So the other night I took Jenny for a walk because it was nice and cool out. It was also dark which is a good time to walk because the pavement is cooler. I had forgotten to bring treats with me so when I parked I dug out my emergency Ritz cracker stash from the glove box. (Ritz crackers with peanut butter for the moments I am starving or have an upset stomach.) Jenny loves all food so I knew those would work to use as rewards if needed. Sometimes we just walk and sometimes I throw in a quick training session. While we were walking by the Stand theater I noticed the girl putting up the letters on the marquee was someone I know. I stopped to say hello while she worked.
I was not paying attention to the way she was doing the work. Jenny saw the long pole moving however and started freaking out, trying to run away and began barking. (The long pole has a suction cup on the end which gets slammed onto the letter, then raised to slide into the slot on the marquee, pull off and repeat for the next letter. Not only is it a long pole but there are scary noises.) Now when I first got Jenny there was a fair amount of getting her to not be scared of walking main street because of the signs that blow in the wind and balloons that were sometimes there and all the noises. She now walks main street like a pro. (I prefer walking main street with my dogs because there are far fewer loose dogs to avoid in those areas.)
Thankfully I had the ritz crackers with me so I pulled them out and began feeding bits to Jenny while my friend worked. Classical conditioning is basically pairing something the dog doesn't like, with something the dog does like. In Jenny's case the thing she liked was food, and the thing she didn't like was the long pole moving and the sounds it made when sticking to the sign. What is important to remember in the time you are pairing the two is that it doesn't matter that the dog is barking. You are not rewarding "bad behavior", we are instead reprogramming the emotional event for the dog. The barking is just the dogs way of releasing it's anxiety and saying "Keep away!" (which is why holding a dog muzzle shut can increase anxiety) I also act confident and just praise the dog anytime she is quiet or calming down at all WHILE I am still giving the food treats.
Some dogs may need to be moved away from the "scary thing" (scary in THEIR perception, not ours) to be what we call under threshold. (far enough away to be less scared so they can think) Then we pair the food anytime the dog looks at the scary thing. We can then move slowly closer over time while we are treating. If classical conditioning isn't possible in the moment simply walk away from the scary object instead. If we force a dog towards something they are afraid of they go into a fight or flight mode. This is an instinctual thing for self preservation. That means they would either chose to run away from the scary thing, or go after it to defend themselves. In either case they are not in a thinking mode and won't learn because they are too stressed. Our job is to get them back into a thinking mode to learn it isn't something they need to be afraid of. The most important part is that we need to remember that it is the DOGS perception of what is scary. Just because we know it isn't something they don't need to be scared of, it doesn't negate their emotion of the event for them.
After treating her for a few minutes and getting her to a calmer state we left to finish our walk. On the way back we were on the other side of the road as we passed. My friend was still there working. Jenny looked at her, then looked at me. I tossed her a treat, and we kept on walking. Perfect!