Body Blocks and The Anxious Dog

I’m a little surprised at what seems to be the handiest thing the behaviorist taught us: the body block.

I’d read all about these, of course. They’re one of Patricia McConnell’s big things, and I love all of her work. But I’d never really used them. Here’s the gist of it:

Dogs control movement in their environment by managing space. Think about a herding dog–they very rarely touch the livestock. Instead, they walk around saying, with their body, “My space. Move along. My space.” A good herding dog can project and control a huge bubble of personal space. And, of course, she knows how to get the message across to a sheep who doesn’t get it. You also see this with “fun police” dogs at the dog park, who will wedge between other dogs to break up rowdy play.

McConnell is a huge fan of using the body block to teach stay. Silas already has a really good stay, though. (I’m linking to her videos about this at the bottom, because it’s very hard to explain the body block in words.)

At the behaviorist, and we learned two more really important applications of this.

First, you can use the body block to keep your dog out of your personal space. Pushy dog who wants to sit under your arm while you eat dinner? Keeps poking you with a toy? Tries to play tug while standing on your leg? Use the body block to get a little elbow room.

More importantly, you can use body blocking to keep your dog away from something. We did a lot of practice with me keeping Silas away from a huge lifelike stuffed dog. With practice and some quickness, you can become, in effect, a wall between your dog and anything that he shouldn’t be interacting with–a person he’s barking at, a dog you’d rather not meet, something out the window that he’s obsessing with, a suspicious item on the ground at the park.

What you’re actually doing in these cases is taking the space before your dog can. Imagine that there is something behind you that the dog shouldn’t have. The dog is facing you, and he really wants it. He steps forward to go around you. You step forward into that space. The dog backs off, and you do the same. Ideally, the dog will stay put, and you can praise/treat. If you have a dog like Silas, he will try to go around on the other side. You step to that side. And so on.

(Some caveats: space is an important resource to your dog. Don’t be a bully and keep putting pressure on. Use the tiniest movement that gets the reaction you need. For a sensitive dog, that might just be rocking slightly forward. Keep this interaction completely calm, quiet, and neutral. No hands, no feet. Also, use your good judgment about what your dog can handle emotionally before you try this, because dogs can read it as aggression.)

The thing that amazes me about this exercise is how fast it works. Because this is a dog thing, rather than a human-invented cue, they get it, on an instinctual level. This morning, Silas was having a fit over something out the patio door, probably a squirrel. I got between him and the door and stepped a little toward him. He backed up and tried to go around the side. I stepped to the side. He backed up, tried one more time, got blocked one more time. Then he walked away from the door and calmed down. He’s been known to grumble and obsess over things out the door for anything from five minutes to half an hour.

So, go forth and watch these two videos (the most relevant discussion of the body block happens at about the 3-5 minute mark in each, after a good intro in the first video).

Video 1

Video 2

I don’t believe those straight to video links are working; if not, go here and scroll down to “Teaching Stay.”

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10 thoughts on “Body Blocks and The Anxious Dog

  1. I do body blocks – but I didn’t realize that is what it is called. Blueberry is a very sensitive dog so just a subtle movement from me gets her attention.

    How surprised were you when that worked with Silas at the door??? I hope it continues to work!

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    1. Yeah, it’s interesting to me–Silas is incredibly sensitive to physical pressure (except when he’s pulling on his leash), but the body blocks still have to be a little bigger. As he learns it, though, he gets better.

      I wonder if dogs who have a little more herding dog in them are more aware of these kind of cues.

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  2. After watching the videos I think you did a good job of explaining the technique…It’s not something I’ve tried before, but I can see where it might be useful in conjunction with “leave it” when we’re out for walks,,,have to give it a try

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  3. We’ve been using body blocks to help the dogs learn not to rush onto or off of the elevator at the new apartment. Elevators are altogether new to them and a few times, we’ve almost had run ins with other canine tenants. I think you did a really good job explaining it.

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    1. It’s actually not how I taught stay, either. This is just the best demonstration of the technique that’s out there. I taught Silas the rudiments by giving him rewards as he stayed sitting. Then he really “learned” it by playing Susan Garrett’s Crate Games, the gist of which is that if the dog breaks his stay, you just close the crate door before he gets out.

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  4. I like her methods. It goes so far to be patient and use body language with dogs more than repeating commands. I used body blocks a lot to teach loose leash walking, especially with Kaya. Every time she would move forward to pass me, I drift over into her line of movement. Basically she figured out, while she’s walking on a leash, anywhere in front of me is my space.

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