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By Published On: October 1st, 2009

Lasts weekend in both shy dog agility class and a Control Unleashed-based class for reactive dogs there were owners returning for a second set of classes with their dogs. Not only was the improvement in the dogs apparent, their owners were looking fabulous as well.

Anyone who finds themselves with a challenging dog will appreciate how simple activities can require special pre-planning and are often fraught with worry and concern. What if someone shows up? What if there is a dog off leash? Not knowing how to respond in these situations, and likely a number of bad experiences fueling the anxiety that is felt, makes it difficult for owners to handle their dogs in a way which will lead to an improvement in the dog’s behavior.

By using positive reinforcement training techniques and rewarding their dog for focusing on them, both dogs and handlers began to appear calmer and more ‘in control’ of themselves. The dogs which had often looked at their owner in the past and received no information, were now looking at an owner who provided a response. That response may have been to reward the attention or to offer a cue to perform a different behavior. Owners were no longer just impediments to their dogs movement because they held their dog’s leash. They were a team (I’m tempted to say ‘couple’), both sharing their preferences as to how they would like impending events to unfold. ‘I’d rather not get closer to that person’ one dog might be indicating and her owner acknowledges the request. A young, high energy dog makes it clear that he’d like to race headlong into another dog while his owner shows him that she had other plans for him.

While observing a training workshop for fearful dogs hosted by trainer Sarah Wilson I was impressed by her positive reinforcement of one handler, a wide-eyed woman who was tense with concern. As the woman began to focus more on her dog and use the techniques the group was practicing, Sarah was quick to compliment her and I watched as her ‘deer in the headlights’ look began to fade. Both she and her dog responded to the information that they were on the right track.

Back in the shy dog agility class one owner was excited to go out and purchase a hula hoop so she could continue the shaping exercises we started to help her dog feel more comfortable going through objects. Interacting with her dog had become a game, instead of a chore. The owner of the young, high energy dog had learned how to use movement to distract her dog and did not hesitate to walk away from a situation in which her dog was becoming over aroused. As I watched her I thought ‘she looks like a trainer’. To her dog I think she might be looking like a pretty good friend.

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