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My Indoor Method for Helping Dogs Reactive Towards Other Dogs
Among my favorite force-free behavior modification techniques is a method known as "open bar, closed bar." This method is mentioned by Jean Donaldson in her book "Dogs are from Neptune." It consists of creating positive associations with a trigger the dog is reactive to. For instance, should a dog be reactive towards bikes, he would be fed many tasty treats when he sees the bike (open bar) and then all the tasty treats are gone when the bike is out of sight (closed bar.) Repetition after repetition, the dog starts looking forward to seeing bikes because bikes are associate with good things (treats).
As the owner of a cage-less boarding and training center, I often get dogs who are reactive towards other dogs. Many times dog owners want help with these dogs and decide to board their reactive dogs with me. We often work using pre-LAT behavior modification and Leslie McDevitt's LAT, another one of my favorite methods. I also use Open Bar and Closed Bar, but one day it was raining really hard and I couldn't conduct an outdoor session. When monsoon season takes place in the summer in Arizona we get often get torrential downpours and our primitive roads get quickly flooded. Frustrated about calling a session off, I got the idea of using an indoor version of open, bar closed bar, with a twist. One main advantage is that I have DAP diffusers in my training room so they could help a dog feel a bit more calmer than outdoors. Also, we worked in the previous days in desensitizing the reactive dog to common canine noises using "hear that." I was quickly impressed at how quickly this method worked, so I am sharing it with other force-free trainers. I baptized this method "open door, closed door."
How to Implement Open Door Closed Door
In order to get started, you'll need obviously a door that can be closed, a baby gate, some barriers (in my case I used large storage containers) small, bite sized treats that make a noise when they fall to the floor, a reactive dog, and a calm stimulus dog that you are sure won't ever jump over or push his way through the barriers. I often use a fake, stimulus dog before using a real stimulus dog. My fake stimulus dog is Rottie, so when the reactive dog sees my real rotties they don't get much upset. My rotties have solid sit stay so we usually start with that and then add movement. For safety and proper implementation, this method should be conducted along with a dog trainer/behavior professional equipped with a calm, reliable stimulus dog.
The goal: the goal is to have the reactive dog understand that when the door is open and he sees the other dog he gets a tasty treat. It's also important to keep the reactive dog sub-threshold by keeping the calm, stimulus dog at a distance. In the video below, you may see that I also give a tasty treat to the calm stimulus dog. I do this because I want the stimulus dog to turn around (a calming signal) the moment the reactive dog sees him. This takes good timing, and sometimes even with my best effort, the two dogs may happen to make eye contact I try my best to re-direct as soon as I can when this happens. However, I sometimes purposely allow these brief moments of eye contact to happen when I start raising criteria. I must confess I also give treats to my calm, stimulus dog because I want him to have fun too!
Following are steps:
1. Keep several tasty, bite-sized treats in your hand. These treats work best if they make a sound when they fall to the ground.
2. Create a barrier at a distance so the dogs aren't too close. This helps keep the reactive dog under threshold. You may need to initially gauge this distance based on the reactive dog's response. Don't flood!
3. Keep the door closed.
4. Open the door and immediately toss a treat behind the reactive dog so he must turn around to get it.
5. Afterward, toss a treat behind the stimulus dog so by the time the reactive dog is done eating, he'll see the stimulus dog turning around rather than making direct eye contact.
6. Repeat several times. If at any time the reactive dog gets stiff, you are working to close for comfort. Increase distance! Being a splitter and not a lumper applies also to behavior modification.
7. When you are done with the treats, close the door. Replenish and start all over. Make sure all your sessions end on a very positive note. The last time the reactive dog sees the stimulus dog for the day, he should get a bonus, that 4-5 treats at once and lavish praise.
In the video below is a sample of open door/closed door of this past summer. Back then, I just discovered this method and I wasn't that great in multi-tasking and timing the back-and-forth treat tossing. Now, I am doing much better, and it takes a shorter time for improvement to be seen. I will upload a newer video when I have time. This indoor groundwork can then be utilized outdoors. The dogs boarding with us did brilliant once the roads were clear after the last monsoon season rains and we worked on open bar closed bar. Best of all, the owners were quite surprised when they picked up their dogs and saw that their wouldn't bark, growl or lunge at our stimulus dogs!
Disclaimer: if your dog is reactive, please consult with a dog behavior professional. Trying behavior modification methods without the guidance and expertise of a professional may be risky and may put you at risk for being bitten.
Adrienne Farricelli, All Rights Reserved, do not copy.