When professionals talk about dog training, certain topics come up repeatedly. For example, you will find many different articles that talk about the 3 Ds in dog training (distance, duration, distraction), there is a lot of talk about the ABCs of behavior (antecedent – behavior – consequence) and most workshops talk about thresholds at one point. The reason these topics are discussed over and over is because they are very important. Being aware and conscious of these things can make a big difference to our success when training dogs.
One thing that is rarely discussed is the angle of approach. We often hear people discussing distance to trigger, but it is less common to hear them talk about the importance of how to approach that trigger or alternately have the trigger approach the dog. Heading toward another dog straight on is a much different situation than walking at a slight angle away from the other dog. Adjusting the angle of approach is a great way to break things into small, achievable steps for a dog or to prevent a dog from going over threshold.
It’s often a good idea to look at things from the dog’s point of view, and that’s no different here. If I walk my dog toward another dog in a straight line, my dog likely expects an interaction with the dog. A fearful dog might get nervous about the inevitability of having to interact with that dog. A social dog’s excitement might build up as they approach. If, on the other hand, one walks at an angle slightly away from the other dog, the picture changes entirely. All of a sudden, we are no longer traveling toward that other dog but rather past the other dog to another destination; therefore the expectation of a meeting and the likelihood of a reaction diminishes greatly. It’s important to remember that our dogs take a lot of cues from their humans. While the path of approach is important, it’s also of significance that the human travels that pathway with conviction. People who are nervous about passing a trigger might travel in a beneficial pathway but have their core, gaze and overall stance still oriented toward the trigger. This can elicit a reaction from a dog taking their cues from their handler. Making people aware of how their own body language affects their dog’s behaviour and having them change it accordingly can make or break a training session. For more information about how our body language, including breathing, balance, quality of movement, joint flexion, and blinking rate can influence our dogs’ behaviours, I recommend watching Suzanne Clothier’s webinar called “Geometry of Canine Body Language.”
Another important thing to remember is that it makes a big difference which side of our bodies the dog is on when we pass a trigger. My chances of avoiding a negative reaction in my dog when passing a trigger is much greater if I walk past it with myself in between my dog and the trigger. My body becomes sort of a barrier between dog and trigger, and my dog is also more likely to take visual cues from me that way. Setting training sessions up in a way where the first few passes of a trigger happen with the handler in between dog and trigger, and walking past the trigger in an angle away from it, will hugely increase the chances of success. For anxious dogs, having their handler between themselves and the trigger serves as a sort of “security blanket.” For dogs who react out of excitement or frustration, this positioning helps because the dog’s likelihood of getting close to the trigger is greatly diminished if the handler stands in between.
When working a reactive dog, the idea is always to keep the dog below threshold, which can often be a challenge, especially in a city environment. Most people are unaware that changes to how we approach situations can have an effect on their dog’s behavior. The slightest change of the angle when approaching a trigger can determine whether a dog has a reaction or not, and it is important that professionals educate their clients about these things. Once they are aware, they can use the angle of approach as a type of management tool, keeping the dog below threshold when passing triggers when avoiding them completely is not an option. There are plenty of people who continuously cross the street to avoid their dog’s triggers when they could potentially pass much closer without a reaction by putting themselves in between their dog and the trigger and passing at an angle slightly away, thus making life easier for themselves.
While dog distraction or reactivity is probably the most obvious situation where the angle of approach makes a big difference, the applications are almost unlimited. It can be hugely beneficial when trying to teach a dog to avoid picking certain things off the floor.
If someone has a dog with a scavenging problem, it can be rather frustrating to go for leash walks. By scanning the environment and passing certain items on the floor at a certain angle or possibly with handler in between item and dog, the scavenging behavior can be greatly reduced, and the handler’s enjoyment of the walk significantly increased. It is important to prevent dogs from rehearsing unwanted behaviors while working on teaching an alternative behavior, and teaching people how to prevent their dogs from snatching up things, without actively working on it in a training session greatly increases success.
Changing the angle can also help a fearful non-reactive dog that gets uncomfortable about another dog approaching. By changing the angle, you can signal to your dog that you are not planning to go meet that other dog, and you can show them that you are willing and able to listen to their subtle signs of stress. It can be a way to signal to a dog that their concerns are being heard, and this can help instill trust in their humans. When stationary with an incoming trigger, teaching clients to focus on having their core pointed toward their dog rather than the incoming trigger can greatly help the dog relax. If my core is pointed toward my dog, my dog will likely take that as a sign that I am not concerned about the incoming trigger. Looking over my shoulder at the incoming trigger is much less likely to get my dog alerted than turning my entire body toward it.
Angles of approach are something we should consider when working with clients. If we discuss this with them, and use varied angles of approaches during our sessions, we are more likely to decrease the likelihood of their dog rehearsing unwanted behaviour, therefore increasing the likelihood of a more positive outcome for the dog and client.
A good way to teach clients about this is to use a piece of food, toy, or other item of interest and put it on the floor, then coach them through how to pass the item, putting themselves in between the item and the dog first and walking at an angle away from it, keeping some distance as well. When the handler-dog team is successful at passing the item without the dog trying to get to it, the angle and distance can be reduced, ideally changing either angle or distance, not both things at the same time. Once the dog successfully passes the item at close distance and in a straight line, ask the client to practice passing the item on the other side, without the handler in between. Start at a distance and angle away from it again, then reduce distance and angle, one thing at a time. During these passes one could reward different responses like eye contact to handler, looking at the trigger, or other similar behaviors.
Watch Matthias work a dog through passing a dropped toy, using the angle of approach to help set the dog up for success and elicit the wanted behaviour.
This is a longer video showing Matthias explain the exercise seen in the previous video to a group of puppy raisers while running an online group class to give you an idea of how you can explain the concept to students.
In group classes, a great way to work on this is to have handler-dog teams positioned on opposite sides of the training space, then have them pass each other, at first handler to handler and at an angle away from each other. Work on reducing the angle while walking past each other handler to handler, then switch to dog to dog and start with an angle away from each other again. Often times the body language of the dogs changes significantly when the distraction gets approached directly versus with the handler in between and/or at an angle away from the distraction. The dog might pass the distraction when glancing at it, but while maintaining lose body language and trotting along nicely when walking by at an angle away from the distraction. When heading toward the distraction in a straight line you can often see the dog’s focus shifting, and rather than a glance, the dog locks eyes with the distraction, speeds up, slows down, or starts leaning into their collar or harness, aiming their whole body toward the item in preparation for the seemingly inevitable encounter. This is a great opportunity to teach clients about body language and educate them about the precursors to the unwanted behaviors. Often times people miss those important signals and then get surprised by a reaction. Once they are aware of the signs leading up to the reaction, they will be better equipped to prevent reactions from occurring.
Watch these two puppy raisers from Matthias’ puppy raising program pass each other. The handler in the black jacket is walking at a very slight angle away from the other dog, thus setting her dog up for success and passing with her dog focused on her. The handler in the pink jacket travels in a more straight line towards the other dog. Her dog’s core orientation is fully oriented towards the other dog from the beginning and as they come closer her behaviour intensifies
When teaching clients how to use the angles of approach to their advantage, it’s important to ensure that they are educated about dog body language as well. When setting up training sessions, one can point out different aspects of body language and show clients what to look out for. If the dog has loose body language and is in a happy trot, looking at their handler or looking around, that’s a sign that things are going well and that the dog is in a good headspace. Body language that signals that the dog is going over threshold and more likely to have a reaction could include:
- Stiffening of the body
- Speeding up or slowing down
- Increased focus on the trigger, staring
- Core orientating toward trigger
- Loss of responsiveness to verbal or leash cues
- Lip licking
- Starting to pant or stopping panting/shutting mouth
- Ears back (concerned)
- Ears forward (getting excited or concerned and possibly preparing for reaction)
If any of the above is observed in relation to an oncoming trigger it is a good idea to adjust the angle. Rather than continuing on the same path the handler should consider increasing the angle to get the dog back below threshold and hopefully pass the trigger without a reaction. At the next repetition the angle should be increased to avoid having the dog go over threshold again.
When working with nervous dogs, sometimes they try and adjust the angle themselves. They might start walking in a direction away from the oncoming dog or trigger and might even push into the handler. If that happens, it is a good idea to listen to the dog’s request and follow the dog’s lead (if reasonable) and travel past the distraction in a way that suits the dog’s comfort level.
Sometimes working a dog in a serpentine pattern can be beneficial. Start with the dog far enough away from the stimulus for them to be aware it is there but not so close the dog is worried. Begin to walk back and forth, several yards or more past the stimulus before turning and moving a little closer as long as the dog is doing well. This kind of dipping in and out of threshold can be easier for some dogs compared to the prolonged increase of difficulty when traveling in a straight line.
Walking in a serpentine pattern may help the dog who is easily put over threshold. Like parallel walking, with reactive dogs, serpentine with a stationary stimulus may be easier for some dogs to handle than walking at an angle toward that area of stimulus – even if you are not walking directly at the stimulus. The human half may be able to relax more as well since they are not walking toward the area of the stimulus. Even if at an angle to the stimulus, walking in the direction of the stimulus may be concerning for the person. By walking back and forth with each pass getting a little bit closer, the human may be able to remain calmer and move at a more natural pace for the dog.
If things do not go according to plan and the dog repeatedly shows signs of concern or over-excitement or has a reaction like lunging, barking, or similar, it’s a good idea to at least take a break, if not abandon the session altogether. During the break or after the session, analyze the situation (videotaping sessions can be very helpful here) and come up with a plan for how the next session could be orchestrated so that the dog is set up for success. Possible adjustments could be to use a less stimulating trigger (less enticing food, or a “stooge” dog that is less likely to show interest in training dog), train in a more familiar environment, adjust the distance, or use a more highly valued reward.
While most experienced handlers and dog professionals are aware of these things and change the angles of approach intuitively, it should be talked about more often and brought to the attention of dog owners whenever possible. It is a valuable piece of information that is easy to teach clients in a variety of settings and can reduce frustration for clients and dogs.
The author would like to thank Karen Peak, Tom Candy and Suzanne Clothier for their help with this article.
Born and raised in Switzerland alongside two Tibetan Terriers and a menagerie of other pets, Matthias Lenz always dreamed of working with animals. His experiences traveling, working and living abroad eventually led him to Vancouver, Canada, where he started working with dogs. He is the current chair of the IAABC Working Animals Division, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and certified professional dog walker. After several years training pet dogs, he transitioned into his work with service dogs. In his current role as the Puppy Raising Manager of BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, he is responsible for recruiting, training and instructing volunteer puppy raisers on how to raise, train and prepare service dog puppies for Guide-, Autism- and PTSD service dog work.