If your dog is struggling with a trigger, you may find the engage disengage game for dogs helpful. This game is great for dogs who are nervous about a trigger such as the presence of people or other dogs. Not all dogs manifest nervousness the same way. Some dogs may manifest their anxiety by barking and lunging, while some others may wish to withdraw and hide behind the owner, and then some others may be unable to stand still, they may want to jump and fidget in what's known as "fool around." You might see fooling around behaviors often when dogs are at the vet and start acting silly, when in reality they are simply anxious about the whole situation.
Generally, stable dogs who are calm around triggers will acknowledge the person or dog and "disengage" at some point performing other behaviors rather than focusing on the trigger and constantly scanning for signs of trouble.
Dogs who are stressed, aroused or over excited, on the other hand, have a hard time disengaging as they are unable to feel calm in the presence of the trigger. These dogs therefore will focus for a long time on the trigger and are unable to relax.
The staying focused and vigilant in this case is reinforcing to the dog because the dog instinctively feels that this behavior is ultimately what keeps him safe. These actions will therefore by default become part of the dog's behavior repertoire.
The barking and lunging behavior therefore keeps people at distance, while hiding behind the owner makes the dog feel more secure. Even acting silly is reinforcing as well, as it's a coping mechanism to help the dog get relief from stress.
The engage disengage game for dogs is a helpful tool to keep in mind when you have a dog who seems to have a hard time relaxing in the presence of a trigger. Learning more about this behavior change technique therefore can help increase your dog's ability to cope with his triggers, however, it's always best to have help from a dog trainer/behavior consultant for safety and correct implementation. Sloppy implementation may lead to setbacks.
Advantages of the Game
Some dog owners feel that, in order to prevent their dogs from barking, lunging, hiding behind them or fooling around, they need to polish their dog's obedience skills, but this may only lead to frustration and setbacks in training.
The reason behind this is that asking dogs who are stressed to sit and hold a stay while there are triggers all around them will only make them feel trapped and they will likely break their stay over and over. The owner may then keep asking the dog to stay and may get frustrated, which will only add to the stress causing a cumulative effect.
While obedience training has its place in helping dogs gain more composure, some dogs may not be ready for dealing with this level of distractions and stress. The engage-disengage game may turn helpful for these dogs and can be used until they're better able to relax and cognitively function so to better attend to obedience cues.
The engage-disengage game for dogs therefore helps dogs learn that they have the ability to cope with an overwhelming situation. Once they learn the basics of the game, affected dogs may no longer feel the pressure of engaging in fight, flight or fool around behaviors. Learning a calmer option and being able to better cope with the trigger eventually puts dogs in a calmer state of mind. For sake of comparison, imagine your dogs doing doggy yoga and chanting "ommmm" as they clear their minds.
Engage Disengage Game for Dogs
To "play" the engage disengage game for dogs, your dog should be responsive to the sound of the clicker. If your dog is not clicker trained, learn how to charge the clicker or train your dog to respond to the verbal marker "yes" followed by a treat.
Start with keeping your dog at a distance from the trigger from where your dog is under threshold (not reactive, but aware of the trigger). When your dog focuses on the trigger, click (or say yes!) and feed him a treat the moment he turns his head towards you.
If your dog is not responsive to the clicker noise or your verbal marker, it means that he's too close to the trigger and needs more distance. Repeat this portion of the game several times until your dog responds fluently. This is the "engage" portion of the game.
Next comes the disengage portion. In this part of the game, you are expecting your dog to automatically look at you upon seeing the trigger, before you even click. When he does, click or say "yes,"and feed the treat. If your dog is too focused on the trigger to look at you, again, it means that he's not ready for this level of intensity and you may need to create a bit more distance. Repeat this portion of the game several times until your dog responds fluently.
As the dog progresses, the trigger can be presented at a closer distance but care must be taken to prevent setbacks by not going too fast in the process. You may at times find the need to increase distance occasionally due to variables that might not be under your control (a dog that is more energetic and making your dog more reactive, a person talking with a louder tone of voice, a person sneezing unexpectedly, etc.).
The Science Behind It
The engage disengage game for dogs offers several perks when it comes to its application. First of all, since the trigger is presented at a distance, desensitization is taking place. Desensitization is behavior change process where the trigger is presented in a less intense version which helps the dog better tolerate it.
This is fundamental, as presenting a trigger in a more intense version (such as from a closer distance) may lead to the total opposite effect, sensitization, which makes dogs more fearful.
At the same time, counterconditioning is also taking place. Counterconditioning is a behavior change process where, through positive associations with the stimulus, the subject learns a new response.
In this case, by being fed treats the moment the dog sees the trigger, positive associations are made and the dog therefore ends up exhibiting a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER).
Finally, in the engage disengage game for dogs there is also a component of differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior at play. Basically, by turning away to look at the owner rather than barking, hiding or fooling around, the dog learns to perform a behavior that is incompatible with the former behaviors, a win-win situation that's the recipe for success!
Wondering who invented this game? While the game has some basics from Look At That by Leslie McDevitt, but dog trainer Alice Tong is the one who re-packaged it and gave it a twist.