dean in a Give Me a Break structure and within that one session he went from worried to begging for more training.

He can run entire Rally courses and perform Freestyle routines because of Give Me a Break.  We rarely need to play the game anymore.

I have always wished that CU had come along sooner for Speedy but the one CU application that has helped him in a lasting way is the Off Switch Game.  A picture speaks far louder than words here.

Speedy before Off Switch Games:  (Note the mouth action and default circling)

Speedy after Off Switch Games:  (Many years after we actually played the games)

Off Switch games saved Speedy's performance career, and at 11 years old, he is still dancing in his right mind, and loving every minute of it.

I could go on and on - about using GMAB with Maddie to transform her from a super sniffy Agility dog to one who ran beautifully at outdoor trials, about using CU games with Tessa to give her confidence and joy in situations that used to scare her.

Of course CU isn't an instant fix-all.  Incorporation of CU games into my training has required trying different things in different situations, exercising patience when the dog needs more time to learn the structures and how they fit into new situations, and plain and simple experience.

But the benefits of the CU program have been drastic (in a good way!) and lasting for my dogs.  I can't imagine training without CU tools.

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