Friday, November 4, 2011

Working with Sadie

Sadie was a rambunctious young shelter dog whom I had been assigned to exercise and train. We were working in an auditorium, the best space the shelter had for exercising dogs indoors. Like most of the dogs I worked with in there, Sadie had some trouble with the smooth floors; every time she ran to catch a ball she would slide and slam into the wall. Because she was basically an oversized puppy, this didn’t faze her. We were having a great time, working on her retrieving skills, practicing “drop it” (at that point, just a swap of the ball for some treats).

Then Sadie saw some dogs playing outside through the big glass doors on one side of the auditorium. Sadie was already diagnosed as dog aggressive, which was part of why she was inside playing alone with me. The mood of the session changed immediately. Sadie ran at the glass doors, barking and racing back and forth. I tried to interpose my body between her and the doors, to back her up and get her attention back on me, but it was like I wasn’t there. I wanted to put her leash on to back her away, but I was worried that grabbing her collar would cause her to turn and bite me.

I made Sadie’s leash into a loop and lassoed her with it, then backed her away from the glass doors. She still wasn’t focusing on me, but neither was she turning to bite me as we backed to the far end of the room, where I sat down on a low stage and kept her on leash. She had her back to me, focusing on the doors. She couldn’t see the dogs any more, but she could hear their deep hound barks, and she really wanted to get at them.

Sadie had worked with a clicker already, so I pulled out my clicker and started to click her for any movement away from the door. Step back towards me: click, handful of treats. Quick look over her shoulder when I made kissing noises at her: click, handful of treats. I kept up a very high rate of reinforcement to keep her interest, so she was essentially being fed a steady stream of pieces of hot dog. Gradually her body language changed, so that she was not arrow-straight pointing at the door. She became looser, more relaxed. She turned towards me, looked at me (treat, treat, treat). And then finally she was lying down next to me, leaning into me, enjoying having her sides rubbed. When the dogs barked, she looked over towards the doors briefly, then back at me. She was with me again.


  1. ¡love your post!
    I do just the same, but when I begin to get her attention, I click when she throws calming signals. It works wonders with this dog, and with the dogs in front too!

  2. I'm constantly amazed at how these troubled dogs can be rehabilitated using sound training and redirection techniques. We used a technique similar with a large Great Dane that belonged to a friend who had no idea how to gain control of him. He walked calmly on the leash for the first in his entire life with us. His owners thought we had performed magic. Sadly, they are unwilling to do the things necessary to continue to help this guy have a balanced life... they like that he is intimidating at times and reinforce aggressive behaviors for amusement (like allowing him to lunge and bark on the otherside of glass doors at people visiting the house). Consequence, he practically rips their arms off when they wish to walk him. =[

    I would rescue him if I could.