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Let me set the stage:
Me and my client are sitting about fifteen feet away from each other. On her leash, a reactive pup who’s been making her life—and walks—miserable who she loves very much. Normally for this dog, being fifteen feet away from a dog that he does not know is a miracle, but at this point, my client is getting acclimated to the idea that her dog has been holding back on what he’s capable of.
This is a double edged sword. I tell all of my clients that dog training is like weight loss. If you’re 400lbs I can get you to drop a lot of weight fast because there’s a few natural assumptions about your diet and exercise regimes if you weight that much. After that big initial drop though, you must remain consistent and disciplined if you wish to loose the rest.
At my feet lays my trusty sidekick Rocky (whom you’ve met if you’re a client of mine). Rocky has had quiet a life, from being leash aggressive himself to off leash reliable around dogs with social issues. It’s not always the easiest job. Just yesterday he was chased down by an aggressive dog (who was thwarted by the longline that I had in my hands), and humped by two different dogs with no apparent social skills.
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After the aura of success having her reactive dog this close to an unfamiliar dog with no apparent interest or even explosions, my client says “well, this is awesome, but he’s likely to growl and fly off the handle if we get closer.”
This is common.
This specific dog was a bully. Not in breed, but in mentality. If given liberty around dogs off leash, he would flag his tail high, put his head over the backs of other dogs and act like a bully by pushing other dogs around. When a dog finally had enough of his bullshit and turned around to tell him to knock it off, he would become aggressive. This dog was over confident and had no idea what he was doing around his own species, but needed to learn some humility around other dogs.
The exercise was simple. After my clients caveat to the success we had achieved, I said “that’s fine, let’s test him and let him learn from his mistakes.”
Now, we had done a decent amount of work up to this point on heeling, longline work, Ecollar work and even food work so the dog had a good baseline of training. He had what I would consider a mediocre foundation but good enough to be held responsible for this exercise.
“Here’s what you’re going to do. Give him his heel command and start walking towards me and the very second he starts moving faster than you to get to Rocky (read: the moment he forgets his responsibility of heel) you’re going to turn around and go the other way briskly without saying a word.”
This is an exercise we’ve done a few times with this dog and something the owner was confident in executing… so she commanded heel and confidently headed towards me and Rocky and before she knew it, she was a foot away from us with her dog perfectly in line.
This was impressive and mysterious to her, but I’ve seen this play out many times before.
I don’t know if it has an official name, but I’m calling it The game plan effect.
The game plan effect is very simple and self explanatory in a way. If you go into a situation with a plan, you will be more confident within that situation. The more variables you train for, the more confident you’ll be because you know you have options.
Simply put, giving my client a game plan changed her body language, changed her intent, changed her confidence and gave her something to focus on rather than the movie playing in her head that was telling her she was going to fail, her dog was going to erupt and this was all going to be awful.
My goal was to give her something to think about, to fall back on when things go wrong knowing that if she finally shredded those images in her head that she would see success. Repetition after repetition went by and her dog did not erupt and this included a few other dogs that entered our training area.
Having a game plan, or in some cases at least knowing what the right thing is to do rather than the wrong thing you have been doing is enough to change your confidence in the situation, which changes your attitude, which changes your body language.
It’s not enough in some cases to simply have a game plan though, you must have the right plan. If you are dealing with leash aggression or reactivity to anything, contact a professional that’s experienced with handling this issue and get it resolved.