This infographic and text were originally published on clickertraining.com in the article "Reducing Leash Reactivity" by Alice Tong at Choose Positive Dog Training.
Many dogs struggle to stay relaxed when they see another dog, a person, or a specific environmental stimulus, and end up reacting with an intense stress response. Stress responses can be categorized into fight (such as barking, lunging), flight (such as avoiding, hiding), freeze (such as cowering, shutting down), or fool around (such as jumping, mouthing) behaviors.
The Engage-Disengage Game is helpful for dogs that respond with a “fight” or “fool around” response. These dogs often become over-aroused quickly and end up hurling themselves toward the trigger out of fear, anxiety, or frustration. Unlike socially savvy dogs that self-interrupt frequently in order to keep interactions fun and safe, these “fight” or “fool around” dogs have immense difficulty disengaging from the trigger in order to self-interrupt.
The Engage-Disengage Game essentially decreases a dog’s stress around the trigger and teaches the dog the peaceful coping skill of self-interruption. If you are familiar with Buddhism, yoga, or the field of psychotherapy, this ability to disengage and self-interrupt is similar to the skill of practicing mindfulness. You can use this game to teach your dog how to remain calm and happy around other dogs or people they are scared of; around other dogs or people they love so much that they want to jump and mouth; around a new baby in the home; around bikes, skateboards, doorbells—and the list continues.
Science and research in dog training have revealed that intimidation, pain, or the threat of pain are simply not necessary and cause more problems training an aggressive, reactive, or fearful dog. Instead, using positive reinforcement methods like the Engage-Disengage Game, helps your dog become less anxious and fearful of the world, and teaches him that he has the ability to choose another behavior that is both fun and safe instead.
For professional trainers: This game sets very specific criteria for duration of trials, repetitions, and number of clicks. It builds off of Leslie McDevitt's Look-At-That game from her book Control Unleashed and uses desensitization, counter-conditioning, and differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior to teach the dog how to self-interrupt. The main goal is to package these concepts in a simple and memorable protocol to motivate owners to use positive reinforcement methods for issues related to reactivity, aggression, or fear, and to keep their dog's under threshold while doing so. It is assumed that the dog is showing relaxed happy body language indicating a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER) has been established at each proximity point before moving closer to the trigger. The client should be educated on what relaxed happy dog body language looks like. It is also assumed that the dog is always fed after a click even if he/she reacted or did not orient back to the handler after the click. This keeps the classical conditioning element of trigger=good things no matter what. The owner can prompt the dog to re-orient with luring or positive interrupters, and still gives the dog the treat. The client would then reset at an easier distance/intensity for the next repetition.
CPDT-KA, KPA CTP
Thank you to Lili Chin of www.doggiedrawings.net for providing her informative and beautiful illustrations to help clarify each step of the game. Special thanks also to my mentors, colleagues, and friends who took the time to help read and refine the article and infographic with me- Kim Moeller, Nan Arthur, Laura Van Arendock, Eileen Anderson, Elissa Cline, Sarah Owings, Irith Bloom, Kiki Yablon, Sachiko Eubanks, and Faith Chinnock- you each inspire me with your leadership and dedication to positive science-driven training.