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Freework for Dogs

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

ACE, or Animal-Centered Education, is a holistic approach to fostering animal welfare and knowledge. Developed by Sarah Fisher at Tilley Farm, this method includes innovative techniques like ACE Free Work, which empowers animals to learn and grow at their own pace. Additionally, Sarah's emphasis on attentive observations and creating a peaceful environment lays the groundwork for deep and meaningful learning experiences. Ultimately, ACE prioritises the wellbeing of animals and recognises the vital role they play in our lives.

Sarah Fisher, a renowned dog trainer from the UK, created the "Free Work" technique inspired by her remarkable dog Henry. Free Work is primarily meant for observation and adaptation but can be immensely advantageous for all dogs, particularly puppies, as it can help them build self-assurance and strengthen their bond with their guardian.

To get started with Free Work, you need to have some space and a collection of objects that vary in texture and height. These items should be safe for your dog to interact with and should include things for your dog to walk across, put their nose in, and articles that move. You will also need a couple of water bowls, one placed on the floor and the other elevated. This setup will give your dog a choice, encouraging them to explore and interact with the objects. You can use everyday household items, such as towels, blankets, cardboard boxes, old carpets, or sturdy boxes for adding height. The variety of objects will help you understand what your dog is confident or unsure about. For example, can they walk across the blanket without any issue? Do they feel uncomfortable with the texture of cardboard? Can they drink water when the bowl is raised? By observing your dog's behaviour, you will gain valuable insights into their confidence and their ability to move freely.

In addition to the objects, you will need different types of treats for your dog to eat, such as something soft, something lickable, something chewy, and something tough. Each texture of treat is eaten differently, and observing your dog's eating behaviour can provide valuable insights into their tongue, jaw, cheek, and head muscles. Soft treats are the easiest to eat and do not require much chewing, while lickable treats can include wet, fresh, or raw food, liver paste, or squeezy cheese. Licking shows how the dog uses their tongue, and combined with an uneven surface, it can give them a bit more of a challenge. For chewing, you don't want to give them a big chew, something that takes an extra few seconds is ideal. Hard treats are difficult for nervous dogs to eat and may not give off as much scent. Having this variety of treats will help you see if there is a particular texture your dog avoids or prefers.

To set up the Free Work area, you can arrange the objects and surfaces in any way you like. A little runway of surfaces is an excellent way to build your dog's confidence, but you can also cluster items together or spread them out. Once you have set up the area, you can put the treats out, starting with the dog out of the room. Smear any wet treats on different surfaces so the dog can lick it off, and place the other treats on various surfaces and spaces in between. By giving the dog the chance to explore and be rewarded, they gain confidence without being forced to interact with any surface. The treats in between are freebies, giving them the choice to interact with the different textures if they like or just take the free food. Before your dog enters the area, remove any collars or harnesses (as long as they're in a secure environment) to give them unrestricted movement. This will help you see any difference later when they wear their normal walking equipment.

The primary objective of Free Work is to give your dog the freedom to choose. They can explore if they want to, but they don't have to. The treats are a reward, and sniffing to find them also provides a sense of satisfaction. By exploring the different textures on their paws, using their tongue, and moving themselves across unstable surfaces, your dog becomes more aware of their body, which builds confidence and trust in their own ability. Your role is to observe and support, allowing them to explore at their own pace while being present if they look to you for help. A little gentle encouragement can go a long way. Pay attention to how they move, notice anything they avoid, and think about changing the setup for the next Free Work session. Both you and your dog will soon see the benefits of this technique.

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