Engage-Disengage Game for Fearful & Reactive Dogs

Many dogs struggle to stay relaxed and calm around other dogs, people, or sounds in the environment. Rather than moving on, they may exhibit a range of intense stress responses including Fight (barking, lunging), Flight (avoiding, hiding, running away), Freeze (cowering, shutting down), or Fool Around (jumping, mouthing, tugging) behaviors. Changing these responses requires gradual counter-conditioning and desensitization as well as training an alternative response behavior.

The Engage-Disengage Game uses positive reinforcement methods to first decrease the dog’s fear, anxiety, or frustration and then teach a safe and appropriate replacement behavior of Self-Interruption.

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How to Play

Preparation:

  • Prepare 3 to 4 types of high value treats for your dog
  • Make sure your dog is already conditioned to a verbal marker or a clicker as a marker for correct behavior
  • Make sure your dog’s collar or harness is humane and gentle: No choke chains, prong collars, shock collars, or any other equipment designed to “correct” your dog. A simple flat buckle or snap collar, a martingale collar, or a standard front-attach harness will do just fine!
  • A leash that is of appropriate strength for your dog – about 1 inch wide is great for almost all dogs. I suggest using a regular leash – no bungee or retractable leashes.
  • Practice fast U-turns and other methods of luring your dog away from a distraction
  • When you have everything ready, choose a position that is a safe distance away from potential triggers.
  • Usually at least 20 feet away, though some dogs may need more space.

The Game:

When playing this game, play in about 5-minute increments, then take a break to walk around and let your dog relax. You want your dog to be having a good time while you do this – it is, after all, a game!

Level One

Our goal in level one is to reward your dog for ENGAGING their attention with a trigger. Always start a safe distance away from the trigger.

  1. Be quiet and still while waiting for your dog to notice a trigger. You should allow your dog to just “be a dog” and sniff around, exploring the environment. The only thing you need to do is simply keep your dog a safe distance away from the trigger. Otherwise, just follow along with them if they want to explore, or simply stand quietly if they want to stay in one place.
  2. At the EXACT moment your dog looks at the trigger (ENGAGE), MARK using your clicker or marker word.
  3. When your dog looks to you, deliver one of you super tasty treats! If your dog is not looking to you after you MARK, then you are too close to the trigger and you need to back away so your dog has more room and start again.

Do this for 3 to 5 successful repetitions with the same trigger at the same distance before moving up to Level Two. A successful repetition is your dog looking to you for the treat after you mark the behavior of ENGAGING the trigger.

Level Two

In Level Two, we are rewarding our dog for DISENGAGING the trigger by looking back at us! You should begin this level at the same distance from the trigger as Level One.

  1. Wait for your dog to engage the trigger, then wait 3 to 5 seconds for your dog to DISENGAGE or look away from the trigger on their own. If your dog does not look away after 5 seconds, return to Level One.
  2. As soon as your dog looks away from the trigger, MARK with your clicker or verbal marker.
  3. Deliver your tasty treat! If your dog does not look to you for the treat or is reacting to the trigger, move further away and begin again.
  4. Repeat for 3 to 5 successful repetitions. A successful repetition is your dog comfortably disengaging from the trigger on their own.

After these 3 to 5 repetitions, you are ready to slowly move 1 to 5 steps closer to the trigger. I suggest moving in very small increments first.

Always be aware of your dog’s body language and never rush to the next step. Refer to the “Beach Diagram” below for guidance on how to track your dog’s emotional state, when to move forward, and when to move away.

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