Fixated Fido: When Your Dog Just Can’t Let Go

Have you ever found your dog staring at the washing machine?

Has your dog ever chased a cyclist? 

Does your dog cry when you leave the house? 

Does your dog have trouble greeting other dogs appropriately? 

If so, they may have difficulty with disengagement. 

The ability to disengage is key to your dog living a happy life. A dog that can’t disengage will have trouble with responding appropriately to stimuli such as dogs in the distance, the movement of vehicles, a squirrel running across their path, kids playing with a ball, anything that attracts their attention as they become fixated. Dogs that are fixated lose the ability to think rationally, the ability to make good choices goes out the window, their ears switch off, and they do things that really aren’t in their best interests. 

Dogs with disengagement issues will:

  • stare
  • lunge
  • bark
  • growl
  • whine
  • become anxious
  • stalk
  • resource guard
  • stop listening 
  • become unresponsive to cues

The item of interest be anything. It can involve movement, it can be a static object, it can be food, it can be a person - there is no rhyme or reason to it other than it is something your dog finds absorbing. And such items can pop up anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be something your dog particularly values, like a favourite toy or their food bowl: it is just something they have taken an interest in. 

Even a game with a beloved tug toy or tennis ball can turn into a problem if your dog cannot disengage. So what do you do when your dog literally cannot let it go?

Staring Eyes and Cloth Ears

The trouble with disengagement difficulty is that it can often prompt extreme reaction in your dog when you try to get them to disengage, from full on ignoring you to explosive screaming and lunging as you try to direct them away, or biting if you try to remove the object of their attention. These reactions can be embarrassing if they happen in public, frightening, even harmful. In all such circumstances, you know your dog is not in a good place mentally and that is upsetting. 

You need a toolkit for getting out of such trouble fast. Your dog isn’t in any place mentally to be learning in that situation so having an action up your sleeve that will allow you to get your dog out of the situation, that will put you back in control and able to operate as your dog’s guide and protector first and foremost, is crucial. There is plenty time to work on disengagement when you and your dog are in the right frame of mind for it. That moment is not it! 

A to B: Our Go-To Disengagement Tool

A to B is our favourite disengagement trigger. It is your dog’s cue to disengage from something that is attracting their attention. So how do you A to B? As you walk toward whatever your dog is interested in, slide your hand down the lead towards your dog, turn around and walk away. As you do so, feed feed feed your dog. 

The motion of your hand sliding down the lead is the trigger for your dog to disengage from what’s ahead. You can put this on cue but in situations when your dog is actively engaged and having trouble disengaging, a verbal cue is not likely to register with them. The motion of your hand sliding down the lead is a physical cue that your dog can react to instinctively and thus it is more likely to prove effective in a sticky spot.


So You’ve Gotten out of Dodge, What Next? 

Once you’ve given you and your dog’s buckets a chance to empty, it is time to start working on disengagement. Remember, we Gamechangers don’t try to work in the problem, we work for the problem. And there are tons of games for that! 

The mouse game is a fantastic disengagement game that you can play anywhere. (It also makes a really fun game to play for your dog’s breakfast if you are ditching the bowl!) 😉 All you need are a few pieces of food and your hand. 

Place the pieces of food in a pile on the floor. Cage your hand over the food, spacing your fingers so your dog can see and smell the food but not reach it. Your dog will show interest in the food. They may try to access the food by licking, nibbling or pawing your hand. Don’t let them get it!

Don’t tell them to leave or give them any instructions. Allow them to make their own decision to move away from the food. You are waiting for that split second when your dog takes their attention off your hand. That can mean they look away or they stop pawing or nibbling - just look for that moment when they stop actively trying to access the food. Some will even make a very obvious move to back right off. Whatever form it takes for your dog, mark it with a yes or nice, then flick a piece of food from the pile out as a reward. 

You can take this game on tour - if you can’t place the food on the ground, hold it in your hand and cage your fingers round it. Play it in the garden, on walks, at the beach: get practising disengagement while out and about to get your dog making great choices in novel situations. Wherever you play, your dog will love it! 

Building Disengagement Skills 

Playing boundary games is a great way to take your dog’s disengagement skills to the next level. Boundary games teach your dog to work independently of you and to make great choices. 

You can add boundary fun to the Mouse Game. Pop your dog on a boundary (raised beds are great for this game) and place the food on the floor. You want to try to tempt your dog to leave the boundary to come towards the food. Your dog’s job is to resist! 

If your dog remains on the bed, take your hand off the food and slowly deliver bits of food to your dog on the bed. 

If your dog leaves the bed, cover the food with your hand. Don’t re-cue them back onto the bed. Let them make the choice to disengage from the food and return to the bed. As soon as they return to the bed, uncover the food and start to give them pieces of it once more. 

Periodically, and as frequently as you need to keep your dog excited and interested in the food, release your dog directly onto the food with a release cue. 

Remember not to cue your dog to leave the food or to stay on the bed - let them make their own choices. Make it challenging for them in training: use super tasty, super smelling treats and let them see them, let them want them - the harder they find it to disengage, the bigger the win when they manage! 



Check out our Boundary Games DVD for more cool boundary games to ramp your dog’s disengagement-ability.

Disengagement Masters

Disengagement is so vital to a dog’s ability to properly interact with the world and yet it is so little considered or taught. The time to think about it is not when your dog is so engaged that they’ve lost the ability to hear and think and are lunging and barking at the end of the lead: the time to get to work is now. Play the Mouse Game, take it on tour, add some boundary challenges, have fun and very soon your dog will be a Disengagement Master! 


  • How do I adapt this when the problem is the ball in my dog’s mouth, and the dog is off lead? recently after an hour at the park with a bit of ball chasey, I told my dog we had to go. My dog usually has great recall. But with a ball in his mouth, it’s like his brain falls out. He would not come, for food, for anything. And then it becomes a game of keepings-off- me. He held me up 40 mins and I could not catch him. Another new dog arriving helped and that dog’s owners grabbed his collar when he went to greet them. We have not played with tennis balls since, which is a shame as he loves to chase them, but I can’t risk it if his recall goes out the window. Now, at the dog park he steals other dogs’ balls and I’m back to the same problem, he is otherwise very food motivated,.

    Amy Barclay
  • While this was going on, I had been sitting out on my step twice a day and hand feeding him both his meals.

    Later we started moving up and down the entrance steps while he ate supper from my hand. This developed into eating his meals from me while walking up and down the driveway, then to the neighbours’ and back, etc.

    Playing with toys was also being developed.

    During this time, I made sure to take very short walks. Most enrichment came from inside the house and lots of puzzle play and basic obedience to tire him out. Moving away from small objects of low value and food parties were some of our first steps.

    It is amazing, over time, what success can come from such skill development.

    In the moment, be diligent in scanning the environment and consider changing your walking paths/times to reduce as much as possible chance encounters with excitement stimuli.

    I wish you all the best.

    Cici Tadge
  • I feel your pain. The mantra of ‘train for the moment, not in the moment’ is key in reducing your frustration.

    I adopted a dog that would not take food or play with a toy so I actually started with those two goals so i had some tools before I could have a chance of helping him.

    His priority was sniffing and that was the only thing I could think to offer him so I could set up a bartering system to trade behaviours with what he wanted.

    While developing his ability to eat food outside, I carefully walked in the very middle of walkways on a shorter leash. I would invite him often to go sniff, at first as a behaviour in itself and later in trade for eye contact.

    Cici Tadge
  • So, how do I adjust this to cope with a dog that lunges, that is exceptionally quick, exceptionally strong and often gives no indication of his intentions. Sliding my hand down the lead isn’t an option once he’s lunged, I’m too busy hanging on. It would be fine if I saw his body language alter but often there’s no indication, just an explosion of 40k of muscle.
    Fortunately it doesn’t happen often although that’s a problem in itself as he lulls me into a false sense of security and I get caught off guard.

    Deborah Gilbody
  • Sounds good – except my dog is not interested in food. Even when hungry, other stuff takes priority. She’s lean as it is, so reducing her food isn’t an option. She’s only about 3 days between looking fine and showing her hipbones. If she takes food – then something interesting happens, she’ll swing her head, the food will fall out – and be forgotten.
    Sigh .. training is so much easier with a ‘foodie’ dog.


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