The Value of Redirection

Photo by Kevin Lowery |

Photo by Kevin Lowery |

My eight-year old daughter loves school so much that when the last day of school arrived a couple of weeks ago, she and her friends were borderline devastated to face the fact that there would be no regular contact with each other and their beloved teachers for a few months.

We knew from previous years that one of her good friends took the last day of school particularly hard, and that as with dogs, if left unchecked, the other kids would feed off of her sadness and end up as a generally morose lot. So when it fell to me to pick my daughter and several of her friends up after the end-of-year swimming party, I decided that it was crucial to employ some age-old positive dog training techniques on the kids in order to avoid disaster and tears.

My husband and I laugh when we are occasionally reminded the extent to which we raise our daughter similarly to the way I train dogs. While they are obviously different species with different needs, and while I am also well aware of the dangers posed by excessively anthropomorphizing our pets, many of the central themes which define my approach to force-free, reward-based dog training techniques are closely related to what many of us feel are the most effective concepts behind child-rearing as well.

In the case of my daughter and her friends, it was important that I redirect the potential for them to collectively descend into unhappiness about the end of school. Instead of allowing them to discuss and dwell on the negative, I decided to take a few of them on a mini field trip to one of my favorite and most inspiring places: Canine Assistants.

I am a huge supporter of the work done by the countless assistance dog training and placement organizations around the world, and the Victoria Stilwell Foundation was born to help provide financial and training concept assistance to many of them. My affinity, however, for Jennifer Arnold and her staff at Canine Assistants just north of my home in Atlanta, comes not simply from the fact that she and her staff are tremendous, nor from my relative proximity to their headquarters, but from our mutual desire to introduce people to the beauty and effectiveness of reward based training methods.   I was shocked to learn that Canine Assistants is one of the very few assistance dog training organizations which employs positive training techniques on the dogs they work with.   Other organizations tend to use a mixture of techniques including forceful methods, which do little to enhance the human/animal bond essential for an assistance dog/human relationship.  Of course our mutual belief resulted in an immediate close friendship developing between Jennifer and myself as well as multiple trips to their facility by myself and my family.  (You can find out how assistance dogs are positively trained by reading Jennifer’s fascinating book, Through a Dog’s Eyes.)

My daughter is such a big fan that for her eighth birthday earlier this year she requested that instead of gifts, attendees of her party could make donations to Canine Assistants in order to help partially fund the training of one of their amazing dogs. So when I suggested that she might host a few of her friends at their farm after school on the last day, she jumped at the chance. Riding the therapy horses, cuddling with the newest batch of puppies, and running around the property proved a fantastic distraction for the girls, and after just a few short minutes they completely forgot to feel sad about saying goodbye to their teachers and their classmates.

Redirecting focus from a negative or unwanted reaction, whether predicted or already occurring, is an incredibly useful tool to help manage behavior in dogs, too.  Compulsion or forceful training relies on suppressing an unwanted behavior with punishment, resulting in a temporary ‘fix’ along with increased potential for long lasting psychological and physical damage.  Positive or reward based training focuses on teaching the dog an alternative behavior instead of punishment,  allowing the dog to learn valuable coping skills which start with redirection.  Dogs are superb problem solvers and because of their close connection with humans, they tend to look to us for cues to help them in the problem solving process.  We can aid their success by thinking ahead and either avoid situations that trigger negative behavior or create other things for a dog to do where positive behavior is encouraged (exactly like planning an activity for my daughter and her friends when school ended.)   The less an unwanted behavior is rehearsed the less chance it has of being reinforced.

If certain situations are impossible to avoid, then it is vital that you observe your dog carefully and give him something else to focus on in an uncomfortable situation.  For example, if you have a lead reactive dog that lunges at other dogs, people or moving objects as they go past, give your dog an activity to do rather than allow him to focus on something that elicits the negative reaction.  Providing your dog with an activity such as a set of action cues (sit and stay) with food rewards for compliance or playing with your dog’s favorite toy in the presence of the stimulus that exacerbates the negative behavior, will redirect his attention onto doing something more positive, while building up a good feeling with the stimulus.  This is done most effectively before your dog gets to the point where he feels the need to react.  If your dog has a full blown reaction, he is too emotionally involved at that moment to learn and waving a treat or toy in his face will achieve nothing except to frustrate him more and devalue the potency of the motivator.  Redirection is therefore most effective when used before your dog reacts.  If he reacts negatively before you have a chance to redirect him, gentle removal from the situation is the best way to get him into a state where he can learn again.

One of my favorite games that I play with lead reactive dogs is the ‘go find it’ game.  When a dog is in the presence of a stimulus and under his stress threshold limit, it is time to begin the game.  This is done by throwing bits of food onto the ground one after the other and encouraging the dog to ‘go find’.  By stimulating the dog’s seeker system, I am not only raising the levels of dopamine in his brain by stimulating his desire to seek or move towards the food on the ground, but the actual movement towards the motivator redirects the dog’s energy that might otherwise be used for a negative reaction, onto a positive activity.  Some dogs learn much better while moving than having to sit still and focus on a toy or a food reward as the stimulus goes past.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses. If a dog is presented with food or a toy before he reaches a high stress level in the presence of a stimulus that scares him, for example, a positive emotional response occurs. There are circuits in your dog’s brain that encourage seeking or hunting behavior and circuits that elicit the fear response. When you present a motivator to your dog you effectively turn on his seeker system and turn off the fear. This is one reason why activities such as the ‘go find it’ game or playing a game of tug is so valuable for leash reactive dogs. Turning on the thinking brain deactivates the emotional center, enhancing the dog’s attentiveness with positive motivation and allowing him to move into a calmer state where learning can take place.  Repetition builds a habit of behavior so that the dog now behaves differently in the presence of a stimulus that previously resulted in a negative response and naturally moves into the redirected action cue or behavior without being promoted.  Redirection helps dogs make better choices.

For dogs that are too stressed to do anything but react, gradual adaption must take place until successful exposure to the stimulus is achieved.  This is done by performing the game or activities at a distance from the stimulus and gradually decreasing that distance as the dog is successful.

My daughter and her friends had a full afternoon of activities at Canine Assistants and came home tired and elated. Whether helping a child feel better about something or a dog overcome emotionally charged situations, redirection is the key to successfully managing behavior as well as an owner’s expectations.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


16 thoughts on “The Value of Redirection

  1. Cynthia Stone

    Love the 'find it' game. Currently using this with a foster I have in my care. Great game of redirection!

  2. Joby Cleary

    I have been a fan of your training methods for a long time.But I have one problem I have not been able to solve or understand. My Chihuahuà and Pomeranian use a large fabric pad in the bathroom to do their jobs.Every once in awhile the Ppm..both females..will tinkle off but near the have rolled up towels to make bummpers which they don't mind and I change the pads daily. How can I help her to break this habit?
    Thank you so much..JC

  3. Bree

    Victoria I want to take this moment to thank you for always valiantly speaking your truth and being who you honestly are as a woman, a mother and a dog trainer. During my last ten years I have adopted dogs in my thirties (the first pets ever in my life) and born my first and only child, my daughter. During this decade long process I've been face-to-face almost daily with my own ignorance and learned to trust my instincts in seeking expert advice in order to find the true and best way for me to proceed with these daily encounters with my beloved and trusting family members who rely on me for safety, trust and guidance. Again and again I am drawn to and resonate with your approach and methods. I have thankfully been transformed from a career woman who was too distracted with work and my needs into a more centered woman who seeks to share love, exercise, routine, discipline, affection and quality time with my loved ones. You have been part ofmmy transformation. I humbly thank you for being a role model for me. When I grow up I hope to be even more like you. Namasté.

  4. Bicki

    Thanks, This helped me rethink how to handle Sampson's hyper reaction to visitors to my home.

  5. Joan Snudden

    What a wonderful article! I'm working w/my rescue dog on how he gets totally out of control
    when he hears the mailman, the doorbell, or just about anything gets him going. Hysterical barking!
    As you said, it's more effective to give treats when anticipating one of his stressors. He's escalates quickly and I often can't predict what will set him off. I will not give up on him. 🙂 Thanks for everything you do to educate the public.

  6. DeLinda

    I use this method when my dog is getting ready to chase one of my cats - for some reason, she only chases on of them, yet leaves the other one alone, go figure, lol...

    Anyway, when my dog is ready to take off - and I have to see her tense up before the chase - I throw a treat on the floor, saying her name and "go find". She immediately forgets about the cat, and instead goes for the treat. Thus giving the cat a chance to get away without a stressful chase.

    I've tried the "leave it" with my dog in regards to chasing this cat, but she does much better with the "go find".

    Amazing tips Victoria - have been using your methods before people even knew what Positive Reinforcement meant, lol. SO happy to have someone in the spotlight reinforcing the RIGHT way to train your pets... and yes I said PETS because I used your earlier books to train my cats too, lol.

    Can't wait for your next book - and keep up the great work!!

  7. Michael Rosa

    I have a home trained assistance dog, Abby Doodle Dandy CGC/SD that I have trained using positive methods. I have used Paul Owen, Karen Pryor and yourself as role models for my training techniques. Back in the 80's I worked for a dog trainer that was old school using methods I would not consider appropriate knowing what I now know. BTW Abby loves your t.v. show. I have pictures of her watching you on tv for the whole program with the remote safely under her paw...michael

  8. Christy Duey

    Hi Victoria,
    I've been a fan of your show and training for a while now and I LOVE the leave it traing. It was very usefull for my Sheba (Zeru) . I really love watching your shows and I really get a lot of use out of them. I actually Plan to become a trainer myself some day. I plan on taking a couse and hope that everything works out for me. Can't wait to see some new shows of yours! 🙂 .............Christy

  9. Jan

    Hi, Victoria. I'm a student studying animal behavior and counseling. This term, we are to "work with" two real dogs with behavioral issues (anxiety). One of my dogs is afraid of people. That's a no-brainer there, use desensitization and counterconditioning. My other dog has many fears. Her owner moved into a new house with an "invisible" fence (eeeek). She used it for several days and now the poor dog is afraid to go into the yard. So what do you do when you simply cannot avoid the fearful stimulus? I am not really allowed to intervene (our assignment is to create an intervention plan but not implement it--we don't get to do that until externship). This little dog is also afraid of noises and thunderstorms. Surprisingly, no evidence of separation anxiety that I could see or reported by owner. This owner has said "no drugs"...So how do you handle something where you cannot start at a level of the stimulus that doesn't evoke the fearful behavior? Everytime this little girl goes out to potty, it's a traumatic, terrifying experience. I'm afraid she's going to start soiling the house soon...

  10. Britany

    Hey Victoria....

    I think your methods are really great! My family and I watch your show every week! I'm only 12, but my dream is to be a dog trainer like you some day. I have 3 Labradors and one of them is a guide dog puppy through Guide Dogs of America. I have used some of your training techniques on her and it really works!
    You do such a good job!

  11. Nicole

    I've used this method sucsessfully with my ~4 year old Shep mix rescue for many things in the couple years since we rescued her, and although she is a crazy fun loving girl a little scatter brained, she is a mostly good dog. Her major issue is her mouthyness. Anytime she gets excited about anything she is mouthy and or pawing at us. I had had her majorly broken of it until my parents moved in last year and stayed for 9 months, and my father who grew up playing with dogs in ways that encourage mouthyness just coudln't get the concept that it was not acceptable. Now her habit is back with a vengence and anytime we go into the back yard to do anything she gets super excited and jumps and paws and mouths us. She doesn't hurt us or anything but it's annoying and the only way I can seem to get through to her now is to yell a strong NO at her but it only lasts the moment. I cant redirect her with play because that is her play, she doesn't fetch, she doesn't play tug and she is not particularly food motivated. The thing that worries me is that in November I have a baby comming and the last thing I need is her jumping all over me and having the babys legs in her mouth, i know she wouldn't intend to hurt him but it is inevitable if this behavior continues. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  12. Jim S

    I am a big fan of me or the dog. I think I’ve seen every one. While I’ve learned a lot which may come in handy someday, my golden retriever was born perfect and has stayed that way. OK, no dog is perfect. She is afraid of thunder and the vacuum cleaner. She can sleep right through fireworks on the 4th or new years which I don’t understand. It would seem that you would be in a position to promote good nutrition for dogs. My last golden had issues. Tons of hot spots, ear infections, paw inflammations etc – thank you Purina One. After 2 years of allergy shots that did nothing, I took her to a naturopathic vet who said “we are going to raise her immune system”. It took a few weeks but good food (Champion Petfoods in Canada), some supplements, fruit and vegetables and I had a different dog. I believe that some behavioral problems could be caused or at least made worse by poor diet. I have seen lots of commercials for Purina, IAMs and Science Diet and they make it sound really good. If I didn’t have first hand experience, I might believe them. The dog food and supplements do cost a little more but I’m sure I have saved thousands of dollars in vet bills. And I have a healthy and happy dog.

    BTW – my research tells me that Champion Petfoods (Origen and Acana) is the best. If you know something different, I would really appreciate knowing what you think.

  13. Heart My Dog

    Interestingly enough I had been trying something similar with my dogs - whenever they get overly excited I teach them to "watch" and look at me so they don't get too stressed or distracted by things. I think this helps them to recognize I am in control and all is okay!

  14. Carrie Kessler

    Great words of wisdom! i also train assistance and service dogs using positive methods. Our program is the ArkansasPaws in Prison where we train inmates to train shelter dogs. it is an amazingly rewarding program for all. i look forward to reading Jennifer's book!
    thanks again Victoria for all you do.

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