When we talk of giving a dog a choice about whether he engages with us or not, and how he does this, we need to bear in mind that he can only choose from the options we have made available. The more knowledge we have however, the more choices we can make available, and more choices open up more possibilities.
Making informed choices
For example, we might make choices in terms of how we support a dog who is aroused by squirrels or worried by other dogs or people, either by taking an alternative route, or walking at a different time of day. While not intrinsically wrong, sometimes these choices need refining, with input and guidance from the dog, in order to tailor them to the individual and achieve the most successful outcome.
Pansy the Greyhound visited us because she was displaying over-aroused behaviour in kennels and when on the lead. As is common, Pansy’s care-giver was leading Pansy on her left side and inviting her to turn to the right, away from anything in the environment that triggered her alarm system. Rewards were on offer but Pansy was unable to eat the treats and it took several moments for her to be able to shake off and reset.
Having observed Pansy doing ACE Free Work (as outlined in our April issue), we noticed she had definite preferences about the direction she moved in; she worked her way around the stations anti-clockwise, only turning to the left, and never fluidly to the right. It was just one of the observations we made, but a very important one; armed with this important data the care-giver switched sides. With Pansy on the right of her care-giver, she was invited to turn left when something in the environment caught her attention. Not only was Pansy able to move away with ease, she could immediately accept the offered rewards. She recovered really quickly and was soon able to stand on a loose lead on the care-giver’s right side calmly watching wildlife and horses.
Further veterinary examinations revealed arthritis in Pansy’s neck and lower back, and that she had also been born with a crooked spine. Up until this point, the potential discomfort caused by turning her to the right when on the lead aggravated her behavioural response rather than diffusing it, and impacted on her ability to relax and learn.
Pansy had already received a health check that revealed several issues, but the ACE observations gleaned through Free Work discovered more important layers. Just as resolving behavioural issues can be like peeling away layers of an onion, sometimes veterinary investigation comes in layers too.
As well as accounting for her other physical struggles, the new diagnoses also explained why she found it impossible to take treats at times, depending on the height at which they were offered. Offering them from a different position made all the difference, and Pansy has never looked back since.
By opening the way for your dog to make his own choices, and allowing him to be the pilot of his own learning experiences, ACE Free Work can help you reconsider some of your beliefs and expectations, and shape how you interact with each other. It helps develop your observational skills, and by noting the choices your dog makes, you’ll be in a better position to ensure all his needs are met, and to pick up on issues that may warrant veterinary investigation.
Observations about the choices Pansy made while doing ACE Free Work provided essential information.
The Bucket Game
ACE is an integrated approach to animal education and well-being, which as well as incorporating methods developed at Tilley Farm such as Free Work, includes some modified methods shared by professionals working in the world of animal education and welfare.
One of these is the Bucket Game. Devised by behaviour and training consultant Chirag Patel, it can be a useful addition to learning by giving animals choice. It can build bonds, help dogs overcome a variety of concerns with regard to husbandry tasks such as ear cleaning or nail trimming, and can be integrated into everyday education. This simple game allows the dog to choose when he participates in what he is being asked to do, and gives clear visual information to the guardian as to when the dog starts to struggle and needs time to process or take a break. Setting up a simple Free Work layout can make introducing the game easier and more rewarding for novice human and canine ‘bucket gamers’.
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