Supporting Sensitive Dogs: 13 Tips to Help You Have a Successful Seminar

Editor's Note: This is adapted slightly from a post Sarah shared on facebook after a seminar with Julie Symons where she worked her dog Zoe. Included is video from that seminar, shared with both Sarah and Julie's permission.

Author's Note: These tips are not only great for "sensitive" dogs, but can be adapted for all dogs. Thank you Julie Symons' for creating such a safe place for learning, and for being open to adapting exercises to suit Zoe's needs. This was a big deal for her! First impressions really matter. After these first couple exercises, she was literally pulling me into the building the rest of the day! 

1. Bring a familiar mat or bed from home

​Bring a familiar mat or bed from home, and have someone put it out so it is the first thing your dog sees coming into the room. Place the mat far enough away from the people that there is no conflict about going to it, or magnetization to visit or go shopping in everyone's bags and sniff shoes (unless getting that type of info first is helpful to your dog--in which case, I'd put a "go check it out" behavior on cue and cue it at the door).

2. Use the mat to provide an anchor-point

​Use the mat to provide an anchor-point as the instructor is speaking, and safe staging place for start-button and consent work. (Learn more about start buttons and consent from Sarah Stremming here:

3. Start with a high rate of reinforcement

​Start with a high rate of reinforcement right away, just for being on the mat. No need to click. Just feed. (I like to break larger bits of food into many smaller pieces to provide a steady stream for this).

4. Allow dog to look around

​Allow dog to look around the room as much as she likes from that spot. Monitor latency on offered eye contact (start button behavior #1). Continue to feed calmly, smoothly, predictably in the same spot between the dog's paws just as before--only now food delivery is *gently* contingent on the behavior of looking at you.

5. When your dog is ready, switch to a simple hand or chin target

​If dog is able to offer eye contact easily, and eat consistently, switch to a simple hand or chin target each time dog looks at you. Monitor latency in response to this new visual cue. No pressure if your dog does not offer correct behavior. No nagging. No frantic cuing or many tricks to rev the dog up. Keep things soft and simple: dog looks at you--you offer the target. Dog should love the target--like giving her a very easy math problem to do. Whew! I know that one! This ain't so hard!

6. Keep providing structure and a high rate of reinforcement​...

​Keep providing structure and a high rate of reinforcement as you get instructions from the presenter. Return your dog to the mat anytime you need to. Always have dog at some type of clear station anytime your attention is elsewhere. When dog is off station, she gets your 100% undivided attention.

7. Give immediate information about what happens next

​When you have a clear plan worked out with the instructor, after releasing your dog from station, give immediate information about what happens next. I like to offer a treat magnet usually, to give my dog something to focus on as I get her into position to start the activity. If I let Zoe drift, I can lose her.

8. Adapt exercise​s to support your dog

​Never be afraid to work with the instructor to adapt an exercise in a way you feel will better support your dog. For example, in the video above we changed the idea of me racing to the purple box with Zoe, and feeding at source (which Zoe is not used to), to a simple restrained recall game using a clicker and food party back with me--which worked great for her.

9. Do no more than 2-4 reps of any given exercise

​This is more of a guideline than a hard rule, but this can be important for "softer" dogs especially: do no more than 2-4 reps of any given exercise, then take a break—especially when asking for anything complex or challenging—anytime you are asking the dog to work in a large, new space full of strangers, or when doing any exercise requiring extra energy. Try your best to return dog to a station or end the session BEFORE the dog or you lose focus. Don't try to "quit while ahead" if that makes you work too long to try and get ahead. Instead, quit before there is even a whiff of drifting or loss of concentration. If you lose your dog anyway, wait quietly for re-engagement, reinforce heavily, maybe regroup at a station.....or, it's totally fine to quit as damage control. No nagging! If you lose your dog, that is just good info. Think through how to support her better next time. Maybe she is not ready for this situation yet? Maybe the task is too hard? Maybe you are being unclear?

10. Use treat magnets to make it easier to get the right answer

​Use treat magnets to position your dog in a way that makes it easier to get the right answer---but without providing so much of a direct lure that you deny your dog the space to discover the answer on her own (unless luring is intentionally a part of the exercise).

11. Give cues once, then stay quiet

​Give cues once, then stay quiet and let your dog work. If you have to re-cue, chances are your dog does not understand the exercise in the first place, or needs more acclimation or consent work. In that case, the best thing is to return to station and make a plan to break the task down even more.

12. Relax criteria on duration behaviors

 In a difficult setting like a seminar, it's best to relax criteria on duration behaviors (like a nose press indication) so you can give immediate feedback for precise responses. Immediate feedback timed correctly boosts confidence. Delays on your part make question marks in your dog's mind.

13. Think through how you'll end the session

At the end of the session, remove all props to make it clear the exercise is over. As appropriate, invite your dog to make her own choices at that point. Want to check the people out? Want to go sniff the floor? Want a treat party with mom? Want to go meet the seminar presenter and get meatballs? Or, maybe you'd just like to leave? Whatever your dog's answer to these questions, try to listen. Everything that happens before you start a teaching session, and everything you do at the end matters just as much as what happens during the sessions itself.

PODCAST E96: Trish McMillian - "Dog Body Language"
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