My dog Lucy was recently diagnosed with degenerative joint disease in one hip. It’s a bummer, but we’re doing a series of cold laser treatments, changing up her supplements and doing a lot of conditioning work, and all of that seems to be helping tremendously. During the active phase of her treatment, I’ve been doing my best to keep her active, engaged and happy while minimizing the hip-reouchifying things she likes to do (namely, tearing around fenced areas like a maniac, twisting around awkwardly to catch balls and frisbees, leaping onto everything). This, plus my new resolution to start trusting my dogs more, means that we’re starting to do more stuff that’s outside our comfort zone. And all of this is how, on a recent sunny afternoon, Lucy and I found ourselves at my town’s annual Pecan Festival.
Let me back up and explain why taking my dog to a pleasant outdoor fair, something that many dogs do all the time, was kind of a big deal. I’ve talked a bit about Lucy’s background here before, but to quickly recap: when I got her as an about-to-be-euthanized adult from the city pound, she was undersocialized to the point of being reactive to almost everything in her environment.
She thankfully liked people OK, but was terrified of mailboxes, large clangy trucks, any non-car wheeled vehicle from bikes to shopping carts to skateboards (oh, skateboards. We’re still not all the way over those), sirens, That One Big Black Dog Who Lives In The Mirror, and a bunch of other things that I can barely even remember. She was fine with my cats at home, but outside, she had an alarming amount of prey drive and had a very hard time recovering from such horrifying events as, say, a squirrel sitting in a tree. And the worst thing of all was other dogs, who she found universally terrifying and confusing regardless of size, breed, energy level or their distance from us. Lucy’s standard response to most of her Horribles was to whale-eye, snarl, shriekbark and perform a very effective combination of lunging and spinning that pulled me off my feet more than once (and I am reasonably strong, reasonably sturdy and had been doing a lot of yoga and martial arts at the time.) When she got really worked up about something, she would occasionally whip around and chomp me in the leg. It was a serious situation for sure, compounded by the fact that Lucy was my first dog and thus, I was learning as we went along.
Luckily, Lucy has a stubborn mama who was not about to give up on her, and together, we spent a long time stumbling through a bunch of different strategies for managing her anxieties out in the world. What ultimately really saved her and what laid the foundation for her being the awesome, reasonably relaxed and non-bitey dog she is today was a game developed by Leslie McDevitt, laid out in her (totally brilliant, must-own) book Control Unleashed. McDevitt’s Look At That game (which I’ll abbreviate here as LAT) is one you may already know; it’s helpful in a huge variety of situations, so it is justifiably popular among dog people. If you don’t know it, I’ll describe it quickly (though it’s laid out very well in Control Unleashed, so probably you should just go pick up a copy. I’ll wait!)
In LAT, you’re doing the opposite of what feels initially like the ‘right’ thing to do–when your dog sees a Bad Thing, it’s often our instinct to try to distract them, to shield their eyes, to try to keep their focus on us. And that can feel like a hopeless, losing battle, since even though your dog loves you, it is generally very, very hard to get him to focus on you when OMG THERE IS DEATH EVERYWHERE! Many trainers will often reinforce this mindset by telling you that you have to be the most interesting thing in your dog’s world all the time, which means that you in turn feel like a failure or like your relationship with your dog is somehow lacking. Put yourself in your dog’s position, though: let’s say you’re at the bank and super absorbed in a conversation with your best friend. Then, all of a sudden, the door flies open and a bunch of bank robbers with guns burst in! Does the fact that you probably abruptly stopped the conversation with your best friend and freaked out a little bit mean that your relationship with her is lacking, or that you don’t respect her, or that she’s not important to you? Of course not, duh! It means there were bank robbers all of the sudden and that temporarily became somewhat more pressing. I know that a garbage truck is loud and annoying but that it’s not a threat and it’ll go away soon; Lucy, by contrast, knows full well that it’s a dog-eating monster and that the only way to make it go away is to bark at it and to maybe to bite something. And in the moment, whatever I’m doing ceases to be as important as defending herself from monsters. It’s understandable!
This is where LAT comes in. It’s a simple premise, really: your dog looks at the Bad Thing and then you reward them for orienting back to you. They look again (because it’s STILL THERE AUUUGH), then they look back at you: reward. They look again, they look back: reward. That’s the whole game. They look at Bad Thing, they look back at you, they get a reward (note: if you clicker train, a clicker is a VERY useful tool here. The click initially comes the minute the dog takes their eyes off the bad thing and starts to reorient, even for a second; later, you can start clicking for full eye contact or whatever you want, but initially, it’s most helpful to mark the second the dog stops staring.)
A few more rounds of this and the magic starts to happen as your dog begins to make an important connection: Bad Thing does not seem to be eating her and more importantly, every time she looks at it, then at you, she get snacks. Dog stops thinking about the Badness of Bad Thing and starts thinking about Bad Thing as a good thing, something that sets the game in motion and earns her rewards. The dog begins to seek out Bad Thing, because she knows that the presence of Bad Thing is effectively the start button for a fun, easy and highly rewarding game. This gives the dog a structure for coping with things that stress her out: instead of just getting all, “A dog a dog oh no it’s a dog what am I supposed to do BARK BARK BARK!”, the dog shifts into a mindset of “OK, there’s a dog. That means if I look at my human, I get treats”. You’re training an association, just like you would with, say, the pause table in agility: when the dog gets to the pause table, she jumps up and lays down until released. When the dog sees another dog, she looks at her human and gets a prize. And even better, this begins to subtlety affect the dog’s feelings about their Bad Thing: when the Bad Thing is always a predictor of something fun + rewards, it becomes a whole lot less bad. It’s absolutely possible to change how dogs feel about certain stimuli; we do it all the time in training (just look at any agility dog who has a favorite piece of equipment and watch for their “OMG weaves, yaaaaaaay!” face when they get there. I bet they didn’t always feel that way about a bunch of sticks coming out of the ground!) It’s great to see a dog-reactive dog who’s done a lot of LAT walk into a trial or class environment: they’ll tear in, sit down and start rapid-fire staring at every dog in the room, and once every dog has been Looked At, they go happily over to their crate area and chill out. They may not love dogs or want to play with them or want to be approached head on, but the simple presence of dogs in the world has ceased to be scary and has actually become a little bit fun.
The trick to making this game work is that you’ve got to start below your dog’s threshold: the Bad Thing should be in view, but far enough away that your dog isn’t reacting yet and is still taking treats. Lucy had such an extreme reaction to the sight of any dog regardless of distance at first that we had to begin with simple counter-conditioning: when a dog appeared, I just opened the bar and fed her until the dog moved away regardless of her reaction. At that juncture, I didn’t care about her behavior: I just wanted to forge a basic gut-level relationship that dogs=treats. After a lot of that, we started working a long, long ways outside of a dog park, where she could dimly see dogs on the horizon but they weren’t quite stressing her out yet. And then we slowly shortened the distance between her and the dogs until we were working with dogs right across the street. I did this for all of her big triggers; however, once we’d successfully worked through dogs, she was clear on the parameters of the game, and something like mailboxes (which conveniently remain stationary) just took us one or two sessions to work through.
Dogs generally will get the game without a cue and will start offering it on their own when they encounter stimulus. However, I’ve found it useful to put LAT on cue as well; often, when we’re coming into a new environment, Lucy won’t initially notice her triggers, but when she does notice (and she always does), all hell breaks loose. I used to say “look at that dog!” when we walked in a room, and Lucy would scan the room looking for dogs she could briefly stare at (thus ensuring she saw all the potentially scary dogs and they didn’t startle her.) However, I realized pretty quickly that since Lucy is so environmentally reactive, I was never sure exactly what new thing would freak her out, so I switched over from ‘Look at that dog’ to a more general ‘Show me!’
This brings us back to the Pecan Festival, which was actually a lot busier and full of goings-on than I’d thought it was going to be. We walked in and I could feel Lucy tense up immediately, so I took her over to a quietish corner, sat down with her and quietly said “show me”. She pointed out a display with a bunch of spinning whirligigs and looked back at me for dried liver. I asked her several times and she kept pointing out new things to me: a Chihuahua riding in a bag that I hadn’t noticed, a flapping banner that was making a loud noise, a kid holding out a tempting hot dog that she knew she wasn’t supposed to steal, a couple of goats in a paddock (in Lucyland, livestock is for bossing around), a funhouse mirror. Finally she smiled and relaxed a little bit, which I took as an indication to move on. Every time we got into a new place, she would tense up a little bit, I’d ask her to show me what was bothering her, she would, we’d move past it. And in this way, my dog and I proceeded through the festival; she let me know what was stressing her out, we’d play our game, we’d keep going. We did this almost imperceptibly as I chatted with vendors, sampled food, looked at the exhibits; I paid attention to what Lucy told me and she, in turn, moved through the fair in a relaxed, non-meltdowny way (which was aided by the fact that at every booth we stopped at, people petted her and offered her cookies and complimented her on her magnificent eyebrows.) It was a very powerful application of a very simple game, and it reminded me how much aggravation you can spare yourself just by setting up a framework that allows you and your dog to communicate.
I’ve seen people use LAT with herding dogs who will not stop giving other dogs the eye, with little dudes who want to rush newcomers at the dog park, with dogs who are fearful of new humans, with dogs who want to chase critters, &c. I’ve used it with my excessively friendly pit mix who wants to leap up and kiss everyone on the nose. It’s an exceedingly flexible game with a ton of different applications, and I hear about new ways to use it all the time. Have you used LAT with your dog? Tell us the circumstances in the comments!