What is Free Work for Dogs?

Animal Centred Education (ACE) is an integrated approach to animal wellbeing and education. It incorporates methods that were developed by Sarah Fisher at Tilley Farm such as ACE Free Work, Sarah’s passion for detailed observations and building calm foundations on which further learning can be established.

Susi, who is currently working towards her ACE Certification, walks us through how to get started with the Free Work Protocol.

“Free Work” was developed in the UK by Sarah Fisher, thanks to her amazing dog Henry. While the main purpose of Free Work is to observe and adapt, it can be hugely beneficial to all dogs – especially puppies. It can build confidence in themselves and you as their guardian.

So how do you get started? You will need a little bit of space and a variety of objects. You want items of varying heights and textures –  things for your dog to walk across, put their nose in, articles that move, basically anything that’s safe for your dog to interact with. You will also need a couple of water bowls. One should be on the floor and the other raised a bit. The idea is for the dog to have a choice.

Some easy things to use at home are towels, blankets, cardboard, or bits of old carpet. For adding height, you can put items on top of tins or sturdy boxes. The variety of objects allows you to see what your dog is confident or unsure about. Can they walk across the blanket with no issue? Does the feel of the cardboard concern them? Are they able to drink water when the bowl is raised? Watching them gives you lots of information about their confidence and ability to move freely.

You will also need a few different types of treats. Something soft, something lickable, something chewy, and something tough. Each texture of treat is eaten differently… even if it doesn’t appear that way. Soft treats are the easiest to eat – they don’t require much chewing. Lickable treats can include wet, fresh, or raw food – it can also be liver paste or squeezy cheese. Licking shows us how the dog uses their tongue. Combined with an uneven surface, you can give them a bit more of a challenge. The rim of an upturned food bowl makes the dog work a little harder to get all the tasty food out. Chewing activates the jaw and works with cheek and head muscles. You don’t want to give them a big chew, something that just takes an extra few seconds is good. Hard treats are difficult for nervous dogs to eat. They may not give off as much scent either. Having this variety means you can see if there is a texture your dog avoids. Or maybe one they prefer.

So, you’ve got your treats and your surfaces. Time to set up the area. You can do this however you want. Having a little runway of surfaces is a great way to build confidence. You can put items together in a cluster or spread them apart. There isn’t really a wrong way to do it. Once your area is set up, you can put the treats out. Best to start with the dog out of the room! Smear any wet treats on different surfaces so the dog can lick it off. Place the other treats on your various surfaces and the spaces between. By giving the dog the chance to explore and be rewarded, they gain confidence. You’re not forcing them onto any surfaces, just encouraging. The treats in between are freebies, so they have the choice to interact with the different textures if they would 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). This gives them completely unrestricted movement. You will be able to see any difference later when their normal walking equipment is on.

As I mentioned, the purpose of Free Work is to allow your dog choice. They can explore if they want to, but they don’t have to. The treats are rewarding, as is sniffing to find them. The different textures on their paws, using their tongue, moving themselves across unstable surfaces – all gives them a greater awareness of their body. This builds confidence and trust in their own ability. Your job is to observe and support. Letting them explore at their own pace but being around if they look to you for help. A little gentle encouragement can go a long way. See how they move, if there is anything they avoid, and think about how to change the set up for next time. Both of you will soon see the benefits.

If you’d like to learn more about ACE, Free Work, and how you can use these foundations to support an anxious or reactive dog, check out our webinar with Sarah Fisher: https://barketplace.uk/shop/cool-calm-and-connected-with-sarah-fisher/