Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: Control Unleashed

By Leslie McDevitt, Control Unleashed is a fantastic read for anyone who has a dog that sometimes looks at things, or barks at things, or otherwise does things they wish it didn't do in public.  It's primarily for agility dogs, but it pretty much works for every handler and all but the most mellow dogs. Actually, there's some stuff in there for the mellow guys too.
Photo by Erin Koski

I think my favorite part about this book is that all of the exercises are explained as games. Whenever you are training your dog, the two of you are engaging in a fun game. It's voluntary and enjoyable for the dog. The result is supposed to be a calm, confident dog that can focus on his handler in any circumstances, because he has learned that certain situations are cues for happy fun time. 

This is a massive difference between this and a different book, Susan Garrett's Ruff Love, which also offers to help turn your dog into a calm, confident, focused working partner. The difference is that Ruff Love instructs readers to remove all opportunities for the dog to "self reward", the program begins with several weeks of keeping the dog in a covered crate at all times unless it is actively being trained. Don't come when called? Go back in the box. The author has since been quoted as saying it isn't meant to be an isolation program, and she has no idea why people lock their dogs in boxes continuously for several weeks when she instructs them to lock their dogs in boxes continuously for several weeks. I'm told that she holds multi-day training workshops where people start their dogs on the Ruff Love program, and that by the second day everyone was crying because it was so difficult to put their beloved dogs through this.

Needless to say, Ruff Love isn't for everyone, or really anyone except people who want to win at all costs. Still, it is often recommended to aspiring agility handlers who wish their dogs were more focused and are willing to brainwash their dogs via extreme isolation. Control Unleashed is exactly the opposite. Control Unleashed is for people who love their dogs and want to engage in dog sports as a way to bond and have fun with their beloved companions. Leslie McDevitt obviously feels this way, because one of the first stories in her book is about a dog that didn't really enjoy agility, so she stopped making him do it. 

Right up there with Bones Would Rain from the Sky, Control Unleashed is by someone who sees her relationship with her dogs the same way I do. They aren't clay to moulded, our dogs are dance partners and we need to teach them the steps while listening to their music. Control Unleashed is filled with games to play with dogs to teach them how to work with us, but it's also a story about Leslie's dog Zip and his journey from being an overstimulated pile of nerves to a calm and confident dog.

The thing I use the most from this book is called the Look at That! game. Brisbane sees things and gets very excited about them, particularly skateboarders and squirrels. Often he is concerned about the thing he sees, so training him to stop looking at it is difficult. I can click and treat him for looking at me, but he will still feel highly concerned about the thing, maybe even more so now that he is looking at me and not watching for impending doom. Control Unleashed taught me to click and treat him for looking at the skateboarders or squirrels. Right away, his focus shifts to me and the food, and the skateboarders become the cue to play this fun game. This has been extremely successful when he can see the skateboarders or mailman, we're still working on not losing our minds over hearing skateboards.

Control Unleashed is filled with these silly games that work amazingly well. Teach the dog to remain focused on playing with the handler by refusing to play with the dog. Teach the dog to stop freaking out about squirrels by letting him chase the squirrels. I lend this book out a lot, but not as often as some of my others because it's slightly expensive and somewhat troublesome to replace. I'm told there is a sequel about puppies that is equally universally applicable, but I haven't read it yet.

At face value, this book appears to be a manual for teaching a remedial agility handling class using very specific equipment in a very specific setting. In sunny California I have never seen or heard of an indoor agility course, I don't know anybody who has ring gates, and I still found this to be the most helpful book I've read so far for my reactive dog-beast. I recommend it for reactive dogs, lazy dogs, easily distracted dogs, stupid dogs, and anyone who wishes their dog was a bit less or a bit more fill-in-the-blank-here. It's a manual for changing the way your dog does stuff in a way that is fun for the dog, and will never make you cry.

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