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Training the Emergency U-Turn for Reactive Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

You may want to use an emergency u-turn if your dog gets reactive when he sees a trigger.

You may want to use an emergency u-turn if your dog gets reactive when he sees a trigger.

Why Train the Emergency U-Turn?

Do you have a reactive dog who lunges, barks, and growls at triggers on walks? If so, you may often be caught off guard and may be looking for fast ways to prevent these mishaps.

I first learned about the emergency U-turn as a safety measure by Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and author Patricia McConnell. Ever since, I have found this very useful and it has become an important method I use when I am assigned cases of reactive dogs.

The Use of the Emergency U-Turn for Dogs

When is an emergency turn useful? And what does it consist of? If you own a reactive dog, you may know how quickly Rover may go from 0 to 100 in seconds.

He may be fine one moment, but then suddenly a guy on a skateboard is coming your way and within seconds, as you are about to tighten the leash, your dog turns into a barking and snarling machine. You didn't think fast enough about what to do and Rover acted faster than you.

If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you may be interested in learning how to reduce these episodes. Now there is good news and bad news when it comes to dealing with triggers.

The Bad News First

Well, the bad news is that there are really no fast ways to change your dog's opinion about these triggers and magically transform your dog into Mr. Friendly guy overnight.

In order to tackle this problem head-on, you will need to work on changing your dog's emotional response towards triggers using systematic desensitization and counterconditioning, and perhaps work on more specific programs such as:

Consult with a dog trainer acquainted with these techniques for safety and correct implementation of behavior modification. The book The Cautious Canine can also be a helpful read for owners of reactive dogs.

Now, the Good News

The good news is that before or in between working systematically to change your dog's emotions, you want to also prevent your dog from rehearsing the unwanted behaviors. This is where the Emergency U-turn can come in handy and this skill is not that difficult to train.

Preventing rehearsal of the problematic behavior is very important because if you consistently allow your dog to bark, growl, and lunge at triggers on walks, practicing the behavior makes it more ingrained and difficult to work on because such displays are rewarding.

What's the reward in this case? Sending the skateboarder/jogger away and staying safe. Just think about it: if your dog continues to engage in a certain behavior, it most likely means that he finds it useful in some way, right? For the sake of comparison, would you keep spraying products to kill bugs if these didn't work?

The Importance of Management

To prevent the repetition of unwanted behavior, management is your treasured friend. You will need to do your best to prevent your dog from being exposed to triggers in such a way that your dog goes overboard and over the threshold.

This is easier said than done as you may wish to still walk your dog! So whether your dog is reactive towards a skateboarder, a biker, a jogger, or another dog, this is where you will find an emergency u-turn helpful.

In the next paragraph, we will look at how to teach your dog an Emergency U-turn and turn it almost into an instinctive reflex, where your dog will do it without almost thinking.

How to Train Your Dog The Emergency U-Turn (Schutzhund Turn)

There are several ways to teach this. Some of my colleagues like to train this with the dog at a distance when he's off-leash. This can be helpful if you have a dog that is not reactive, but just want to have a bit more control on off-leash walks. If your dog is reactive, he should not be off-leash. This article is about dogs reacting towards triggers on walks.

For this, I like to train a Schutzhund turn. Kaiser and I competed in Rally obedience last year, and as I was thinking about this move, I thought how helpful it could be when you are faced with a sudden trigger, so I started introducing Schutzhund turns in my private reactivity classes.

What is exactly a Schutzhund turn? It's a move where the handler turns while the dog goes around him and they meet together again on the handler's designated side as the turn is completed. This fancy turn looks a tad bit complicated, but it's easier when you do it. This is how I train it.

  1. Find a quiet area where there isn't much going on. A hallway may work for smaller dogs as you can turn back and forth. Do this first off-leash. If you aren't fluent enough, the leash may get in the way and things can get sloppy. Do this on-leash only once you and your dog are moving fluidly together.
  2. Arm yourself with high-value treats. Skip the kibble or those stale doggy cookies. You want small, bite-sized treats your dog loves. Dog owners are often impressed by how many pieces I can get from a chunk of a hot dog. These small pieces work their purpose and are easy to give as jackpots if you want to give your dog a strong impression and throw a party.
  3. For this training, start by keeping your treats handy. Hold one in your hand and walk with your dog. In this case, let's imagine your dog is on your left side, you would turn to your left, while keeping the treat in your right hand, lure your dog behind your legs, mark the behavior and give the treat when your dog is back to the heel position on your left side.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. You want to do this often, make it fun, and try to do it in different locations around different distractions.
  5. If you are working with a trainer on desensitization and are using decoys, ask your trainer if you can introduce these turns with the decoy at a distance.
  6. Generally, you would add the verbal cue once the behavior has become fluid. I generally don't use a cue anymore for this as my dogs have learned to be attentive to my moves and sudden turns. In the video below, I was initially using a hand movement to entice Kaiser to turn and occasionally a verbal cue. This was back when we were practicing for Rally-obedience, but now he does it automatically as he notices I am about to turn and no longer needs any aids. In the last turns in the video, you'll notice how he does it without many aids as they're faded. This should be done gradually. If you wish though, you can introduce a cue just as a backup if your dog isn't paying attention to you. A smacking noise for attention as I use for COR training may tun helpful as well.

The video below shows the final product. As you can notice, it sounds more complicated than it really is.

An Emergency Exit

Of course, you can simply turn normally when you see a trigger, but I have noticed how Schutzhund turns seem to grab more attention from the dog, especially if you turn it into a fun game and you are able to get your dog fluid on this enough that he does it quickly and without much thinking.

If you watch the video closely, you'll see how Kaiser does best and with more "oomph" when we do it quickly versus slower. So work on the speed that makes your dog happy.

Hopefully, this emergency exit can get you and your dog out quickly from what could have turned out to be a sticky situation! I have used it in the past with my dogs when we are walking and suddenly an off-leash dog we don't know comes our way or some scary trigger is coming fast and we want to buy a bit more time.

The best part is that a Schutzhund turn is a fancy move you can always use if you ever decide to enroll in rally obedience or want to add it to your canine freestyle choreography! Many dogs love these sports and you may too! Happy training!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 22, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by heidithorne. I have found that small, bite-size treats that are soft work great. They're easy to swallow, can be delivered fast and more frequently than a bigger cookie. Hot dogs are one of my favorites. You may also find useful my article on the LAT "look at that" technique. If she pulls a lot, you may have better control with a front-attachment harness. Best of luck!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 22, 2013:

I'm working on something similar with my older golden who suddenly gets anxious and can easily spin me to the ground. Looks like she might need some better lures. But she's still showing improvement with cookies. Thanks for sharing the technique!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 22, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Kasman. I use it often with my dogs when there's some off leash dog coming towards my way or some scary trigger and I want to buy a bit of time before deciding to face it or go the other way. Thanks for the votes up and share!

Kas from Bartlett, Tennessee on May 22, 2013:

Alexadry, I'm very glad you wrote this. I'm someone who keeps my dogs well trained but, sometimes when you walk them, you're right about how quickly they react sometimes. Good job on this hub, I think I will use your treat process to help. I'm voting up and sharing!