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Changing Stress Cues to Calm Cues: A Training Recipe from Click to Calm

In her new book Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog, Emma Parsons presents several groundbreaking concepts in treating canine aggression through clickertraining. One of her remarkable new ideas recognizes the impact of the handler's body language on a dog's aggressive responses. She describes the moment in which she realized her own signs of stress were cueing her Golden Retriever Ben's aggressive display:

"Because a handler under stress may not be able to control her own body language, Emma Parson's training plans turn those stress signals into cues for calm, rather than aggressive, behavior."

"I suspected while working with Ben that he was responding to my body language as much as he was to the sight of another dog. So I conducted a little experiment. I took him out into the yard where there were no other dogs around. We walked, on-leash, as we normally would. Suddenly, as if I had seen another dog approach, I sucked in my breath and tightened the leash. Ben immediately became aggressive; he also moved his head back and forth scanning the perimeters of the yard. He was convinced that there was another dog in the immediate area. My body language and tight leash were his cue to be aggressive, as much or more so than the sight of another dog." Click to Calm, pp 82-83

Emma translated that realization into a practical application for training Ben and the reactive dogs of her clients. She identified four common behaviors that handlers exhibit when faced with an aggressive display: tightening the leash, grabbing the collar, holding the dog's mouth shut, and moving quickly in the opposite direction. Working with the assumption that a handler under stress may not be able to control his or her own body language, she developed a training plan that would turn those inevitable stress signals into cues for calm, alternate behaviors, rather than for aggressive displays. Emma notes "Each may cause a dog to react aggressively. If you have identified other behaviors of your own that may have become signals for your dog to show aggression, the principals remain the same."

Here is Emma Parson's step-by-step recipe for changing one stress cue, a tight leash, to a cue for calm, as excerpted from pages of Click to Calm:

Tightening the Leash:

Once you've worked this recipe with your dog, he will read your leash-tightening reaction as a cue to look at you calmly and await further instructions, rather than a cue to prepare for an aggressive encounter with another dog.

Especially helpful when:

  • Your dog meets other dogs. As your dog begins to sniff the other dog, you tense up and the leash goes tight. Follow the steps in this recipe, and instead of exploding, your dog will turn away from the other dog, give you eye contact, and loosen the leash himself. You can now ask for another behavior or simply move on.

How to make it happen:

  1. Let your dog go to the end of the leash.
  2. Take a step back.
  3. Click and feed your dog the moment the leash goes taut.
  4. Allow the dog to come to you to get the treat.
  5. Repeat several times.
  6. Once you've mastered Steps 1 to 5, stay in one spot and pull up on the leash.
  7. Click and feed your dog for loosening the leash by coming toward you.
  8. Gradually increase the amount of pressure with which you pull the leash tight.
  9. Alternate between standing still and taking a step back.
  10. As you continue to work this behavior, also reinforce any eye contact that occurs. At the sensation of his leash tightening, your dog, anticipating the click and treat, will move closer to you to loosen the leash; looking at you should become a natural part of this process.
  11. When your dog consistently turns toward you when you pull up tightly on the leash, take your training sessions into a variety of distracting environments. Doing so will build up your confidence as well as your dog's.

Secrets of success:

  • Tighten the leash very gradually so that the pressure on your dog's collar is very slight at first; looking at you in response to this slight pressure should earn him a click and a treat. Increase the pressure in tiny increments.
  • If at any time your dog seems nervous, stop the exercise and go back to the previous level of success.
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Too excited to hear the click or to take a treat

This sounds great on paper but in the real world, when my 23 month old, super obedient Standard Poodle sees another dog, all the clicking in the world won't get her attention, nor will she take a super high value treat even if I wave it under her nose.  If I don't say, "Let's go" and head the other way immediately, her excitement will, within a second, escalate into lunging, barking and standing on her hind legs at the end of her leash using the tight leash to keep her balance.  I've tried the "Look At That" game from Leslie McDevitt's "Control Unleashed" and Emma Parsons' "Click To Calm" sounds like basically the same principal.  In Step 3, Emma Parsons say's, "Click and feed your dog the moment the leash goes taut."  However, in Step 4, she says, "Allow the dog to come to you to get the treat."  If my dog is coming to me, unless I'm pulling, the leash would no longer be taut so is she saying to click & treat when the leash is taut and then feed again when the dog is coming to you?   I'd been using Karen Pryor's wonderful soft clicker for our training but thinking a louder clicker might work in these super charged situations, I bought one that is so loud it even bother's my ears.  Either she's too excited to hear it or she's ignoring it because she doesn't react to the clicker.  I've tried clicking & waiting for her to turn toward me.  It doesn't happen, she just gets more & more caught up in her lunging and barking.  I've tried clicking & going to her with the treat.  She won't take it.  I've tried clicking & waving the treat under her nose, she pushes my hand out of her way.  I've tried clicking & popping it in her mouth while she's barking. She spits it out.  These treats are microwaved chicken hot dogs that she absolutely loves. Since they are her very favorite, super high value treats, I only use them for walks when we might see another dog and for super fun trick training sessions. At this point, she is not aggressive but I'm concerned that this extreme excitement could turn into aggression.  So again, these methods sound good but what do you do when your dog doesn't look back at you or doesn't "come to you to get the treat?"  I would love suggestions because she's a great dog, extremely intelligent and under all other circumstances, very obedient.

displacing aggressive habit

That's our experience too, that the physiologially habituate clicker response may not be strong enough to displace the anxiety response.  The treats you're using may be too familiar to be exciting enough to distract her from barking.  Try something like bacon treats.  Our black standard poodle is very friendly, but barks and growls at adults approaching the property or coming to the door.  I read a recommendation to have a handful of really tasty treats and put so many in his mouth when the stimulus starts that he's to busy eating to bark.  It seems to be working.  It may take a few rounds for the effect of the treats to displace the last remnants of anxiety.


Too excited

Clearly the dog won't respond to cues or even food when over threshhold. Ideally, we would keep the dog under threshhold for all training. This protocol in Emma's book is done in her back yard to start with and is largely Pavlovian IMO. It is meant to take the negative conditioned emotional response out of the tight leash and the gasp or whatever we inadvertently do when we see one of our dog's triggers.You should move it into other situations as well to help the dog generalize to other locations, but it should be done *without* the presence of a trigger.

I don't think she means us to use the same technique while out in the world unless the dog is well under threshhold. Of course that often is not possible. If the dog is not able to take food, my response is to just get the heck outa there. You can't do any training at that point and you certainly won't get any classical conditioning in (except maybe the opposite to the one you want!).

loose leash curious too

my 15 mo old Great Dane is a service dog in training, and his recent behavoir has been nervous (not aggressive), and he pulls both leash and harness. He will train at home. I'm going to try this right away on his home leash pulling.
But I have two underlying problems: he won't take treats in public. Not even peanut butter, not even in a parking lot. Nerves. Also, he'll learn a behavior, like recall, then after a few days refuse to do it, reverting to old habits no matter what I've got in my hand.

Incompatible with loose-leash walking?

This is a great idea but I'm just curious - will this not be incompatible with training Loose-Leash Walking? ie. if you click & reward a dog whenever his leash goes tight, might that not encourage him to pull on the leash in order achieve the tension on it that seems to "produce" the reward?
Also - aggressive dogs often lunge on the leash anyway, which tightens it - how will a dog distinguish between that and this? Might this not encourage the dog to keep lunging?

(Not meaning to criticise the technique but just genuinely curious!)
Would be very keen to hear your thoughts -
Thank you,

expanding loose-leash to loose and gentle leash

We have practiced a double-tug method.  The first tug is gentle and brief, alerting the dog that he's at the end of the range.  If he doesn't respond, a second tug is combined with a sit command and held until his attention turns to you and he calms down.  Then we resume walking.  It can take five minutes to go five yards at first, but this method seems to create and habituate an awareness of where the handler is as well as calmness when on the leash.

loose leash

A dog trained to loose leash walking should respond (under threshhold!!) to the tightening of the leash by turning towards the handler anyway, so it should not cause any conflict. I would eliminate the click (it is not needed for Classical Conditioning) and just do the gasp-leash tighten-feed routine.

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