Aim For Zero

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By Sean O’Shea

Yesterday we had a super reactive and dog aggressive dog go home after a three week board and train. His owners had gotten to the point of not walking him because his behavior had become so volatile and dangerous. (He has redirected with multiple bites in the past.)

His past training experiences had asked him to simply not pull on the leash and be respectful of that boundary when out walking. The problem with that approach for this dog (and most of the guys we see here) was that it allowed him to be (and remain) in a semi-aroused mental state at all times. Even though he wasn’t pulling on the leash, he was far too disengaged from his owners, far too engaged with all things in the environment, and allowed to move and make choices on his own constantly. These factors caused him to be in an already too intense mental space when he would actually see a dog. By the time his owners would try to correct him, he would be too worked up, and the corrections would only make him worse. And he would explode.

Instead of doing a loose leash walk, we asked this dog to be in a very specific heel position.

Our desire to have dogs in an immaculate heel has nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with state of mind leverage and management. By asking for a very specific position with very specific rules, we cause the dog to remain tuned into us, he has to use all his mental energy to stay in position rather than use that mental energy to focus on trouble, and he has to practice extreme impulse control. This position also causes the dog to be more deferential and respectful of the handler who is asking for all this hard work and holding the dog accountable. (And that’s an awfully good thing with reactive dogs!)

Think of it like a mindset scale of 0-10. 0 is a totally relaxed dog, and 10 is an explosion. The loose leash walking approach was causing this dog to be cruising around in a constant state of 5, 6, 7 – just revved up and on the precipice of trouble. The mental distance between 5, 6, 7 and 10 is not very much. Once this dog would get an eyeful of another dog, he would hit 8 or 9, his owners would correct, and BOOM, explosion time! But when we walked him in our structured heel, he cruised around at a 1, 2, or 3. This meant that when he saw a dog, we had a ton of mental/intensity cushion between where he was at and the explosion point. He might lift up to a 4, 5, or 6 at worst, but that’s a very manageable state where a dog can still receive information and make positive decisions.

That means our structured heel created the cushion for us and the dog to never see the explosion point. This is why we’re such sticklers for the structured heel. By leveraging this command and all its rules and benefits, we manage to keep reactive dogs as close to 0 as possible. It’s also why these owners remarked that they’ve never had such an amazing walk with their dog before. We passed dog after dog yesterday, and their reactive guy just cruised along. If he got mildly interested in a dog (started to move up the intensity scale) they corrected immediately and brought him right back down instantly. I don’t think he ever went above 3 or 4, and boy is that saying something!!

Without keeping his mindset at a lower, more relaxed place, this dog (and his owners would be set up to fail again and again.)

If you have a reactive dog, the trick is to aim for 0, you’ll probably never actually get it, but if you do a good job of working towards it, you’ll never see 10!

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2 comments
  1. Lynn Dalton said:

    Ok but…. How to get started on asking the dog to be in a specific (immaculate) heal position? and stay there? Details? My girl knows heal, likes to please but can go pretty high on the scale when on a leash out and about. It’s different with every encounter. Thanks for any input…😊 love my girl.

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