Becoming a Chipmunk

By Sumac Grant-Johnson CPDT-KA

Wren-A-Roo is almost 2 years old now. This Spring she has decided chipmunks and squirrels are super cool. When we go for our walks there are chattering critters everywhere. Chipmunks scamper out from behind trees, they pop out of the leaf cover and squirrels run up tree trunks all testing Wren’s self control.

Now little Wren was not pulling very much but she was on full alert and began intensely scanning almost constantly.  I knew this would lead to no good. Not only for the chipmunks sake do I not want Wren chasing wildlife but as my service dog in training I can not have her fixated on things in the environment. So I endeavored to find a resolution.

First I tried Wren’s leave it command. She was willing to look away from the tempting varmints back to at me and earn a few cookies but she would soon resume her scanning.

Next I tried some heeling games. Wren enjoyed these games but would return to looking for her furry friends shortly after I stopped.

It has been my experience that when the handler works hard to get and keep their dogs focus the handler has to keep up their work or the focus on the handler wains.

So what is it that these little creatures have? What is their power? The element of surprise and the and the potential fun it may offer her prey drive instinct.

Instead of fighting this. How can I harness the same power? How can I become a chipmunk?

Ah yes. My favorite training game “The Run Away Game”

The Run Away Game hands the power of the chipmunk over to me. I can offer the surprise and the reward. I can be the chipmunk.

The game is pretty simple. There is no “asking” for anything. There is no talking. The handler adds the element of surprise, marks the response and offers a great reward.

Below are the steps I used. I used Wren’s favorite treats for this game.

The Run Away Game or Becoming the chipmunk

  • I let Wren know I have treats with me when we head out on our walk.
  • I drop a treat by my side.
  • The instant Wren acknowledges my existence on the planet I mark her, drop another treat or two by my side and while she is headed for the treats I run from her. Wren eats the treats super fast so she can chase me down in case I drop more treats.
  • I repeat this a few times.

Scientifically it has been proven that one of the most powerful ways to reinforcement a behavior is with randomized reinforcement. So I add this to my chipmunk power.

Building my Power

  • I play Run Away without notice of any kind every few minutes.
  • Next I randomize further by varying the time between playing Run Away.

The results were far beyond what I anticipated. Within one Run Away walk Wren began checking in on me a lot more and checking in on the chipmunks and squirrels a lot less. This is a work in progress. I anticipate it will take several to many walks with quite a few Run Away sessions. My next goal is to be able to randomize further by taking some very short walks and playing Run Away on some and not on others.

So thank you to an abundance of chipmunks this spring. They reminded me to look for what is working against my goals and harnessing that same power to advance my goals.

Here is video instruction for playing the Run Away Game.

 

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