Training by Stealth
I have a confession to make. I rarely do set-ups when working with my reactive or sensitive canine clients. I do occasionally on workshops, but when I am working individually with clients, I generally take them out into their normal environment and work with the people and dogs we find there. I call this stealth training.
So why did I make this choice and what are the pros and cons of this compared to working with set-ups?
Initially, the choice was pragmatic. I was generally working on my own with clients, so did not have ready assistants to handle “stooge” or helper dogs. Plus I didn’t have dogs who would have handled this work: it needs a very resilient dog to thrive in this job and mine were either too reactive or too sensitive themselves to be suitable candidates. So while set-ups have the advantage of being controlled situations where you can safely practise skills and manage triggers to best advantage, my situation made doing them regularly very difficult.
However, I soon discovered that my pragmatic choice of stealth training brought great benefits. It taught guardians how to use their environment for training and how to select good training situations. It gave them experience in how to handle the unexpected and showed them exactly what appropriate distance really looked like. And it was something they could practise themselves without help.
So how does stealth training work? A stealth training session will train with dogs or people who are just going about their day, often without them ever knowing. We choose locations where we can create as much security for our dog as possible, within a public space. We go out specifically to train and to expose our dogs to triggers at an appropriate distance. We usually stay in one place and watch people and dogs pass us by so that we can control our immediate environment.
What is important is to separate this kind of training from walks. When I take my dog for a walk I want to spend time with them, enjoy their company and relax. If I have a reactive dog I look for quiet spaces for this, where I won't meet many other dogs or people, and where I can just be with my own dogs.
Stealth training is a different activity altogether and I treat it that way. For this, I go to places that I would never choose for a walk. Instead, I choose places where:
- There will be dogs, who will be on a lead or under control.
- I can control the distance from dogs or people.
- There are natural or artificial barriers.
- People are going about their business and cannot approach easily.
- I am close to my car so my dog can escape or take a break.
- I can watch safely from an appropriate distance.
Some of my favourite places for stealth training include:
- Service stations on main roads and motorways where dogs are under control, people are focused on other things and you can retreat to your car if needed.
- Country parks, deer parks or stately homes that have livestock, where dogs will be expected to be on a lead.
- Car parks at garden centres, shopping malls with pet stores, pubs and other places that people take their dogs. Your car becomes a safe space you can retreat to or hide behind.
- University campuses or village centres, particularly if your dog is concerned about people.
- Local shows when your dog is ready.
Natural and artificial barriers are also helpful so look out for these when choosing your stealth training locations.
- Watching from the top of a hill or bank while stuff happens below. Finding a park with a higher vantage point is ideal, especially if other dogs can't easily run up the bank.
- Watching from across a stretch of water. Mirri and I used to hang out on one side of the river, opposite a spot where dogs played on the other. The other dogs couldn’t get to us and the distance was controlled.
- Watching from behind a fence or across a road.
- Watching from your car.
What is appropriate for you will, of course, depend on your dog's needs. If your dog is fine with other dogs but not with people then you will make different choices than if it is the other way around. But all of us can find somewhere to do stealth training with a little imagination. So look at what is around you. Where can you go to watch other dogs or children or men in hats or whatever your dog’s trigger is? How can you use the environment to make sure your dog feels safe while you train? Make a plan then go and do some stealth training!