ACE Free Work

ACE (Animal Centred Education), of which I am an ACE Trainer was founded by Sarah Fisher. Sarah has worked with a lot of rescue and other dogs who found physical contact from a person very difficult for whatever reason and she had adapted their learning so they could start to release the physical tension in their body in the belief that physical, mental, and emotional balance all play a part in how an animal behaves. Over the years Sarah’s ideas of helping these dogs developed into what we now call ACE Free Work where the dog has freedom from wearing any equipment in a safe environment with freedom of choice in their own learning pace. This has become so valuable in helping dogs and been illuminating for the guardian/pet parent as we all stand back and observe the beauty of our dogs, discover what they find easy and what they don’t and then we can modify what we do and how we set things up to help the dog to learn. We may discover something that might need veterinary care.

During our observations we may notice gait irregularities that may have gone unnoticed, tension in the body and be more aware of our dog’s communication as we start to data gather the information, we are processing ourselves.

ACE Free Work can be the basic building blocks of introducing new things like collar or harnesses, the learning foundations of quiet communication between dog and handler for gaining trust, mutual respect of touch, lead walking as we learn to walk together with a connection. ACE Free Work has so many ways to help anxious, shy, or nervous dogs.

What do we need to start our Free Work?

You will need different surfaces for the dog to walk on, this will help to improve their proprioception, coordination, and balance by giving the dog a different sensation on their paws which in turn will bring more awareness as to where they place their feet.

You can use an old towel, bathmat, door mat, even an up turned door mat so the dog walks on the rubber surface, fleece, yoga mat etc

I would only use one surface to begin with and as the dog becomes accustomed to ACE Free Work you can start to add more slowly and eventually you can set out tracks to encourage the dog to walk with you.

Stations – to encourage the dog to explore, these can be of different heights but never above chest level. We can adapt different heights as we start our data gathering to help the dog release tension in the body. Stations can be a low step or stool, a trug filled with mini snuffle mats, an old towel scrunched up or balls from a ball pit. You can use your Amazon recycling, the carboard boxes and the packaging to hide treats in, cones, flowerpots or buckets turned upside down, plastic boxes turned upside down and sticky food spread on for licking or the right way up and any of the previous filling above put inside e.g., snuffle mats, use your imagination to build stations.

As you start your data gathering you can add in angled stations like wheelchair ramps to help the dog get a nice stretch through the neck.

What should you add to the Stations to encourage the dog to go to them?

Different textured treats to go in snuffle mats, scrunched up towels etc

Sticky food to lick like primula cheese, pate, yogurt, dog safe peanut butter or soft food.

Something for your dog to crunch, a carrot, rabbit ear, hydrated liver, or big crunchy biscuit.

I would also lay out one of the dog’s favourite toys so they can decompress if needed.

Always have water available in several bowls, one on some height. Set the bowls out in the centre of the ACE Free Work, some dogs don’t like to face a wall to drink because they can’t see what is going on all around them. It is also a good idea to set a bowl a little away from the ACE Free Work if that is possible, so the dog is free to remove themselves from the ACE Free Work to drink. The dog may also just need a moment away from the business of the ACE Free Work and so you are creating that possibility for them to have a minute. Sometimes we too need a moment to ourselves before we can come back again and take part in something we may find difficult and our dog is no different, after all they do share a lot of the same emotions as we do.

To begin with only set out three stations and a surface. Set your stations up fairly close together so the dog can take three or four steps in between them, if we place them further apart we may encourage the dog to run from station to station when we are really wanting the dog to slow down  you may alter the space between as you observe your dog and they are not able to take a full stride if they are a long striding or bigger dog. Beginning with a small set up is less intimidating for the dog.

Adding in interactive dog toys or puzzle may lead to frustration or hurry to complete the puzzle which again speeds up the dog, keep those for another time when you are not doing ACE Free Work.

Any dog of any age, size or ability can do ACE Free Work.

It is a low impact exercise with no pressure on the joints and you can replace walks with ACE Free Work, exercising all their senses and not just physically exercising your dog. This is because you are exercising their;


You can add to the ACE Free Work as they gain experience and go join your dog by quietly sitting in the setup, play Chirag Patel’s Counting Game, play What’s This, go for a quiet Country Walk together, introduce New People, teach Loose Lead Walking.

Use your imagination to come up with interesting stations like a Snuffle Bar, Hedgerow, Island of Trugs, ACE Avenue using more mini snuffle mats, clothing that an unfamiliar person has worn that you want to introduce to the dog without the person being too close to the dog, they can go and get the scent from the clothing and when they are ready to meet the person, they will do in their own time.

If your dog gets over excited by food, has food intolerances, or finds food aversive you can add scent, you can get scent sticks that smell of fox, rabbit, deer etc

You can add in noises or music.

Please introduce slowly and get professional guidance when moving forward to help with behavioural issues so you don’t overwhelm your dog and you can get help in learning your dog’s body language and signals and you place things at appropriate heights for your dog, so you don’t over stretch muscles and create tension in their body.

Getting the right help and then practicing is so beneficial for both you and your dog, you will both have fun and learn so much from each other.

Thank you for reading this information, it has been written with Alba Dog clients in mind and should not be shared with anyone else even with the best intentions, people should seek professional advice when trying to change behaviour because good intentions can do more harm if the dog’s subtle expression of concern is missed.

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