Roles for Teaching Dogs: Helpers and Safe Socializers

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Roles for Teaching Dogs: Helpers and Safe Socializers

This chapter discusses the role of Helper Dogs and Safe Socializers. (Demo Dogs are discussed in the next chapter.) Helper dogs are employed to serve as neutral dogs who help you in your work with reactive dogs who are fearful and/or stressed. Safe Socializers are used to help other dogs, usually puppies, to learn how to properly interact with other dogs and people. Along with some of the ways and some detailed instructions, I’ll give suggestions from some of our personality types of dogs who may work out well in these scenarios, and some who may not.

Keep in mind when working with dogs that each dog is an individual, and should be judged as such. And while some dogs’ personality types may not typically work in these situations, some individuals may do quite well with the actual task at hand. And along the same lines, watch your dog when you are working with him. Just because your dog has the type of personality that should be able to handle the work that you’ve put him up to, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will enjoy it. So always keep an eye on your individual dog to make sure that he is having fun with his job.

As an aside, you won’t see me write too much about the All-Rounders in this chapter. Because of their easygoing nature and willingness to work without high burnout rate, you can safely assume that many All-Rounders would be included in all of the places where I give suggestions on which dogs will handle these roles best. If you are fortunate enough to be dealing with an All-Rounder in the first place, you can use him just about anywhere!

Helper dogs and dog-dog reactivity cases

Utilizing a helper dog to work through dog reactivity cases can be one of the most beneficial applications in bringing a teaching dog into your business model. Having a steady teaching dog when working with such cases can help you immensely in what it often a very challenging task for many dog trainers.

The use of helper dogs, sometimes called decoy dogs, is a relatively new innovation in treating dog to dog aggression and now employed by many leading trainers. Grisha Stewart, through her Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) protocols, was one of the first to recommend the use of helper dogs. In her BAT set-ups, a reactive dog and his handler approach a helper dog and the dog is rewarded for showing calm behavior. It would defeat the purpose of the exercise if the helper dog himself became reactive.

So your helper dog must be able to remain calm in the face of an approaching dog potentially barking or lunging at him. This means your helper dog must not only remain calm, but have one heck of a proofed stay and heel. While this is a tough thing to build, it can be done with the right dog.

When using my helper dog in a dog reactivity lesson, “stay,” “this way,” and “heel” are the cues that I call on most often. These are the steps I go through with a helper dog in my own variation of the BAT protocol:

Step 1:

Have your helper dog stay still while the reactive client dog is learning to cope with being in the vicinity of the helper dog. It is important that your helper dog can hold a reliable stay at a distance of 25 to 30 feet away from you while you are working with the client’s dog. Don’t yet have a dog who can holda reliable stay at that distance while you work with another dog? That’s okay. You’ll just need an assistant to work with client’s dog during the lesson while you build up your helper dog’s stay.

Step 2:

Have the helper dog begin moving. I have found through practice that it is much easier to keep the reactive dog still while the helper dog moves. Here is your opportunity to use that heel that you worked so hard to proof. Have your helper dog heel at an appropriate distance (while keeping the reactive dog under threshold), past the reactive dog while the reactive dog does focus, touch and shaping exercises. When the reactive dog is okay with the helper dog moving around him, it’s time to get the reactive dog moving.

Step 3:

Once the dogs have a good working relationship (this does not mean that they can be social!), and their threshold for working together has decreased to 5 to 10 feet, it’s time for passing. Start the dogs standing about 50 feet away from each other and facing each other. Walk toward each other in heel. When you get close, maneuver your body and your client’s body so that the right shoulders of the humans are the closest point to each other during the pass. (You should still be about 5 to 10 feet away at this point.) Once you pass each other, break into a play session (between humans and dogs, not between the dogs!) and reward each dog. Remember to increase the distance between the two handler/dog teams if the reactive dog looks as if he is going to go over threshold.

Which personalities will work :

The Cool Kid works well in this application, as he is confident enough to be able to handle the personality of a reactive dog and turn the other cheek. If there was also a socialization component to the reactivity lesson, this would likely not be the case. Mr. Particular may also work if he’s not the sensitive type.

Which personalities won’t work :

Wallflowers will likely not work in this application, as they have a tendency to melt and break down, causing more harm to their sensitive nature than good. If you use a Wallflower in this application you run the risk of eliciting behavior problems that may not have previously occurred, like reactivity or fearfulness around other dogs.

Life of the Party types may also not work in this application since they have a tendency to escalate challenges. For that reason, they may not be best suited to this kind of work. Safe Socialization tasks Do not underestimate the value of a fantastically balanced safe socializer dog when it comes to teaching other dogs a lesson! As I mentioned earlier, I once had a dog who had such a balanced and stable personality that she lent herself perfectly to socializing other dogs.

A very typical Great Dane, more inclined to sleep on the sofa than to hit the hiking trails, Libby was not the dog I used to wow audiences at a tricks exhibition or demonstrate agility principles. But Libby was the great mediator when it came to other dogs. She was amenable enough to entice a shy puppy to play, but inhibited enough to deliver the proper amount of correction to a dog who needed to learn a lesson. She would engage a dog in chase games, or merely lie in a room with other dogs while they warmed to her slowly. Many dogs learned a lesson from Libby.

While there have been times when I asked clients if I could use their dog to teach social interaction to another dog, to this date I have not owned another dog with the personality that can handle the rigors of being a socialization dog.

Many uninformed owners believe that the proper way to socialize a dog who’s having any type of social anxiety or otherwise making socialization mistakes is to just pop him into the dog park and let the chips fall where they may. And once in a great while, this works. But more often than not, this method backfires and may actually exacerbate social anxiety. So if you want to know how to successfully socialize a dog, here you go!

Socializing a shy dog :

When attempting to make a shy dog more social with other dogs, it’s imperative to have a safe socializer dog who does not overshadow the dog he is trying to help. Owners will attempt to put the dog with other “friendly” dogs including Life of the Party types, but in all actuality, the timid dog is already sensitive to space in the first place and this will begin to have the opposite effect of what you are looking for.

Basically, if you take a sensitive dog, put him into a situation with a group of boisterous individuals like a Life of the Party, you may make the problem worse. If shy dogs are overwhelmed by dogs who don’t take no for an answer, they are likely to become defensive, which may trigger a reactive response. In turn, this may actually make the shy dog actively react to the presence of other dogs instead of just being intimidated by them. So in this case, you have effectively made your shy client even worse!

On the contrary, when attempting to socialize a dog who is shy and conscious of his space, a calm and dog-friendly helper dog can be used successfully.

How can your helper dog assist you in teaching a shy dog to be more social with other dogs? Here are some steps:

Step 1 :

Start by going on a walk together with a ratio of one person for each dog. Walks are the great neutralizer. When you take dogs for a walk, it drains their energy, releases endorphins, creates a positive association with something that they may not be crazy about (that other dog!) and gives them something to think about other than the presence of the other dog. Start in a neutral location and get out there and walk for as long as you wish…the longer the better, as long as everyone is in good condition for the walk. But don’t let the dogs meet just yet. Take a few walks with your helper dog before allowing the dogs to meet. Basically, the shy dog should be begging to meet the other dog before you allow them to interact.

Step 2 :

The rule of three! Once the shy dog is practically begging to meet your safe socializer dog, you can allow them to do an introduction. When you introduce dogs, you want to facilitate a proper greeting. This involves one dog’s nose and the other dog’s backside. Allow the more curious of the two dogs to do an initial sniff while the other dog continues to walk forward. Count to three. On three, call the dog who is sniffing back to you while the dog in front continues to walk forward. (Don’t pull! If you put pressure on the leash, the dogs may become tense. Instead, clap your hands and coax the dog back to you. If you need to, give the dog a tap on his flank with your finger to break his attention from the other dog and jog backwards a few steps.) Do this a few times and switch positions.

Step 3 :

Let them linger! If the aforementioned step went well, try to let the dogs linger a bit. Now it’s time for the leash dance. Move around with the dogs and the leashes, without allowing the leashes to become intertwined or tense. Allow the dogs to engage in play for three to five seconds at a time and call them away from each other.
If things seem forced or uncomfortable, go back to Step 1 and start walking again.

Step 4 :

If things are going well, take the dogs to a neutral location and allow them to play off leash.

Which personalities will work

Mr. Particular works well with a shy dog. As Mr. Particular is very cautious about making the right moves around another dog and being respectful of space, he is likely a good choice to socialize with shy dogs.

The Cool Kid also may have merit when working to socialize a shy dog. This is, of course, providing that the individual Cool Kid is dog friendly and is not put off by other dogs.

Which personalities won’t work

Life of the Party type personalities will likely intimidate a shy dog and may make him revert back into his shell or lash out.

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