Last week, I talked about how Nala’s sweetness, smartness, and sensitivity is a blessing and a curse. It’s easy to be glad that she’s so sensitive when Nala is sympathetically cuddling me when I have a migraine. It’s harder when I’m worrying that adding a collar grab to her recall will poison the cue because she’s so sensitive to body pressure from humans.
Fortunately, positive reinforcement based training is great for building confidence for any dog, once they understand how the game works.
Still, I’ve found that when you have a dog who is sensitive to body pressure, it’s worth taking the trouble to consider how you might modify a training plan so as to incorporate desensitization to things that might be hard for your dog–like leaning over her, reaching toward her, or her coming into your space–as well as classical counterconditioning or operant counterconditioning. When I introduce behaviors, I often try to reduce pressure by sitting on the ground or in a chair, by standing at an angle to Nala, or starting a behavior in heel position instead of with her right in front of me. But I’ve also come up with several games to work toward the goal of Nala being pretty comfortable approaching me, even though having a personal space bubble is in her nature.
Here are some of the games that have helped us so far.
Puppy Ping Pong
I’ve seen a lot of variants of this game, particularly for fearful dogs. One of its most clearly expressed variants can be found in Control Unleashed. Basically, it’s a low-pressure game based on food-play for desensitizing and counterconditioning a dog to something that scares her.
Step 1: Toss a treat away from you, saying “Get it!” Puppy chases it. When puppy gets her treat and looks back at you, toss the next treat in the opposite direction. When your puppy is grabbing her treat and then whirling around for the next one, proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: Toss a treat away from you. Puppy should get it, whirl around, run back–and notice her treat hasn’t been tossed. When she looks at you as if to say, “Hey, where’s my treat?!” mark (click or “yes!”) and toss the treat away.
Step 3, body pressure variant: Shape your dog to come closer to you. Make sure to pick a reasonable distance to mark and treat–don’t ask for more than your dog can do! Making diagrams on the floor with blue masking tape can help when shaping the behavior “come close to me”–in fact, this is very similar to Sue Ailsby’s method for teaching Front. It’s also essentially the game that Eileen plays with Zani in the second link above.
As you may have noticed, this game builds in two or three rewards for approaching you: a food treat, the opportunity to chase down said food treat, and relief from the pressure of being near you.
Once your dog’s comfort with approaching you at all seems to be increasing, try playing this variant on puppy ping pong. I’m not sure who made this game up originally–I’ve seen both Ian Dunbar and Suzanne Clothier given credit. Either way, here’s how to play the game to help a dog who feels uncomfortable approaching you:
Dog moves toward you. Mark and drop a very high value treat. When the dog comes in and eats it, toss a lower value treat away.
Yup, that’s the whole game! I consider it Advanced Puppy Ping Pong. This game has three rewards–a really great food reward for being close to you, and a low value food reward combined with a fun, prey-based game and relief from the pressure of your personal space (see Notes). The idea is that it should be a Differential Reinforcement game: really high reinforcement/classical conditioning for being close to you, which predicts the Premack reward of getting away from you–with the hope that that Premack will reverse itself over time, as it often does. If you notice your dog darting in to snatch the high value treat and then getting away as fast as possible, go back a step–toss the high value treat as close as your dog is actually willing to come, then reset by tossing the lower value treat farther away still.
Once Nala became great at playing Treat/Retreat with me–mostly for recalls, which I rewarded by dropping treats between my feet–I decided to start teaching her tricks that built on the Treat/Retreat principle, hoping that more fun games for coming into my space would help her generalize that as an okay thing to do.
- Target my belly button!
Nala is a tall dog relative to me, so your mileage may vary on this one. If you have a smaller dog, you might teach her to shove her nose into your knees, or do a chin rest against your shins! If you’re okay with her putting paws on you, that might be a great end behavior for this game, too–it would certainly achieve the goal of making your dog more likely to come in close enough to grab after a recall!
A sweet little story about how I taught Nala this game: one of Nala’s favorite activities is sharing a dog friendly snack with me, so I thought that I might make the game extra fun for her by incorporating it into one of our existing rituals–me coming home from work, getting a snack, and sharing it with her. I set aside about five of my gluten free pretzel sticks for our game, breaking them in half. Then, I would hold my fingers in “target hand” position over my belly button. Nala gently bumped them with her nose, and got–pretzel dipped in sunbutter! And then a plain pretzel half tossed away. After a few days of playing this game, Nala was firmly punching her nose into my hand even though it was right in front of my body–perfect.
- Leg weaves
I can’t really improve on Denise Fenzi’s explanation for how to teach and troubleshoot this trick, but I modified it when teaching it to Nala by adding the Treat/Retreat principle. First, I split it into smaller pieces: first I simply asked her to target through my legs, rewarded her with a high value treat in position, and tossed a lower value treat away from me to give her a break from my space. I gradually shaped her around my leg, always reinforcing both in position with something great and with a lower value treat tossed away from me. And now, this is one of Nala’s favorite games (although she finds going under my right leg easier)!
I’m sure there are infinitely more ways to build on this principle with tricks–these are just the ones we’ve done.
Modified Collar Grab Game
This is a new one for us, so it’s a work in progress.
A standard collar grab game goes something like this: Call your dog. As she approaches, reach toward her, grab her collar, and give her a treat. Some trainers, like Susan Garrett, ask students to take extra time to condition collar grab separately from the recall, but it still looks much the same: Reach for collar, grab collar, and deliver a treat–and Garrett says to do it in a way that somewhat lures your dog to stare into your eyes as you do so. She admits that some dogs may be uncomfortable with this, and suggests playing it on leash so that you can grab the leash near their collar instead, working slowly down to the collar itself.
But what if your dog cares less about the collar being grabbed than she does about being faced, leaned over, and reached toward? And then, as you carefully deliver the treat in a way that forces eye contact, she shrinks, wilts back, and generally looks hurt and offended? If I showed you a video of that first session playing the collar grab game as described, you’d think I’d kicked Nala and insulted her mother, not gently grabbed her scruff and handed her a piece of chicken.
Still, it’s important to me that Nala learn to enjoy having me reach toward her and grab her collar. One day, I’d even like to be able to use restraint to dial up her arousal so that I can use it to build enthusiasm for behaviors like the paw whack I discussed in last week’s post. So Nala and I made up our own version of the collar grab game.
It goes like this:
- As with all classical conditioning, your dog’s conditioned emotional response will correlate to how much she loves what you’re using, so make it good. Limit your session by only grabbing 5-10 treats–this game should be short and sweet–and get an equal number of lower value cookies or kibbles–something easy to throw and find on the floor.
- Do something that lets your dog know you want to play. For us, I crouch in a ready or “stalking” position, freeze, and draw in my breath–gasp! Then, when your dog notices, run or skitter away!
- As your dog catches up at your side, reach out, gently grab her collar or scruff, and feed the treat while you’re holding her collar. Feeding with her head up and looking at you is optional–don’t do it if your dog thinks that’s too much pressure.
- Toss the lower value treat away from you to release, saying “get it!”
- Take advantage of the head start given to you by #4 to run away again! Repeat steps 2-4 until you run out of treats.
- Once your dog is volunteering this behavior and has a loose body, open mouth, and wagging tail as you reach for her collar, you can add your recall word or her name to this game. You can also build duration by rapid-firing treats into her mouth while holding her collar, build more opposition reflex by continuing to her collar while throwing her treat to release, or adding eye contact as you feed. Once she’s pressing her neck into your hand, you might also try throwing your treat or running away in a manner that asks your dog to come more directly into your space–but be ready to make it easier again if you do so.
Here’s a short video that shows a couple of repetitions of this game in a small space, and where we currently stand with our target-treat-retreat game:
Bonus Game for Noise Sensitivity:
In the comments of last week’s post, Pamela of Something Wagging mentioned her brilliant idea for helping her dog Honey with her fear of banging doors and cabinets: she taught Honey to push them shut herself, so that she would associate the noise with a fun game. What a great idea!
So tell me, readers: do you have a dog with a big personal space bubble? Have you come up with any fun games to work on it?
Next up in my sensitive dogs series: Introducing Puzzle Toys to a new rescue dog!
- Yes, many of these games use a treat tossed away from you to provide relief from the pressure of being in your space, and yes, that counts as negative reinforcement. As a general rule, I prefer not to use that quadrant, and I certainly wouldn’t use R- techniques to get behavior, as in the case of a force fetch, or to build duration on a stay. That’s one of the reasons I’ve tried to emphasize splitting in this article–work your dog at the point where she’s comfortable. Getting away from you should never be too big of a relief; if it is, you need to make it easier. That’s also why I like the differential reinforcement games–I feel that they have a stronger element of classically conditioning coming close to me than the simplest puppy ping pong variant, although I think it’s important to start with a game that doesn’t tempt you to lure your dog closer than she is willing to come with food. And of course, again, chasing down food is fun in and of itself–it’s not all R- at work here, even if there is an element of it. I also feel, less scientifically, that one of the things these games has taught Nala is to trust me: I’m always going to try my hardest to give her what she needs, including an opportunity to get away before she gets uncomfortable.
- Two tips for effective classical conditioning in this shareable poster: keep sessions very short and provide long breaks between sessions. These are games that use operant conditioning, but the same rules apply to keep the Pavlov on your shoulder working in your favor.
- And a final additional shout-out to what Eileen Anderson has written on Dogs and Body Pressure, without which I probably wouldn’t even have recognized this problem, much less thought up ways to fix it!