ACE Free Work, Ducky & Me

*ACE stands for Animal Centred Education, and is a program conceived and built from the ground up by a British gal by the name of Sarah Fischer.

To greatly simplify and shorten a long and complicated story, Sarah has been doing free work with many different animals for several years in an attempt to find reasons for their unwanted behavior, including reactivity and/or sensitivity to many things, people, and other animals. She also uses Tellington TTouch body work to introduce handling but ACE includes Free Work and detailed observations which give clues to a dog’s sensitivities. 

I first learned  about ACE and Free Work from my friend, Janet Finlay, who owns and operates Canine Confidence Academy in the U.K. and provides online learning as well as person-to-person workshops (up until the pandemic shutdown and will start again as mitigation makes it possible). I’ve taken several of Janet’s online courses over the years since we adopted Ducky, including the current (ongoing) one – Your End of the Lead 2.0 (an updated version of her original course by the same name) – to help me deal with Ducky’s reactivity. The courses also include private communities/forums where those of us taking the course can share our videos and stories without fear of judgment and form valuable alliances with other guardians of reactive dogs.

In some ways, Free Work for dogs is similar to beginner nose work; but instead of hiding treats, you put them in full view of the dog. Generally, we use a variety of surfaces, enrichment toys, etcetera, as the “course” layout so that the dog gets sensory information through its feet, nose, eyes, ears, etc.  Once the course is set up, you invite the dog to explore it.

If possible, video the session (so you can watch later to pick up on those things you might miss) while the dog is exploring and getting the treats and observe her/his movement and posture, noting things that they like, nervous system responses, preferences (with respect to the direction they move in, objects they interact with, etc). Don’t include items in the course that you know are concerning to the dog, or remove an item if the dog appears to be wary of it. And, importantly, observe without any expectations as to the outcome.  (Believe me, that last part takes some practice!)

The great thing about Free Work is that you don’t have to buy any special equipment – you can use whatever items you already own. And you can lay out just one or two items, or four or five, with enough room for the dog to move freely around them. (If your dog is super sensitive or tentative to her/his environment, it’s probably better to start with only one or two items so as not to overwhelm them.)

For Ducky, I needed a space where I could give her the freedom of eating her breakfast away from the main source of her anxiety – her “Daddy”. And, because she was so anxious at times that she wouldn’t eat out of her regular food bowl, I got out some different lickimats that I’ve purchased over the last couple of years. At first I just laid out the lickimats on the floor of my “office”. Then I experimented with different heights – like a 12-pack of toilet paper, an overturned Amazon box, and an agility cone (with the lickimat bowl inverted over it). Over the last several months, this has become Ducky’s preferred way to eat her breakfast. 

The ACE Free Work not only gave me a way to relieve Ducky’s morning anxieties enough for her to eat; but it also gave me a learning opportunity. While observing her movement around the room via the videos I posted, several of my course mates (and Janet) started picking up on clues that she had some definite areas of bodily discomfort. When those clues were pointed out to me – in addition to the clues I was picking up on myself – I saw something that greatly concerned me: that Ducky might have cruciate disease in her left hind leg. As you know from an earlier post, that didn’t turn out to be the case; but she does have dysplasia in her left hip and we now have options for relieving and managing the pain.

So, with all that said, if you’re interested in learning more about ACE Free Work, I suggest checking out Sarah Fisher’s website:  There is a private group on Facebook, as well, called “ACE Connections” that you can ask to join.