A Bucolic Little Farm in Rural Clackamas County

Critter Proofing

DSCN7736Critter proofing is an important life skill for many dogs and isn’t as scary and unattainable as it sounds.  If you live in the country, choose to keep livestock or poultry, or work a SAR, detection or other type of working dog, then teaching your dog to leave other animals alone is critical.  Really it is a matter of life and death for the other animals.

Before you decided to undertake training your dog to be neutral to other species of animals, you will want to have an impecabble recall and leave-it command in place.  Without having both of these commands rock solid, you are doomed before you begin.

Often when describing what happens when their dogs prey drive kicks in, people will tell me that it seems like their dogs brain just shuts off.  Essentially it has. Dogs in full prey drive are on autopilot and their instinct has completely taken over.  It will require a physical intervention to stop the inevitable.

Like with recall, once you have decided to undertake the task of “proofing” your dog off of other species of animals (game or livestock), your number 1 job is to never, ever let your dog have access to animals in a manner that will put the other animal at risk, or overstimulate your dogs prey drive.

Everytime you give your dog access and they become overstimulated or gain physical access to other animals, you are serving to reinforce the behavior you wish to extinquish.  It absolutely can never happen.  There is no room for sloppiness here.

So where to start.

Control is the name of the game.  Every introduction will be conducted with the utmost control.  You will create senarios that are challenging to your dog, but not overstimulating. And over time, you will be able to re-program your dogs response.  How long it takes depends on the level of the behavior to start with, the frequency of the exposure as you desensitize your dog to various animals, and the skill with which you execute the desensitization.

Using a leash, halti, harness or other training devise that your dog is fully accustom to under other circumstances, you will enter a relatively empty or distraction free room.  If your dog has not been in the room before, the first job you have is to let the dog explore the room and satisfy themselves that there are no suprises.  After checking the room thoroughly, you will exit with your dog.

Using a helper, you can now take a securely crated, calm and mature version of the easiest species you think your dog can handle.  If rabbits flip your dogs trigger, then start with a cat, or a chicken or….anything but the thing that drives your dog nuts.

Place the animal in the room in the crate as far away from your entrance as possible and bring your dog in.  If your dog locks eyes and goes nuts, exit the room and find a bigger room.  If your dog acknowledges without much ado, mark and reward any breaking of of indication and leave the room.

What this might look like.  Your helper places a duck in a cage in a 20×20 room at a far corner opposite the door.  You enter with your dog and at first the dog does not acknowledge the duck.  Weaving your way gradually closer, the dog might eventually show some sign of excitement about the duck, (pointing, leaning, panting).  Don’t wait for it to escalate.  As soon as you seen any elevation in energy, use an enthusiastic and impossible to ignore lure to get your dogs attention (click, kiss, stomp, whistle).  The second your dog starts to turn their head, ears or eyes toward you, mark the behavior (clicker or positive marker), reward and praise wildly.  Leave the room and try again 5 or 10 minutes later.

As you might imagine, you are going to work your way closer and closer to the crated animal day by day.  Week by week you will substitute animals. Your goal is to never let your dog get so close or over stimulated that you cannot break their attention to you.

Eventually, you will be able to be right next to the crate and have a relaxed dog.  In fact, if the training is performed properly and sufficiently gradual, your dog will look forward to breaking off their attention for the reward.  And the animal in the cage will become less and less important.

When you have exausted every possible caged animal, you can begin the process all over with different animals on leashes, harnesses or held in the lap of a helper.  Each time with the same excrutiatingly gradual process.

Once you have reached a level of desensitaztion with all of the desired species, ages and versions of the distraction animal, you are now ready to increase the challenge, by having the prey animal move independently.  You will still need a leash or harness on the animal in case of emergency, but have your helper clap or shoo the animal across the floor.  Again starting with your dog quite far away, and gradually moving closer.

What to do if your dog barks or lunges.  Hopefully you have not progressed too quickly and this should not happen.  If it does, your reaction is a loud and sharp “leave it” as you briskly march the opposite direction with the leash wrapped tightly and your arms held firmly close to your body.  Only stop once your dog has calmed.

Points to consider.

Your dog always needs to be the one to leave the scene first, not the other way around.

If your dog barks or lunges you need to start futher away and proceed more slowly.

Migrate practice outdoors and to various locations once the dog is 100% reliable in the room.

Keep both animals very secure, by cage, or leash.

Once you are satisfied that your dog has mastered all of this, you can attempt off lead with a muzzle on.

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