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Leslie McDevitt and Control Unleashed


If you’ve worked with me, you’ve heard me talk about Leslie McDevitt and her Control Unleashed Program. There’s also a good chance that we’ve played a variety of her games. McDevitt first devised the Control Unleashed exercises to help dogs who struggled in agility classes and trials cope with the distracting environment. But she soon discovered that her techniques worked for dogs in other challenging situations. In fact, Control Unleashed worked so well that McDevitt designed a training program specifically for puppies.


Her three books, pictured above, detail her training programs and explain how the techniques work both as operant conditioning (learning through consequences) and as counter conditioning (changing feelings by changing associations). Pattern Games like Up/Down and Ping Pong, for example, reinforce a simple behavior (looking at the human after eating a treat) at a rapid rate (lots of cookies in a short time!). For your reactive or fearful dog, these games can reframe how she understands and reacts to her environment: the barking dogs you pass on walks become opportunities for her to check in with her human instead of creating occasions for reaction and fear.


In addition to shifting a dog's perception of her environment, McDevitt has several key goals for her dog and human teams. Over time the dogs develop more relaxed responses to their surroundings, reducing stress in previously stressful situations like agility trials or neighborhood walks. The humans learn to better read their dogs' body language, which is crucial for knowing how close your dog is to her threshold. McDevitt teaches people to follow what she calls the Goldilocks Rule—training at the level of stimulation where your dog can best learn. In other words, not too stressed and not too relaxed, but engaged enough to participate eagerly.


I turn to McDevitt’s games because they do so much work toward helping anxious, reactive, and / or easily overstimulated dogs and because both humans and dogs tend to learn them quickly. Because many of the games are so simple in structure, they make excellent tools for humans of all ages to improve their training techniques like timing the marker and treat. And the clearer we can be for our pups, the easier it is for them to understand what we're teaching them.


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