I was with Dakota, my 8 month old Berger Blanc Suisse, attending an intermediate level class on good pet dog manners (yes, even trainers need to take their own dogs to classes), when our instructor, Stephanie Kowalewski of Heavenly Hounds Dog Training, devised this really challenging exercise: She had us line up in a straight line with our dogs, each 3 feet apart. Three feet is not a lot of distance, and the dogs are very inclined to want to go over and sniff or initiate play or maybe show displeasure at being so close to other dogs. As an aside, you should know that these are all young, but mostly well adjusted family dogs that don’t fall into any kind of reactive category. Well, our job as handlers was to prevent interaction between the dogs by putting them into either a sit-stay or a down-stay.
And here was the challenge: Each in turn, the dog and handler at the top of the line was to heel with their dog, whilst weaving through each of those 3 foot gaps. There were about eight or nine dogs in all. Yikes! They’re only youngsters! Steph told those of us in sit or down-stays to feed our dogs with reinforcing treats the whole time as the heeling dog weaved between us. I can tell you that a lot of food was being passed to our dogs to keep them from breaking their stays.
And then it happened! At one point, I put my hand under Dakota’s chin because my other hand was getting more treats out of my treat pouch. As I looked down at him, I saw his eyes blink and soften and his head weight come solidly into my hand. His relief was tangible. And from that point onwards in the exercise, my rate of feeding was able to drop because we had an alternate chin resting behavior that needed reinforcing periodically as opposed to continually. And Dakota was less stressed!
Dakota already knew the behavior of chin targeting, but I hadn’t thought to use it in that kind of environment. Well, guess what, I now know that I can use it more widely than just as a cutesy trick. It can have value to a stressed dog too.
Tycho is my reactive boy. I’ll be spending time teaching him this behavior now. You never know when a chin target may come in handy. I’m thinking of all kinds of uses: at the vet, on the street, at the park, when he’s uncomfortable in the car, when people come over to visit and I finally bring him out to say hello to them, and so on. Thank you, Dakota, for teaching me to open my eyes and head and heart to you.