"Replace them with doors"

For various reasons I was unable to get to the WOOF 2017 conference that took place last week in the UK, but from the myriad of posts and video clips on my timeline, it looks like I missed a treat. One of my favourites was the wonderful Professor Susan Friedman summing up lessons learned at the end of the conference and today I wanted to pick up one of the things she said as it is so relevant to many of the questions I am asked about reactivity.

She said: “Observe the environment. Observe the obstacles. Remove the obstacles. And then replace them with doors”.

When we are faced with a behaviour problem that we want to change, we have a habit of leaping straight into training. Our dog barks at people passing the house. How can we train her to stop? My dog jumps up at visitors. How can I teach him to be more polite? My dog won’t come back. How can I train a great recall? Our dog lunges at other dogs. How can we get her to walk past quietly?

All perfectly valid questions and often the people asking know, in theory at least, how to do the training. But they are frustrated by slow or no results.

My first question back is always to find out more about the context, the environment. Where and when does the behaviour happen? What are you doing when it happens? Where is the dog? Do they have to be there?

And very often when we look at this context - the environment in which the behaviour happens - we can see reasons why progress is slow. The dog is inadvertently being set up to fail.

She has free access to a room with a picture window so is barking at everything that moves outside. He meets visitors in the first excitement of welcoming them into the house so can't contain his exuberance. He is running free after rabbits and following absorbing scents before he has even learned how exciting returning to you can be. She is too close to the other dogs and therefore too scared to do anything but react.

Look at the environment and see if there is anything you can change that will make it easier for your dog to succeed. Can you rearrange things so they don’t get access to the place where the behaviour happens? Can you start training in a less distracting or a calmer environment? Can you give more space so they feel more comfortable? Can you be clearer about what you are asking? Can you reduce the options to make what you want more likely?

Sometimes changing the environment is all that is needed. Changing the room where a dog is left can eliminate triggers for barking. Putting food away can eliminate counter surfing.

Sometimes it can reduce the intensity of the behaviour. I have seen some dogs almost entirely stop pulling when moved onto a harness and lead with a sliding handle, for example.

But changing the environment to help your dog succeed, will always make the work of training the behaviour you want easier.

So how will you replace obstacles with doors?