Buster goes to the Skatepark

Buster’s education continues.

Lunging and Barking

Buster has shown some “normal” herding behaviors. He is six months old and has lunged at and nipped, boys particularly. He went after a skateboarder recently and has also lunged at joggers on a narrow trail.

To correct these behaviors we want to work on getting him used to small, furry, fast-moving objects and teach him to have a thinking moment between the stimulation and his emotional autonomic reaction.

So we tried working in several environments that helped get him closer to the behavior we were wanting.

Then we moved on to the skate park. The skate park provides the stimulation required and allows us to use distance to manage the distraction intensity.

It is a relatively safe environment so that no one gets in trouble for being reactive. We don’t want him nipping anyone.

Boys sometimes think it is funny to tease the dog “by accident” getting closer and closer. So if you choose an open area, be very aware.

Here he is at the skate park. The boys are mostly in a cage so they are safe and so is Buster.

The fence provides us with a useful boundary, that we can use to move closer to or further away, to increase, or reduce, the intensity of the distraction.

I want to be clear to a casual viewer that I am moving in and out of the camera’s view as I increase the distance from the distraction and so reduce the intensity of Buster’s reaction to the stimulation. He “gathers himself” then we return closer to the distraction, I repeat this a couple of times. This way his performance improves. There is nothing magical happening out of camera shot.

There is no point staying so close to the distraction when he is lunging and barking.

I am frequently asked “What should I do when he lunges and barks” and the answer is “Absolutely nothing you say or do at that moment will change the behavior right then.

Why don’t I correct him?

I limit my communication to a serious voice tone, and the word “No” to describe the behavior that I don’t want. It is not intended as a correction, it is not very loud, it is firm. I do not expect the behavior to change right then, I am simply labelling inappropriate performance.

Not that, this!

Concentrating on marking and rewarding the behavior I prefer, even an approximation will elicit a reward at first then I fine tune the performance by rewarding only the improvement.

No amount of yelling, bullying or jerking on the leash or collar will change anything for the better.

You just become part of the problem. The behavior itself is so rewarding that we are reinforcing the behavior just by experiencing it.

If we get “excited” we also show our dog that “it” is worth getting excited about, as the only thing that changed was the new addition to the environment.

Most of the time the dog does not understand that it is his behavior that you are getting distressed over!

If we add anxiety, fear, stress or anger to the equation the performance will get worse not better.

Any physical correction does not teach the dog not to do the behavior or learn to cope, it will be a withdrawal of trust from the Emotional Bank Account. Even if you see some improvement in behavior it is not because the dog has learned a new skill, it has learned to fear you. The challenge with that acquisition is that it depends on you being there, the leash being on, the collar being on and your close enough to administer the punishment.

If you think about the effectiveness of speed limits. How many people exceed the speed limits? They know that if the policeman is not there they can speed and frequently do. If the policeman is there then they don’t speed. And they will probably look for the policeman next time they are in that particular place. But they don’t generalize it to don’t speed anywhere. If they get stopped for speeding they get mad at the policeman. The punishment is not consistent, not timely, and not effective in changing habitual and rewarding behavior. If they speed ten times in a row and don’t get caught then they are rewarded ten times. In effect the sense of heightened risk releases endorphins and chemically rewards the risk taking behavior.

The goal of this skill acquisition training is to teach the dog that the things that previously stimulated it can be tolerated easily with no negative consequences and in fact there are rewards for building coping mechanisms. This is termed systematic progressive desensitization. This is followed by counter-conditioning, where Buster actually welcomes the distraction that previously startled him, you can see this in the last few frames of the video where he looks at the skateboarder in the pipe and then looks back at me with a calm happy face and a soft relaxed down.  This acquisition of a coping skill is really important when a dog is not necessarily going to be closely supervised ( and who wants to have to do that for the dog’s lifetime?) It builds advanced performance and mutual trust.

So increase distance and reduce the stimulation, gather your big boy’s head and try again carefully, trying not to exceed his threshold.

If you watch Buster carefully you will see that he is still quite excited at first and his movements are hectic, his taking treats is very fast, a little ADD. He is very close to his threshold at first and working at this level of stimulation takes experience to make sure that the learning is both appropriate and intentional! You will see his ability improves dramatically as we continue working on the distraction.

If you work at a lower intensity you will achieve the same result, just a little slower.

It might take a couple of visits.

So if in doubt lower the level of distraction, increase the distance and work with his behaviors there. He will get better.

The skaters  in the park focus on enhancing their skills, a slightly OCD behavior, so their attention is inside the fence not outside. There is very little eye contact to concern Buster.

There is no point trying to work on this high level distraction until your dog has a foundation of training in “sit”, “down”, “stay” and “stop” in other less distracting environments.

I recommend some successful repetitions in gradually increasing intensity of distractions and different environments.

You don’t want him thinking that it only is important at the skate park. So this is advanced training, not basic training.


Punishment is NOT the answer.

It is not about correcting or punishing him for wrong behavior, this is his natural emotional reaction to stimulation, his quick reactions are ones that we have carefully and selectively bred into the breed for hundreds of years to make a good herding dog. Now we want him as a household pet and to not herd the children or their friends.

So we want to train a thinking moment between the stimulation and the reaction and would like him to decide to override his automatic response with a calm self-controlled behavior.

Be very careful not to raise anxiety.

Do not add stress, fear or anger to the equation. In your dog or you.

Any increase in emotional response will hijack the decision-making process in humans and dogs. Think “road rage!”

Even when people think punishment is working it is rarely leading to a long-term permanent change in behavior.

Please, don’t do it!

Things to watch for

As you watch the video, pay attention to voice cues, (I am telling him what is ok and what is not ok) watch for hand cues that help him understand what I am looking for, listen for the clicker. Pay attention to the timing, it is very precise, I am marking the behavior we want for the long-term and especially watch how fast Buster learns and internalizes the new performance.

Dog reactive dogs and leash aggression.

If your dog is dog reactive, this clip will also be helpful to you. Just substitute a dog park with dogs inside for the skate park.