A “Bridge” over the River Ziva

One of the best techniques we have learned is called “Bridging.” This is a truly positive method of training, and from what I understand it was originally developed for working with zoo animals, to desensitize them to “triggers” or targets — anything that might make them upset or excited, such as getting examined or having someone or something in their area. So you can try this with any animal: your cats, your birds — heck, apparently even your goats!

So, they’re not speaking English in that video, but it doesn’t matter. Here’s what is going on there. The woman is trying to get the goat comfortable with having a collar on. So she names the target — if it was in English she would say “collar.” Then she makes a series of hard consonant sounds —  she says “gee gee gee gee gee,” while have been using more of a “duh duh duh duh duh” sound — while the target is near. In this case, she’s getting the collar closer each time. As the goat stops reacting to the collar, she stops making the bridging sound, and says “Yes!” (or whatever she is saying in this video), and gives a food reward.

We started using this method for Ziva’s dog reactiveness. It is similar to what our first trainer and other friends had suggested, which was to have high value treats and give them whenever a dog was nearby.  But the problem was, once Ziva saw a dog, she became so wound up that she never really cared about the treats. I was holding the leash with one hand while she pulled and lunged, trying to stuff treats in her mouth with the other, all the time saying phrases that I don’t think she even heard: “leave it!” “take it easy” “it’s just a dog”

Needless to say, that wasn’t going too well. My phrases turned into “Stop it!” “No!” “Ouch! You’re pulling my arm!” At least those were the G-rated versions.

We started doing the bridging method during private lessons at TK9, with another dog standing on the far side of a room. Our trainer Will came in the room with a delightful Golden Retriever who couldn’t have cared less about us. Ziva started to pull and bark, but I said “Dog! duh duh duh duh” and stuck some hot dog pieces in her mouth, with a “Yes!” . She stopped to eat the hot dog, and I said again “Dog! duh duh duh duh” then “Yes!” and a treat. Over and over and over again. To the point that when I said “Dog!” Ziva whipped her head around, not paying attention to the dog any more but to me! (well, and the hot dogs).

It has taken a LOT of practice with this method, but we use it on our walks, and we even started using it around the house. I believe it helped Ziva calm down enough to be able to be around the cats, to the point now where they kiss noses, and the cats rub up against her. Our cat Zeke is the more interactive one with Ziva, because she still can get too excited for Juliet’s taste. But to get from Ziva flying toward the baby gate whenever she saw one of them in the hallway to where we are today, where she lies in her bed and watches them walk by — that only happened after we started saying “That’s Zeke! duh duh duh duh. Yes!” And “That’s Juliet! duh duh duh duh. Yes!”

This method has been crucial to helping Ziva learn to control her energy — this, along with Behavioral Down and Conditioned Relaxation. But this technique has really made the most profound and obvious change in our daily walks. What a joyous feeling when I realized that I was actually hoping we would encounter another dog on our walk so that we could practice bridging. That was a real “Whoa!” moment for me:  We had gone from dreading the idea of running into dogs to actively seeking them out.  If you have a dog-reactive dog, you understand how powerful this change in mindset is.

I’m not being overly dramatic to say this is life-changing. Using bridging has gotten us to the point now where Ziva can lie down in a small room, waiting our turn to go into a room for Nose Work practice, even with a not very social Belgian Malinois and a perky Pomeranian just a few feet away (not to mention 4 other lively dogs in the room!).

Other dogs waiting for their turn to do Nose Work

Ziva was lying at my feet in Behavioral Down while I took this picture. Another dog was behind that blue wall doing a search, another small dog was practicing what I call “little dog tricks” to our left, and a Lab and a Cocker Spaniel are sitting to our right.

When we started this journey with Ziva, she was unable to participate in a Basic Obedience class because it was too much for her to handle her adrenaline in that situation, being around other dogs. And now? She is able to enjoy new experiences like Nose Work. I don’t know if we’ll keep up with the Nose Work or try to get certified, but she really seems to love doing it, so …

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