AIM - For the dog to acknowledge, accept and behave sociably in the presence of another dog both with and without prompting from the owner. Some dogs will always need owner support but most dogs, when taught in this manner, will be able to cope with acknowledging and accepting another dog’s presence unaided.
This exercise was initially designed specifically for dogs whose social issues prevent them from integrating into a Communication Class or Tutor Group. There is a similar exercise being promoted now but the subtle differences in the mechanics of that exercises and the ‘Tell Me’ exercise has a huge difference in emotional effect on the dog.
I adapted the exercise for Guide Dogs after having used it for working with aggression. It was used primarily with the Guide Dogs in early training and/or those dogs who are distracted by other dogs. A Guide Dog who is distracted by other dogs/people is as much of a problem to a partially sighted person as an aggressive dog is to a sighted person.
Eventually, the length of time of acknowledgment needs to be so quick that the owner/handler can hardly notice it. Otherwise it would be dangerous for the Guide Dog owner. Whilst initially, you want the dog to acknowledge, accept and ignore the other dog, gradually support of the handler needs to be reduced and finally removed. If you permanently reward the dog for acknowledging, accepting and ignoring another dog, you are still making an issue of the situation.
This exercise is used as part of a rehabilitation programme, preferably with the help of Training Dogs. Whilst it is useful for control and management of a dog in a restricting situation, such as on the lead it will also help the dog when they are free.
The ultimate aim is that you will not need to use the exercise permanently as the dog will learn to overcome their problem themselves, given the right learning environment. Of course, there may be times when prompting from the owner is necessary but prompting should only be given when absolutely necessary. The more responsibility the dog can cope with, the more confident the dog becomes generally.
Many dogs with social issues lack self-confidence. ‘Tell Me’ is a simple exercise in practice but some dogs may find it difficult at first as they are asked to work out for themselves how to gain the reward. The way I teach the ‘Tell Me’ exercise in itself will help build up a dog’s self confidence.
There are many ways to teach an exercise but it is how it is taught that is important. The Dog Partnership works primarily with the emotion behind a behaviour rather than just the behaviour itself. It is essential that you recognise the emotional effect on a dog when teaching any exercise.
The ‘Tell Me’ exercise is not simply looking at another dog and then back at the owner. It is more complex. The dog needs to learn to look at the dog in a sociable manner and then communicate to you that they have acknowledged the dog and are looking to you for any guidance necessary.
Looking at the dog and then looking away is not the aim of the exercise. The aim is for your dog to communicate to you that there is a dog present. The success of any rehabilitation is the handler’s ability to read the dog.
Some dogs are taught to ‘watch’ but this does not mean they are communicating with their handler. How do you tell the difference? You will see a different expression in the dog’s eyes. Sometimes the difference is very subtle but there is a difference between looking at you and communicating with you. As you work with your dog, you will learn to recognise this difference.
The actual exercise is taught using a target which will not trigger any negative emotion in your dog. The clicker may be used for this introduction to the exercise. (Please see suggested Tell Me Target design).
1) Place yourself alongside the target so it is easy for your dog to see without moving. With food in your hand, have your dog in front of you but do not ask them to Sit or Lie Down. The aim is not for you to control your dog but for your dog to gain self-control. However, if they choose to Sit or Lie Down it is not a problem.
2) Mark your dog looking at the target and back at you using either a clicker or your voice. Pause for a second before giving the treat. Acknowledge the target by looking at it, and then relax your body language. This is the same way you will need to respond to another dog’s presence.
Some dogs who lack confidence and/or are generally insecure can find it difficult to cope with having to work it out for themselves. In this cases, by marking any movement in the right direction. For example, some dogs would be rewarded for just looking at the target and some dogs may even need to be rewarded for simply looking away.
It is essential that you are able to recgnise if your dog is not coping and therefore accept smaller steps towards the final exercise.
3) Once your dog is confidently looking at the target and looking back at you, add the cue. The cue can be any word(s) that feel natural to you that indicate the behaviour you want your dog to carry out. I use the words ‘Tell Me’. Gradually increase the angle at which the target is placed until the dog is confidently looking at the target when it is at the rear of their body.
4) Once they recognise the cue, change the position of the target so your dog has to actually look for it. E.g. position the target alongside you but behind your dog’s eye line when he is in front of you. Gradually increase the angle at which the target is placed until the dog is confidently looking at the target when it is at the rear of their body. Then increase the distance from the target when asking your dog to ‘tell’ you where it is. At random, place the target where it is less easily seen.
5) Place several targets in the field and ask your dog to identify each target in the same manner and progress as before. Remember, each time you increase the level of difficulty of the exercise, begin by having your dog closer to the target.
Only when your dog is confident in this exercise, should you transfer the exercise onto working with a dog.
When your dog progresses onto being asked to tell you where another dog is, it is essential that the person with the other dog is experienced in reading canine communication. Reading a dog’s intentions when handling can be very difficult. Remember, you are working with the dog’s emotions first and foremost and then with the behaviour.
An experienced person with the other dog will be able to read the dog’s intentions by the dog’s eyes first and then noticing the rest of their body language after. By reading the eyes, they will be able to tell the handler the intention behind their dog when looking at the other dog. The handler will then be able to watch for any coinciding body language visible from their position, such as an ear movement.
If the intention of the dog is not read correctly, you can easily reinforce aggression.
If an experienced person is not able to assist, then as a general rule, only reward the dog if they look for no more than a second. You must be sure that when your dog looks at the other dog, it is not with hostile intentions.
A dividing fence between the dogs, with your dog off lead is preferable but this exercise can also be taught using a harness and long line. The essential element to the success of this exercise is allowing the dog freedom of choice.
6) Place a Training Dog at least several feet behind the marker. It is essential that your recognise how close to the marker you place the other dog. As too close to the marker will cause your dog to become stressed. You can gradually decrease the distance between the marker and your dog and when your dog accepts the Training Dog at the same distance as the marker, the marker can be removed.
7) Position yourself directly opposite the Training Dog. If your dog displays any aggression and/or becomes stressed, increase the distance between you and the Training Dog.
8) Without calling your dog to gain their attention, offer the treats as before when working with a target.
9) When your dog looks towards the training dog and immediately looks back at you, reward them with a treat. At this stage, do not worry if he looks at your hands and not at your eyes; this will come in time.
If your dog looks for more than a second and you do not have an assistant able to read his intentions, DO NOT REWARD.
10) When they are confidently looking directly at the other dog and then at you, simply on offer of the food, add your cue of ‘Tell Me’.
Acknowledge the other dog’s presence by looking at it, then relax your body language.
Acknowledging the other dog’s presence and demonstrating that you are not concerned is essential. They must know that you are aware of them and are not concerned.
Even though the principles of the exercises are the same as when using the target, from your dog’s point of view the actual exercise itself is different. Therefore you need to re-train the exercise when introducing a dog near the target.
11) Once they recognise the cue, change the position of the Training Dog so your dog has to actually look for them. E.g. position the Training Dog alongside you but behind your dog’s eye line when he is in front of you.
12) When your dog actively seeks out the other dog progress onto taking him into a field with a dog present but not easily seen. At the entrance to the field, ask you dog to ‘Tell You’ where the other dog is by looking directly at the Training Dog and then focusing on you. Reward them when they do so.
At random change the distance between you and the Training Dog and make sure you can recognise how close to them your dog can genuinely cope. Decrease the distance where necessary, working at the distance your dog feels comfortable before getting closer to he training dog.
13) Once you have reached this stage, position several dogs around the field and ask you dog to ‘Tell You’ where they are. Reward your dog when they do so.
14) Initially present your dog will the dogs they are least likely to react to. Gradually present different types of dogs, both in size and character. Your final aim is, of course, to work towards presenting your dog with the dogs they find the most difficult. This will be totally dependent on the individual.
15) Practice this exercise both on lead and long line; building up to your dog acknowledging another dog both alongside them and coming towards them.