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Author’s Note: I recently discontinued this training with Panzer. Not because I wasn’t getting results, but because I was urged by one of my trainers to cease and desist. She warned me that drawing attention to an instinctual behavior could make my already slightly obsessed dog more obsessed with things that were, in some instances, beyond his control (akin to someone who is focusing on their breathing or blinking, ever notice how it becomes harder to do those things when you’re thinking about them?). Anyway, my first inclination was to completely delete this blog. However, I decided to let it remain, because I think it’s an interesting conversation piece. I think this kind of training makes you think long and hard and thoughtfully about positive reinforcement training and learning theory in general, which is why I’ve left it here. It has caused me to really think and reassess and wonder and question. I am not sure whether or not I yet agree with my trainer, but I know that I want to give it some more thought before I decide what to do. I thought it was important that, if I let the blog remain, to disclose to everyone that I no longer am working on this training experiment with Panzer and that I highly encourage you to think very seriously about this type of training before you attempt it yourself. That said, happy reading!

Original Author’s Note: This post was inspired by a recent blog by renown dog trainer Patricia McConnell, PhD. She asked her readers what their favorite “non traditional cue” was. After reading her blog (which you can read in full here: http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/whats-your-favorite-non-traditional-cue) and some of the responses, I thought about what mine was. This is, by far, my favorite.

Panzer is a happy, healthy, one and a half (?) year old German Shepherd who Joe and I rescued about two months ago. His history is mostly unknown, though it is speculated that he was used as a bait dog in fighting rings somewhere in Washington DC, where he was found, emaciated and wandering the streets.

Whatever happened to him, Panzer is desperately afraid of strangers, especially strangers he encounters outside of his “safe places”. He also is extremely fearful or possibly just enraged by, the presence of our housecat, Apollo. I’ve had experience treating both of these issues, at least a couple of times, if not more than that, and have had good results with simple desensitization and counter conditioning, which is going slowly, but nicely, with Panzer.

However, Panzer is a little different than other dogs I’ve worked with because in addition to his aggression issues, he has little to no impulse control (something else we are actively working on). He has trouble staying put. If you ask him to “lie down” for example, he will throw himself dramatically to the floor in a perfect, rapid, sphinx down that would make any rally competitor proud. He doesn’t seem capable of maintaining that position however. He almost always springs up only to throw himself down again when he doesn’t get what he wants. He also has a tendency to throw every behavior he knows when we are shaping, instead of stopping and thinking for a moment. We’re working on that too.

But I thought incorporating several things into his training at once would be a good idea with him. That’s why I created the “Panzer, Be Mean!” game.

I try to always work my dogs under threshold (that is, the level where their arousal turns into full blown reactivity). However, it’s not always perfect. Some days when we are doing desensitization exercises, with the cat say, a distance that worked wonderfully yesterday, doesn’t work as well today, and when I introduce the trigger (the cat in this example), Panzer explodes into a ball of barking, growling, lunging, snarling, fury. Before I started playing the “Panzer, Be Mean!” game, I would simply back Panzer up, so he stopped reacting, remove the trigger when he could no longer see it (so he didn’t associate his crazed growling, barking, etc. with the disappearance of the trigger), and try again from a safer distance.

Then I got an idea. Instead of just throwing that attempt out and starting again, why not make lemons into lemonade and try to incorporate some new training into his reaction? I figured, at worst, it’s not going to work, and I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and at best, it may help a little.

Note: I still never purposely work my dogs over the threshold where they are in a stressful place, because it is not conducive to learning or their overall mental health. However, when I happen to catch them in a place where they are over threshold, either because of handler error or maybe, say, we’re in a park and someone I didn’t see ends up a foot away from us before I can move away, or life happens, I play the “Panzer, Be Mean!” game instead of simply riding out the storm.

The Panzer, Be Mean! game is loosely based on Leslie McDevitt’s “Look at That!” game, which you can learn more about by purchasing her wonderful book entitled Control Unleashed (http://www.amazon.com/Control-Unleashed-Creating-Focused-Confident/dp/B000UCF53A/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349974593&sr=8-1&keywords=control+unleashed).

The way the game works is, whenever Panzer gets caught in a moment where he’s above threshold, when he is about to react, or when he just has reacted, as quickly as I can, I say, “Panzer, Be Mean!” and throw a whole handful (and I mean a shower, as many as you can fit in your hand) of treats on the ground. While he is eating the treats, I remove the trigger (either shoo the cat away or ask the person to kindly step back out of his arousal zone).

Note: On the rare occasions when Panzer won’t eat at all, I immediately remove him from the situation regardless of training, trigger, etc.

The result turned into a cue, “Panzer, Be Mean!” means that Panzer is supposed to bark, snarl, growl, etc. I tried it today in a neutral place with no trigger. This series of photos is what I got:

Cueing Panzer to “sit”

Cueing Panzer to “Be Mean”. Evidently he moves too quickly in the low light for my camera.

The end of “Be Mean”, less than a second later, after he is calming and has heard his click.

Cueing a “lie down” moments later.

Cueing “Panzer, Be Mean” once more, this time from a lie down.

As you can see, there is Panzer, being mean, but going from happy to mean in a second, and back to happy. This exercise serves a lot of very useful purposes.

First, it helps Panzer with his impulse control. It teaches him how to go from calm to aroused and back to calm, which helps with his overall aggression and rage and impulse issues. Second, it gives him the opportunity to see the trigger, not as something to be afraid of, but something that serves as the cue to the beginning of a game that he very much enjoys. That, by its very nature, makes the trigger much less scary and much more fun, which speeds up the desensitization process. Lastly, it actually gives me an on and off switch, or it will, eventually. Right now, we are still in the beginning process where every time Panzer acts out with this formally “undesirable” behavior, I say, “Panzer, Be Mean!” but eventually, I will start to fade that out. The trigger will no longer be something that frightens him, but may still seem to react, because he’s hoping for a shower of cookies. I will stop the cookies for the “Be Mean” display in the context of the trigger, and I will instead begin to ask him to “Be Mean” in more neutral situations, where it can be a fun party trick. Then he will learn that he only gets cookies when I say the magic words, “Be Mean”. I will have given myself an “off” switch. You only get cookies for Being Mean when I cue it, otherwise, no cookies, so you might as well just be normal. I will highly reinforce any calm behavior around the trigger, and the aggression will fade into the background.

Of course, this whole process is just in its beginning stages, and we have loads of work still ahead of us, but I think it’s pretty cool how the experiment is turning out. And by the end, I’m confident that, “Panzer – Be Mean” will be my favorite “non traditional cue” of all time. In fact, I might start teaching it to Shelby.

Shelby says, “Me? Mean? Never!”