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The Art, Science and Ethics of Using Decoy Dogs

By Yvette Van Veen 

leash reactive dog
A decoy dog can help a reactive dog overcome any frustration triggered by the leash © Can Stock Photo / eldadcarin

Learning to work with a reactive, anxious or fearful dog is a challenging process. Dog owners especially struggle. They must learn new skills and execute them correctly, while working with a difficult, if not dangerous, dog. In such situations, owners are often robbed of the opportunity to begin basic skills with an easy dog. It is not an ideal way for anyone to learn.

Decoy dogs are one way in which we, as behavior consultants, can create some flexibility. Rather than honing skills during chance encounters during walks, families can practice skills in the presence of a trained and predictable dog. The focus can be on the task at hand and, more importantly, on the dog before them.

Using a decoy dog is more than simply adding a calm dog into a training session. A trained decoy dog is a highly-skilled collaborative partner with a specific skill set. He is not an animal we just happen upon during a walk, nor is he a dog who is stalked without the owner’s knowledge or consent. Using decoy dogs ethically and effectively takes some careful planning.

Our obligations extend to the client, their dog and to the decoy. It is prudent to examine what each of these individuals requires in order to be successful.

The Decoy Dog

Training and rehabilitation programs revolve around the dog in need. However, both dogs in a training situation are always learning and making new associations. What we do with one dog invariably affects the other. We should never forget that the most bombproof dog could deteriorate if we forget to consider the training program from his point of view.

We need to limit our strategies to those that keep dogs under threshold. Each above threshold response, displacement behavior and warning sign that whispers, “I am not comfortable” is on full display to the decoy.

If the client’s dog is worried or wants to leave, the decoy can clearly see this. Our training plan should not involve putting either dog in a position where they are uncomfortable enough to want to leave. There simply is no good reason to ask a decoy to work in those conditions.

We have choices. We can choose to change our approach. We can make the exercise easier. Both dogs should want to continue.

Not all dogs make suitable decoys. Puppies require many positive social experiences. Do not place them in situations that might compromise socialization. Dogs with poor bounce back or who startle easily are not cut out for the job. Dogs with behavioral issues clearly need to have their own problems addressed – and not act as decoy for someone else.

Safety First

Choose decoy dogs wisely. Decoy dogs, when utilized fully, are animals who engage in jobs that may come with some risk. If carefully done, accidents are unlikely. However, risk is not to be ignored or dismissed.

To minimize the risk, use safety equipment as required. This might mean the use of muzzles, leashes and perhaps even a backup tether. These tools are a backup plan, and are ideally not something we ever want to use. It is like wearing a seatbelt when driving a car. You do not want to use it and you do not drive dangerously because you happen to be wearing a seatbelt. You wear a seatbelt regardless. There is no shame in having that little extra bit of protection if it can help prevent an accident.

Give hazard pay to decoy dogs. Do not take a decoy’s skills for granted. Forgetting to pay the decoy for work done well can lead to weak behaviors. Take advantage of situations that lend themselves to creating stronger positive associations. An excellent decoy dog wants nothing more than to participate.

Most importantly, if a client ever refuses or fails to follow directions, placing the decoy dog at risk – protect the decoy. A decoy dog is not a replaceable business asset. He is a companion.

The Client’s Dog

How and when decoy dogs are used depends on the training needs of the client’s dog. For example, confusing the needs of a leash-reactive dog with an anxious dog can lead to misuse of the decoy. That can lead to scenarios where the client’s dog struggles.

The leash-reactive dog needs to learn how to focus and walk politely on leash. Typically, we use operant conditioning to overcome the frustration that is triggered by the leash.

Like any other operant conditioning process, we would start in a quiet place. Duration, distance and distractions are added later in the process. Adding the decoy at the beginning would be like starting loose-leash walking in a crowded park. It is bad form and would set us up for failure from the outset.

Fearful and anxious dogs are often helped with classical counterconditioning. The trigger predicts something the dog likes; usually high value food treats. The trigger needs to be present and noticed for this to take place. When no trigger is present, we do not give any treats. We need to add the decoy at the beginning of the training process and then adjust difficulty by changing the intensity of the trigger.

There truly are times when it is best to put the decoy away. Using a trained decoy dog can tempt us into doing more repetitions – repeatedly walking back and forth past the anxious dog. We might gleefully see dramatic results from the beginning of the session to the end. Unfortunately, this result is likely temporary. After a break, the fear is likely to return.

To create strong associations, the dog needs long breaks between the end of one trial and the beginning of the next. This is the intertrial interval. Many experiments on classical conditioning space trials more than five minutes apart.

For strong conditioning to take place, this intertrial interval should be significantly longer than the interstimulus interval (Domjan, 2015, p. 84). As easy and as tempting as it is to do more repetitions, walking back and forth is not in the dog’s best interest. During breaks, we need to have a safe place where the decoy dog can wait.

As we move the decoy about, we need to take care that our handling does not undermine progress. Our actions can tip off the client’s dog. The dog discriminates between the set up and real life. Potentially, we might condition the dog to the wrong stimuli altogether.

Actions such as walking away, retrieving the decoy dog, opening the crate door, using cones as visual markers – they all scream “setup!” Be predictably unpredictable. The decoy dog should be reliable, but the scenarios should not have the appearance of a set up.

Occasionally, walk away and return without the decoy. Use more than one decoy dog to vary the appearance of the approaching dog. Approach from a new direction. Send the decoy into the area on a long line without the handler visibly present – but only if the decoy can do so safely. Do it all while keeping all the dogs under threshold.

The Client

Clients also need to know what to expect. The better they understand what is being done and why, the more likely they will follow instructions.

Keep exercises easy so clients can develop their skills. Our plans and decoy use should give them as much hands-on experience as possible without compromising the progress of the dog. It is really a delicate balance between giving the dog the breaks he needs and giving the client time to practice.

A trainer’s dog is an intimidating thing to many owners. Our dogs are often seen as being easy or exceptional. Do not hesitate to point out your dog’s journey, warts and all. Make the decoy accessible to the client. Our dogs are not there to stroke our egos, but to help with coaching and to inspire clients.

Our exceptional dogs need to learn how to behave like a real dog. In real life, few dogs are calm and well-mannered. If barking is part of the trigger, it helps to have a dog that barks on cue. If fast, darting dogs are a difficult distraction, it helps to have a dog that will run and dart in a limited area on cue. Dogs in the real world suddenly pop out from behind parked cars. A decoy can imitate these scenarios and allow families to practice responding.

On the other hand, clients need to feel safe. Our dogs need to have strong impulse control. A decoy dog should ignore dropped food, especially if working near resource guarding dogs. A planned training session should not become an all-out brawl because two dogs bolted for the same stray cookie.

Decoy dogs do not get any ribbons or medals. Yet they influence many. So many families I know forget my dog’s tricks but they remember the firsts their dogs had with my decoys – the first butt sniff, the first time walking calmly past a dog, the first time their dog play bowed to another.

Butt sniffs might not be glamorous but they certainly are special milestones. While decoys open the possibility to many novel training scenarios, we need to view their use from all angles if we want to use them ethically, effectively and responsibly.

Domjan, M. (2014). The Principles of Learning and Behavior. Independence, KY: Cengage Learning.

About the Author
Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs in London, Ontario, Canada. She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star. She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada. She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.

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