Lessons From Layla

This article (reposted from the Paws Abilities website) was the winner of the 2008 Dogwise John Fisher Essay award and scholarship.

The first time Layla saw a squirrel, she screamed and leapt on top of my head. This was no small feat, since she was all of 11 pounds at the time, and I stand 5’6” tall. As she scrabbled for purchase against my shoulders and ears, screaming in frustration at the squirrel in the tree above my head, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Several tempting treats lay forgotten on the ground, snubbed by a 16-week-old baby in favor of climbing me like a ladder. What had I gotten myself into?

Unfortunately, this was not to be a freak occurrence. Over the next several weeks, the tiny puppy snapped two collars going after the local wildlife. Her eyes would glaze over in response to the smell of a rabbit or squirrel, and it wasn’t long before she caught and killed her first chipmunk. The best treats I could come up with still paled in comparison with the chance to go after some little critter. Braunschweiger, liver, salami, and fish were all offered and rejected. I bought thicker collars and kept the puppy on a leash or drag-line at all times outside. We stopped trying to train in the unfenced backyard, where Layla’s eyes would get that crazed look and her whole body would tremble with the need to run and hunt. Her heart rate would shoot up to 160 beats a minute – twice the normal rate for her – and it would take her a half hour to calm back down after going inside.

I was told by several trainers that I needed to work on our relationship. The fact that my puppy would choose killing something furry over spending time with me meant that I didn’t have a strong enough bond with her. I had already put Layla on a “nothing in life is free” program due to some concerns expressed by her previous homes upon surrendering her to the shelter. Even at sixteen weeks, she had bitten multiple times out of fear and had a history of guarding food and toys from both people and other animals. She slept in a crate and was not let out of my sight when loose in the house. She worked for her meals with several fun, fast-paced training sessions a day. My other dog, a patient Labrador mix, was thrilled to have a puppy of his own, and the two dogs wore themselves out with multiple play sessions daily. The puppy was given ample exercise, and went to sleep each night exhausted. I thought I was doing everything right. I was absolutely stumped.

It was not hard to transfer the young dog’s high prey drive to toys. Teaching her to fetch and tug was a snap, and her high motivation to play with the toys made it easy to teach her a solid ‘leave it’. Plush toys on a rope were another favorite, and I soon had a collection of fun rewards built up, which I put to use in her day-to-day training. I entered my adolescent whirlwind in agility classes, and she took to the exercises with unbounded enthusiasm – as long as there weren’t any chipmunks outside the fenced-in agility field.

We added in more and more non-food rewards to our repertoire. Layla loved running to her crate and slamming herself down inside it, so that too became a valued reward (and a good way to give her a break when she was getting too amped up). Due to her unstable upbringing as a puppy, she was fearful of children and women with grey hair. Not a problem – rather than asking her to interact with these people, brave behavior around them would earn her a click and the chance to run away from the people to the safety of her crate, or turn away from them and get a treat from me instead. Within a few months of practice with three willing neighbor kids, she was comfortable interacting with each of the children, even taking treats from their hands with a soft mouth and loose, relaxed body.

Of course, as a professional trainer I had heard of the Premack principle before and used the theory to help me put together some fun training games. The principle states that a highly preferred activity can be used effectively as a reward for a less preferred activity (i.e. eat your broccoli and you can have some cake). But it wasn’t until Layla was almost two years old that I was convinced to try the idea with her to work on her uncontrollable predatory responses. I spoke with my veterinarian before I began training, to verify that my dog’s physiological response to prey was safe – I was concerned that her heart rate jumped so high and took so long to drop after being in the backyard. After getting the go-ahead from the vet, I took a deep breath and began training.

The first several sessions in the backyard were excruciating for me. Layla was thrilled to go there, where her eyes would immediately glaze over and her body begin shaking. We coined a new term for the intense head-to-tail trembling: “Laylaquaking”. I put Layla on a body harness and a soft, strong, six-foot leash. We stood at the edge of the yard, and she sniffed the air and quaked, leaning into the leash. I just waited. After several long moments, Layla’s eyes flicked towards me. Click! We took several steps further into the yard, towards the woods. Again we waited. Layla backed up in frustration but remained focused on the woods. Finally, her eyes slid in slow motion from the line of trees to meet my gaze. Click! Another few steps. The first session lasted just a few minutes before I pried my entranced dog away from her predatory fantasies and went back inside. After about twenty minutes of calming down, the exhausted dog took a nap.

I needed a lot of reassurance from other professionals in the field during those first few sessions. It seemed so counterintuitive to me to let this voracious dog practice the stalking part of a predatory sequence. After all, doesn’t practice make perfect? Layla clearly didn’t need any more practice to become a skilled hunter – she already had a long history of killing (and often eating) furry prey. The very low rate of reinforcement – as long as two minutes between clicks – also seemed backwards and ineffective. But at this point, I was willing to try anything. I took another look at my training plan. It was impossible to split my criteria any further. Layla was able to work happily to the front and sides of the house, and there was no gradual progression towards her extreme response. If she could see the woods, she was unreachable. If she couldn’t see the woods, she was fine. Ping-ponging between the sides and back of the house just frustrated her and sent her more over-threshold, resulting in monkey screams that brought the neighbors to their windows. And that brief second of eye contact seemed to be smallest bit of attention that she offered – her ears always remained pricked towards the woods, so I wasn’t even able to capture an ear flicking towards me.

After just two weeks of daily practice, Layla was able to back away from the woods and sit by my side, holding eye contact for five seconds. After three weeks, we were able to progress all the way to the edge of the woods in just 15 minutes, where the excited dog would follow scent trails towards a cluster of rabbit holes. Two months into it, Layla was able to tug in the backyard, and a few weeks later she swallowed her first treat within sight of the woods. I began to work her on a long line, asking for simple heeling or brief stays before releasing her to run along the edge of the woods and take in the smells.

A fascinating new book, Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt, helped to reassure me that I was on the right path. Rather than being in conflict with a dog over something the dog wanted or needed to do, McDevitt recommended presenting access to these distractions in a structured way to further a dog’s training program. Dogs who were concerned about the proximity of other dogs were taught to glance at those nearby canines who concerned them from a distance and on cue, as part of a game structure called “Look at That.” Dogs who would become stressed during agility training and respond by disconnecting and sniffing the ground were asked to do one or two simple behaviors, then released to go sniff. Soon the dogs stopped worrying about the nearby dogs and started refusing to go take “sniff breaks,” choosing instead to stay connected with the handler and continue training. I was intrigued.

Suddenly, I started to see opportunities for rewards everywhere. My students were first suspicious, then delighted to find that releasing their dogs to “misbehave” actually helped the dogs become more attentive. A goofy adolescent Labrador puppy in one class was struggling with relaxation and stay exercises outside. She would hold still for several seconds, taking treats from her owner with a wildly rotating tail, then explode upwards and bound in circles around the hapless lady. Releasing the dog to zoom around on-leash after a successful stay gave the puppy the activity she needed, and allowed the owner to regain control of the situation and feel less frustrated. A young Beagle in the same class was fascinated by the myriad smells in the grass, and would disconnect from his owner to take in the fascinating scents while heeling. Not a problem! Releasing the dog to go sniff after several steps of heeling soon resulted in an attentive, connected dog. Within a couple minutes, the Beagle’s owner was able to drop the leash and was amazed to find her dog happily working alongside her, ignoring the fascinating scents on the ground and the other dogs working nearby.

Anybody who lives or works with dogs on a daily basis understands the amazing complexity of these sentient beings. We will never know exactly how dogs experience emotions or whether their experiences are comparable to ours, but it is clear that dogs have distinct personalities, just as we do. Each dog is an individual, and the more we can work with our dogs rather than against them, the more we find out about their motivations and values. Just like people, some dogs are more fearful and tentative, some more curious and outgoing. Some dogs are mild-mannered while others are impulsive. Patient training can influence a dog’s ability to control their emotions, just as practice can help a person learn to be less spontaneous.

Looking at the curriculum for many of the pet dog classes I teach, I can see that I need to learn to be more fluid. Fitting each dog into a cookie-cutter mold is harmful to the dog-human bond. Even using gentle methods based on positive reinforcement, if I ask a dog-handler team to do an exercise that one of the team members is not capable of, I am responsible for harming that team’s relationship. My students depend on me to help them learn how to communicate with an entirely different species. That is no small task! In no other profession is someone asked to teach a brand new skill to two naïve members of two entirely different species at the same time. If a student leaves my class knowing nothing more than how to truly watch their canine companion and listen to what she is saying, I will consider their graduation a success. Obedience will come in time. Understanding and empathy cannot be taught, only encouraged.

As for Layla and I? The other night as we were walking, we came across a rabbit crouched under a bush just a few feet away. The rabbit froze, as did my dog and I. Layla backed up a few steps and looked at me steadily, her body tense in anticipation. Smiling, I quietly released her, and together we chased the rabbit several feet down the street before I gently pulled up on her leash. Then we resumed our walk together, content to spend time with one another and happy with the close bond that true understanding brings.

10 responses to “Lessons From Layla

  1. Pingback: The Myth of the “Normal” Dog | Paws Abilities

  2. Pingback: Loose Leash Walking | Paws Abilities

  3. Pingback: How can I make my dog obey? | Paws Abilities

  4. Good web-site you’ve got right here.

  5. Awesome article-found so much I can use with my Border Collie, Jack. Thank you!

  6. Pingback: Squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks, oh my! | Paws Abilities

  7. Outstanding! I winter with my 3.5 year old English Springer Spaniel in a community in Scottsdale, AZ where there are several large grassy “pocket parks” scattered along the miles of paved walking paths that run through desert (with cactus) landscaping. These pocket parks are absolutely littered with rabbits. Kai began by straining on his leash to chase when he spotted a rabbit. When he hit the end of the leash he froze like a statue but was not able to look away so I started asking for a sit. The second his rear touched the ground I slacked on the leash to let him move forward. Before long he lost interest in chasing but instead the slow stalking has become like a drug to him. Once the rabbit runs away he is done with the game. I’ll start asking for him to raise the bar by playing the “Look At That” game with me (which he plays when we see other dogs to keep his leash reactivity in check.)

  8. It seems it’s just a matter of finding your dog’s “currency” and what reward they will work for. Most people see rewards in the narrow sense of being food or toys, but rewards can easily be behavious. I’ve done this a long time and it does work!

  9. Wonderful essay! Great details and explaination of the process. I truly appreciate you sharing this experience. I love Premack and have use it all the time with my dog.

  10. Pingback: When Jumping isn’t Friendly | Paws Abilities

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