That slogan, which has been delivered for over seventy years by the iconic Smokey Bear, is so familiar that we automatically finish the sentence with “forest fires”. If Smokey had said, “Only you can put out forest fires”, the message would have been very different; as well, some might have been compelled to submit applications to their local firefighting training academy!
As I walk around my neighborhood that is heavily populated with dogs, I see time and time again, the human trying to “put out the fire” that is the dog’s behavior. The dog lunges, and the human reacts by jerking the leash. The dog barks and the human screams at the dog. The dog jumps on visitors and the human pushes the dog away. This knee-jerk reaction is the standard repertoire in most of my clients’ homes, so when it comes to guiding them, I always teach “fire prevention” as part of our behavior plan. What this means is we do NOT give the humans (or the dogs) an opportunity to engage in these “fired-up” behaviors:)
So Let’s take the behavior lunging at other dogs or distractions while on leash. Because I’m trying to prevent the human from being a reaction to their dog’s behavior, I teach a preventative move that I call “fire drills”. Just like preparing for an emergency exit from a home or office, we shouldn’t wait until the building is on fire to figure out an escape route. My “fire drills” teach the human what to do before there is a “fire” and that is to call their dog and walk briskly/jog away from the distraction or trigger. The key to being successful however, is not to practice only when there are distractions, but instead, to call the dog randomly while out for a walk when there are no immediate triggers. So for example, the human-hound team are out for a leisurely walk and suddenly the human cues, “Fido, let’s go!” and then they run together for a short distance. The behavior is marked (YES or clicked) followed by the delivery of a generous high-value reinforcer. To be clear, it doesn’t matter what you are naming the behavior of “running together” as long as there is consistency; and the beauty of this behavior is both the human and the hound are doing something fun and constructive. This replaces the “Leave it!” cue which ultimately turns into a command (threat) because the human only uses it when the dog is about to do something or is already “fired up” and the human is static in her delivery. The “Fido, let’s go!” not only alerts the dog that something fun is about to happen, but more importantly, it insures that the human will move instead of standing while screaming at their dog! And if you’re wondering whether this works when there are triggers or distractions, the answer is yes, because of all the daily practice prior to the “fire”! To be clear, this is only part of the plan, as the human needs to first learn about (and the dog to experience) the triggers or distractions at a distance, but on walks, we can’t always have the ideal set up, so when an “emergency” comes at you, having practiced the “fire drills” over and over tends to keep the level of anxiety down, as the human-hound team are well prepared.
“Fire drills” can be practiced as a way to rehearse all kinds of new behaviors; it only requires that you identify the “fired up” behavior that you’ve both been doing and then establish a different behavior routine that is much more productive.
So the next time you find yourself struggling to put out your dog’s “fired up” behavior, just remember: “Only you can prevent_____________!”