For some dogs, the world can be an overwhelming place. People, bikes, skateboards, other dogs… there’s a lot out there to take in. Whether your dog is frightened, worried, or just overly excited by these things, the Watch the World game is a wonderful way to help her deal with them.
The Watch the World game teaches dogs to look at their owner when they see someone or something that would usually trigger them. This game is wonderful for any dog who is overly interested in novel stimuli, regardless of the reason for their interest.
In order to play this game, start with especially delectable treats. While I usually use the dog’s food to train him, this is a case where the “wow” value is important. Choose stinky, slimy treats such as roast beef, chicken, peanut butter, or blue cheese. If you use low-value treats for this game, it will take much longer to work or may not be effective at all.
Bring your dog to a quiet area where he will occasionally see the trigger. For example, a dog who is frightened or overly excited by strangers can be taken to a relatively low-traffic parking lot. The goal is for the dog to occasionally see the trigger with breaks in between.
Sit next to your dog in your car, with your dog crated or on a leash. Sit quietly and ignore him or her until your dog sees the trigger. As soon as your dog sees the person, skateboard, dog, etc, start feeding him treats regardless of what he does. Even if he barks or growls, it is important that the appearance of the trigger predicts good things. Continue feeding treats as quickly as your dog can eat them until the trigger is out of sight. Once the trigger is gone, put the treats away and go back to ignoring your dog.
Repeat this game once or twice a week. Within 2-4 weeks, you should see a remarkable shift in your dog’s body language. Instead of reacting negatively when he sees the trigger, he will begin to light up, turning to you for his reward. Now your dog is getting into the game! Once he starts “pointing out” triggers to earn his reward, you’ll know that he’s got it.
This game is so effective because it reframes the appearance of the trigger for the dog. Instead of predicting fear, excitement, or protectiveness, the trigger now predicts wonderful stuff from you. This is known as “classical conditioning” and is a very powerful means of permanently changing behavior.
Once your dog knows the game, begin gradually moving to busier areas. Eventually you can move out of your car with your dog on leash. When you do this, start back in a quieter area. If you move to a busier location and your dog regresses, you may have pushed the envelope too much: just move back to the last location where your dog was successful, and continue to build on that success.
Have you ever played the Watch the World game with your dog? What changes did you see? Did you encounter any problems? Please share your stories in the comments section!