The situation: Your dog hears something outside and runs barking at the window or at the fence or maybe your dog sees another dog and just freezes in position before he lunges
You: Anxious, nervous, feeling lost, freezing for a second (or 2 or 3 or an entire minute even).
The result: Usually when we intervene, it is too late. Your dog has been barking at the window for a while now while you were trying to call his name, without success. Or, maybe he has already approached the other dog and scared him off which teaches your dog that barking and lunging works to keep other dogs away…
What could you do differently? Have a game plan and take action. Recognize the changes in your dog’s body language and call him much earlier. The goal is for your dog to turn his head to you and run back in your direction. The more you interrupt your dog while engaging in an undesired behavior and reward him for his great choice of letting go of whatever it was and coming to you, the quicker he will respond to you the next time you try to grab his attention. This is REDIRECTING.
Why does redirecting work? Let’s face it, redirection works for us as human beings too. If we are having a bad day and someone reaches out to us to help, it brightens our day. If we think about something we failed in and someone gives us a compliment, we snap out of our thought pattern. That’s it! We snap out. Your dog will do the same. If we are able to sidetrack him, he will let go of what he thought to do and come to us.
You might think, “there is no way my dog is going to leave that other dog behind the fence and just continue to walk calmingly” or, “there is no way my dog will hear the mailman dropping a few envelopes through the mail slot and will not go nuts, running and barking towards the door”…. So here is the key- practice makes perfect! It might take you longer to call him to you the first time, you might need to go to him and lure him to you. Also, you might need to set the scenario a bit different so it’s not so difficult for your dog to leave everything and come to you. Slowly you can work it up to more difficult scenarios. When your dog comes to you, praise and reward him for coming and release him to do whatever he wants. The next time he might come faster and with less effort from your side.
By redirecting, you can help your dog create new habits, assuming you are consistent with redirecting. Dogs create certain habits-things they enjoy doing or simply are used to doing without being interrupted. If you sidetrack your dog regularly, those bad habits may start to dissolve. When you reward your dog for coming to you, you make your dog more likely to let go of things in the future.
What is important when redirecting?
Have a pre thought plan- When we don’t have a plan it is easy for us to feel lost. We can find ourselves not sure what to do and then just stand there waiting to gather our thoughts. It is good to have a ready pre-thought plan. Not to say that all situations are alike and we can have a pre-thought one-size-fits-all solution but there is something very powerful in being decisive: Your dog tends to follow you!
Our pre-thought plan could be: Once I recognized my dog is fixated, I call my dog, say ‘let’s go’ and continue walking. Watch your dog from the corner of your eye and look for the moment he joins you without looking back, say ’good boy’ to mark the moment. You definitely want your dog to know how much you are proud of him and you also want to let him know exactly what he did right. You could walk a few more steps to gain a little more distance from the distraction, ask your dog to sit (if possible) and give him a treat. Say ‘let’s go’ and continue walking.
Timing- Dogs can get very excited about something the longer they are focused on it. Different dogs have different behavior thresholds and some dogs can go from 0 to 60 in just a few seconds. For other dogs, the excitement builds more slowly. If you call your dog immediately as you observe the change in his or her body language, you have a better chance for them to leave the item they are obsessed with and come towards you (if you are at home) or continue walking with you (if you are on a walk). Let’s take a look at the following images. In what case do you think it will be easier to redirect the dog?
If you guessed that the situation on Image 1 will be easier- you are right. The dog that jumps on the tree is much more interested in the squirrel than the same dog simply observing the squirrel while passing next to the tree and stopping to look at it. The dog from image 1 can easily take the position in image 2 if we will let her continue staring and not redirect on time.
The beautiful thing about redirecting is that Your dog has a choice. Rather than tugging on the leash and pulling him away, you call him and allow him to make a choice for which he can be rewarded. You teach your dog to think and make good decisions which pay off. This is priceless!
What to do when redirecting doesn’t work? If redirecting doesn’t work, there could be few reasons behind it:
- Your dog is way above his behavior threshold. He might not be able to deal with such a high distraction or temptation and might need to exercise being redirected in much less triggering environment.
- You were trying to redirect your dog too late, when the distraction is way too close or your dog is already worked up.
One more thing to keep in mind Last but not least- take a look into why your dog is behaving the way he does and needs to be redirected in the first place. Is he anxious? Afraid? Bored? Does he need (more) space? Get aroused easily? Or is it simply a bad habit created by doing the same thing over and over again? It is important to understand the root of the behavior and help your dog overcome!