If you have been following along with our blog post series on adventuring with a reactive dog, you have already worked on some foundational skills and considered the gear needed to adventure with your pup. Many of these previous steps are focused on reducing anxiety for both you and your dog. And today, we are going to talk about another important skill that both you and your dog should be proficient in before heading out to your local trail: the “about-face.”
When out walking or hiking with a reactive dog, the goal is to keep your dog under threshold from the various objects/people/animals that your dog demonstrates reactive behavior towards. In another blog post, we are going to talk about how to determine where your dog’s threshold is. But before we do that, it is important that your dog (and you) know how to execute a quick and reliable “about-face”.
The Purpose of an “About Face” Manuver
One of the best ways to prevent/reduce reactive behaviors (whether due to anxiety, frustration, or overstimulation) is to create more space.
For example, if your dog gets excited about chasing squirrels. You will have a much better chance of refocusing your dog when a squirrel is two yards away than if it burst out of the bushes right under your dog’s nose.
Similarly, if your dog is anxious around other dogs. They will feel more comfortable when another dog is 3 driveways away than if they are passing within 3 feet of each other.
You can read more about the benefits of distance in this post: “Social Distancing: A Key Part of Staying Active with Your Reactive Dog“
As you progress through behavior modification with your dog, you will develop the skills needed to calmly exist closer to your dog’s triggers. But in the early days, space and staying below threshold is a very important part of your dog’s success.
However, as we all know, you can’t always predict when a trigger will appear. Other people may walk their dogs on your normal walking route (no matter how much you try to plan for walking at less busy times). And you certainly can’t control when a rabbit crosses your path.
In these situations, the best thing you can do is teach your dog how to turn around and walk away with you.
A good about-face, also known as an emergency U-turn, looks like this:
- You are walking with your dog on leash and you see one of your dog’s triggers
- You immediately ask for your dog’s attention using a word you have already trained for this situation (more on this later)
- Turn your body 180 degrees around with your dog ideally in heel position
- Reward your dog with a tasty treat and you walk away until the tigger disappears or you can access another route around the trigger that will keep your dog below threshold.
Training the About-Face
As with all new skills, start in a quiet, distraction-free environment. I start a lot of training in my living room, but be mindful that dogs who react to people or animals through the windows, may need an even more distraction-free space.
Make sure you have plenty of treats that your dog likes. If you don’t know which kind of treats your dog prefers, spend the time to find the treats your dog will do anything for before you begin training. Then place some medium to high value treats in an easy-to-access location. (We will save the highest value treats for training when triggers are present.) I recommend wearing a treat pouch or fanny pack to hold your treats. Amazon has several cost-effective options.
The two photos below are both styles that I use for carrying treats for my dogs. I technically use an Outdoor Products Marilyn style waist pack that I purchased at Walmart. The Peapod version shown below is the same brand, but a slightly different style.
Both images below are clickable links to Amazon. Just a heads up, I am an Amazon affiliate and will earn from qualifying purchases.
At this point, your dog should already know how to defer by sitting and looking at you. So you can start your training session by asking for a simple calm behavior like a sit.
If your dog knows how to heel already, great! If not, you may need to work on some loose leash walking skills first. You can check out this nice resource from Dr. Sophia Yin if you want to work on some loose leash walking skills with your dog.
But if your dog already knows how to walk well on a leash, you can start right into your “about-face” training.
For practice purposes, I like to place an object on the ground that your dog might want to sniff. Nothing too exciting to start with. Maybe just moving an old toy to the middle of the room.
Walk your dog towards the object on a loose leash. When your dog starts to look or move towards the object, use the word you have picked to indicate it is time to turn around (something like “turn” or “around” or “let’s go”).
Say the word in a happy voice to get your dog’s attention and then feed them a treat as you turn away from the object and walk in the other direction.
Once your dog understands that this word means to turn around, you can delay the feeding of the treat until after you have completed the 180-degree turn.
While you are doing this exercise, make sure you are not pulling on the leash. Your dog should be following you. If your dog is pulling towards the object, switch it out for something less exciting. And while your dog pulls, just stand still and wait for them to give you their attention again. (Wait for deference).
Once your dog can reliably u-turn away from an object, start getting closer to the object or using a more exciting distraction. Basically, increase the difficulty.
And once your dog is really reliable inside, take your training outside.
To help you visualize this training, here is a great YouTube video that discusses teaching an “about-face” when your dog is faced with a distraction.
A good “about-face” skill can help your dog leave distractions more easily on the trail or walking around the neighborhood in addition to making it easier for you to increase the distance to a trigger when out and about.
For some distractions, simply turning around from the object and checking in with you will be enough. But for true triggers of reactive bheavior, you will want to walk swiftly away from the trigger until you have enough distance that your dog will be able to easily stay under threshold.
Tips to Help with Training
Be exciting and fun. If you are more fun to interact with than the distraction, your dog will find it easier to walk away with you.
Keep training sessions short. I like to aim for 10-15 minutes at a time. But watch your dog. If they seem bored or start showing stress signals, make the training session easier and shorter.
For more information on training an “about-face”, here are a couple more good resources.
Time to Get Training
Alright, I hope this post gave you enough fundamentals to get started training a good “about-face” for your dog. This skill will be critical as we discuss finding your dog’s threshold for triggers when out and about.