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Dogs with fixations (part 3)

Breaking Ace’s fixation

Note: This is part three of a three-part series on my dog’s tennis ball obsession. Click these links to read part one, My mutt has a fixation and part two, 10 signs your dog has a fixation.

Just like any addiction, rehabilitation takes a long, long time. In Ace’s tennis ball case, I have two options. I can either continue things the way they are and allow him to obsess over a ball until he ends up hurting himself, or I can begin the long process of correcting his behavior.

Obviously I am going to correct the behavior or I wouldn’t have chosen to do this series. The problem is getting started because I know how difficult it is going to be to follow through.

My goal is to have a dog that can control himself around a ball and play in a healthy way where he never becomes fixated. He will respond to all commands even if he has a ball. He will have the ability to stop playing and leave a ball alone without me hiding it or putting it away. Most of all, he will be able to play and socialize with other dogs as well as accept verbal and physical attention when there is a ball in sight.

Here are some rules I have set for Ace to begin right away:

1. No fetch playing for 30 days (at least).

2. No dog park for 30 days (but we’ll stay away as long as needed). The reason for this is there are balls everywhere and I can’t enforce my new rules if Ace is off leash in a big area surrounded by tennis balls.

3. Ace will begin a more regular, intense exercise program of at least one hour of running or walking at least five days a week.

4. Every day I will have Ace practice calm energy by lying on his side in a submissive position with a ball beside him. He will lie like that until he is totally relaxed and ignoring the ball. Depending on the day, this could take 30 seconds or an hour. He will also have to do this any time he brings me an object expecting me to throw it for him.

Once Ace has shown some improvements, I will move on to some challenges for him:

1. When Ace can manage to ignore a ball while lying down, I will move on to him sitting and then just being loose in a room with a ball, ignoring it.

2. Once Ace can leave a ball alone in a room, I will work on more mental challenges with him such as me throwing a ball while he sits and stays at my side. We will practice heeling by weaving around a yard full of balls with Ace on leash and then off leash.

3. Ace will get to play with a ball himself if he is totally calm. If he is even close to that fixated state of mind, the ball will be put on the ground and he will lie beside it.

4. I hope to return to normal fetch playing, but Ace must remain calm and in control of himself the whole time.

I have no idea how long this whole process will take. Maybe six months, maybe two years. Or maybe I will never be able to correct Ace on my own. It mostly depends on how well I am able to stick to these rules. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d like to hear them. My ideas are influenced by Jon Katz and Cesar Millan, but I don’t know anyone personally who has actually tried to break his or her dog of an obsession.

Click these links to read parts one and two of this series, My mutt has a fixation and 10 signs your dog has a fixation.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 28th of November 2011

That's great! So glad you are seeing some improvements! It is definitely a work in progress. It will get easier as he gets a bit older and has a bit less energy, too.


Monday 28th of November 2011

Okay, so here's a quick update: I can get him to stop going *crazy* with squirrels with the "leave it" command. He's still alert to them, but he doesn't go bounding off. I've done a few things to get this:

- I trained him on "watch me" - make sure he's totally calm before we leave for walks - use his "cat toy" (a fur ball attached to a string) as a training tool to get him in an out of prey mode on my command, including telling him to "leave it" and "watch me" while having him sit or lie down while the fur is "scurrying" around him - taking him to Petsmart and getting him to "leave it" or "watch me" while we sit right next to the bird, hamster, rat and guinea pig cages (you should have seen him the first time we went to the bird cages -- he was ready to catch himself some dinner!!)

So he doesn't seem to be fixating on the squirrels quite so much, and even though he's not perfect, it's soooo much better. Thanks so much again for all your tips!

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 16th of November 2011

You're not just a random commenter! You read what I write and contribute to the discussion. So thank you!


Tuesday 15th of November 2011

Thanks so much, Lindsay! We've got the exercise down pat (I think) -- at minimum he gets a one-hour walk each day, and most days (5-6 a week) that gets supplemented with either dog park or another 30 minute walk; sometimes his walk is a run. So he's well-exercised. We need to be more consistent with his training, so thanks for the reminder on that!

I was thinking a lot about your post, and yesterday I realized that we do have an "indoor squirrel" to help train him. We have one of those cat toys that's a furry ball on the end of a string, attached to a stick. It's his *favourite* toy, and he loves stalking it, pouncing on it, and it's the only toy that when we put it away, he searches for.

So yesterday I combined the game with training and hot dogs, getting him to stop mid-stalk, hovering the fur ball right near his nose while getting him to leave it, or putting him in a stay while twitching the fur ball right near him. He definitely got better by the end, and didn't search as long for the toy when I put it away. So that might help get him to focus on me. We'll transition to doing that outside, increasing distractions as we go. And I'll teach the watch command.

The other thing I realized we were doing is not making sure he's totally calm when we go out for a walk. We make him sit and stuff, but we don't take the time to really "follow through", as Cesar would say, and make sure that he's totally calm before heading out the door. After doing that game yesterday afternoon and really taking our time out the door, he was already much better on his evening walk, and not only didn't pull, but stayed in a heel with a slack leash the whole time! That was a first!!

I'm going to hold off on the e-collar for now (not because I'm opposed, but I'd like to try these other things). And I'll try your suggestions of doing the U-turn -- that's one I hadn't tried. And I'll refrain from the "bite", unless I know I'm really, really, really calm.

Again, thanks so so much for your advice. It's very kind of you to help out a random commenter on your blog. :)


Monday 14th of November 2011

Hm... I'll admit I haven't taught him "watch". I praise him whenever he responds to his name, and I guess I thought that was enough. When he fixates on a squirrel, I've tried all of: 1) "leave it" -- he knows it, but is unreliable when he really wants something (like discarded pizza on sidewalk...) and totally ineffective for squirrels 2) saying his name cheerily (no effect) 3) giving him a treat -- I wave it in front of his nose, and then he sits quickly, pays full attention to me, but as soon as he gets the treat, goes right back to fixating on the squirrel; sometimes I try to lure him away with a treat (even hot dog!) but even that doesn't seem to be really effective, since if I lure him away from squirrel A, if squirrel B runs by right when I'm giving him the treat, we're back at square one... 4) ignoring the squirrel and try keep going -- definitely doesn't work, and he ends up pulling a lot, badly (something he doesn't do otherwise) 5) a quick pop of the leash -- acts like it's not even there 6) giving him a touch or tap on his side or chest (Cesar style) -- he adjusts position (if I do the side, he hops the back legs away, but never loses the squirrel

Finally, and to be honest I'm almost embarrassed to say this, but I "bite" with my hands, on his neck. I save the last one for when he's fully gone after the squirrel, as I consider it last resort, but that is the only time he actually checks back in with reality. I try to make sure that I only "bite" as hard as it takes for him to respond, and as soon as he does, I let go and praise him. I also try to make sure to very soon after do some basic commands that he knows (like sit, paw, high five, etc.) so that he has a good experience shortly after that one. It's not that I'm opposed to physical discipline because (a) I know it's not a lot, given how I see him play with other dogs at the dog park, and (b) I don't think a little bit of pain on the neck, controlled by me is so terrible, especially if it means that in the long run he'll be safer (e.g., if I lost control of the leash or some such thing, I think these "bites" hurt a lot less than a car running him over). But by that time, I'm usually very frustrated, and we're really not having a good time together, and I'm worried that I'm not leading with the right energy, and that stresses me out even more... and it just sucks.

I guess the main thing I don't know is how long something like this takes, and if I expect too much from him too soon: he's just over a year old (we think) and we've only had him since September. We're still working on him coming back when called (he does it in many situations, but not when he's chasing something, and we almost lost him once because we thought he was trained for recall...) and he does bolt after prey (squirrels, opossums, deer...). So should I be investing in an e-collar, or should I wait it out? Every other thing we've taught him has just gone so well that we're at a loss of what to do here...

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 15th of November 2011

I would consider trying an e-collar with a remote if you are comfortable with the idea. It is the same idea as biting with your hands only it gives you the ability to remain calmer rather than get frustrated. You don't have to worry about your energy being too forceful/angry.

In addition to this, make sure you are providing him with enough physical exercise and mental challenges so the squirrels are not his only outlet. I'm sure you're already providing these things, but we can all do better. Work on his obedience commands so that he listens to you 99 percent with no distractions on leash, then with mild distractions on leash and so on. Teach the "watch" command as I suggested earlier. When I'm working with squirrel-obsessed dogs, I usually block them with my body to get them to look away from the squirrel for even a second. This seems to tone the fixation down a notch. Then we do a U-turn and continue in that direction until the dog is calmer. Then we head back in the original direction, but I'm ready to do a U-turn again if the dog gets too excited. When the dog fixates or pulls or "chokes" himself, I do not move forward. We turn around.

These things take a long time to overcome. Some dogs are always going to have a prey drive and want to chase squirrels. But you can still have control over the situation. As your dog gets older and you continue to work with him, you should see some results. It's a slow process, though.