TAMING THE WILDEBEAN
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
My dogs and I went out for an early morning walk today, with WildeBean on a 10’ leash. Shortly down the road, we spotted a deer who quickly flagged her tail and pronked into the woods. That brief sighting was incredibly exciting to WildeBean, and offered up some precious training time for me.
Since I wasn’t carrying a clicker, I began by using our trained verbal marker (“yip!”) to mark WildeBean’s behavior of just looking at the deer, and thankfully her response was instantaneous – she wheeled around to orient back to me and happily took a treat. This was an important moment because it showed just how powerful the verbal marker is to her. Even with a colossal deer distraction, the “yip” instantly got her to orient back to me. That means its predictive value (i.e. treat is available) has become very strong over time and repetition. (It should be noted that distance was also working in our favor. If the deer had been a lot closer, WildeBean’s response may have been different.)
She then swiveled back to gaze down the road again, now empty. By her body language and behavior – tail and head high, ears forward, up on her toes, and quick movements -- I could see she was still very excited. I marked that second glance with “yip” and again she wheeled around for a treat.
Marking and reinforcing for the glance at the deer was my first training step in that moment. And it showed me that WildeBean was still able to register my existence in the universe, despite the huge distraction. It also signaled the beginning of a training session, which is something she normally loves.
When she gazed down the road again and moved forward, nearing the end of her 10’ leash, I asked her to come, and she quickly returned to me for a “yip” and treat. (She has a lot of reinforcement history on this skill.) Unsurprisingly, she then turned and spazzy-pranced back in the direction of where the deer had been, still very excited.
At this point, I have a choice to make. I could: 1) continue to give cues every few seconds to continue directing her behavior; or 2) address her excitement level, and help bring her back to a calmer state.
Choice #1 is a lot of work for the handler, and it can get old fast. As the walk continued, I made a point to observe how long WildeBean’s excitement level lasted after the deer sighting, and it was almost 10 minutes. My idea of a pleasant walk is to mosey along, listening to a podcast, while the dogs sniff and explore their neighborhood. The only work I do is to stop occasionally if WildeBean’s leash goes tight because pulling on leash is strictly prohibited.
Choice #2 gets to the root of the problem. If I can get WildeBean back to a calmer state, she’ll then return to her sniffing and exploration behaviors, rather than prancing like she’s on crack and frequently reaching the end of her 10’ leash. Being in that elevated state of excitement also makes it more likely she’ll overreact to the next surprise or exciting event that comes our way.
One exercise that’s great for bringing a dog back to a calmer state is a simple pattern game I learned from the wonderful Leslie McDevitt. Basically, the handler walks forward for a couple of steps and then calmly places a treat on the ground in front of the dog. Then another two steps, and treat. Another two steps, and treat. The calm, rhythmic predictability of this exercise seems to really help to focus and calm the dog. BUT, you need to practice this game in low-distraction settings first so the dog recognizes and responds to it in a conditioned/calm way, before you actually need it in a very exciting situation.
I’ve used pattern games like this with clients and they’ve been very helpful. (Here’s a link to a similar game used with a pointer who would get wildly excited by people coming through the front door.) But as is the case with many professional trainers, my own dog has not been the recipient of this valuable training… yet. Practicing this pattern game is now at the top of my list of things to do with WildeBean!
I’ll report back after we’ve had some time to practice and then apply it in a real-life situations.
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, puppy matchmaking services, and pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120
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