Sunday, July 22, 2012

Classical conditioning on the fly

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!


Ruth said...

What do you do when the dog isn't treat (or toy) driven? Not that I've ever run into a situation where Apollo has reacted such that I NEED to do so, but he'll ignore peperoni waived in front of his nose.....

Marie said...

If you can't find anything that you can use for counter conditioning then I would just get away from the scary thing. (But try lots of stuff, diced chicken, a different squeeky sound, etc.) Moving away from the scary thing is it's own reward. There is also something called BAT (behavior adjustment training) that uses functional rewards for dogs who are reactive. Grisha Stewart has a great video out on the subject.

Ruth said...

Shall look it up, thank you! He's so far tolerated everything he's been shown with great tolerance, but I keep thinking one of these days SOMETHING is going to get a reaction out of him!

rguttmann said...


I just started reading your blog, and am so thankful to have found it. I hope you can help me, as I haven't found very much information regarding my situation. I have an 8-month old DEAF Rhodesian Ridgeback ("Blue") who seems to like most people once she is properly introduced, but it's the introduction that's rough. When anyone comes over she barks LOUDLY (and sounds very aggressive), with hair standing up on her neck. If they approach too fast, she barks more frantically. My UPS delivery guy and mailman are both very uncomfortable with her barking/body language. Many times, I think her barking is territorial/defensive of the yard/house. When we are away from the house, she rarely barks at all.

Today, my 9-y.o. daughter had a friend arrive, and Blue didn't know it until she was started by the friend's presence in the backyard. She got upset, started barking and growling, even at my daughter who in that moment she forgot that she recognized her. I think this may have been a combination of being started which put her on high-alert, and then territorial, because there was a stranger in her space, where she didn't expect to see one.

Blue does understand a bunch of sign language (pretty much anything I've tried to teach her so far). what I can't figure out is how to communicate "I've got this" or "It's ok" or "Shush" when we have visitors. I am ok with her barking until I ask her to stop. I feel like she should trust me enough to relax once I tell her the visitor is not a threat.

I have thought of having visitors that I know bring treats with them, to make visitors a good thing. What else can I do? Frankly, the incident today scares me. I do not want to have to worry about this dog biting someone for the next 10-12 years!

So my questions are: How do I communicate that all is well, and that she can trust me that the situation is under control? And What can I do to make visitors more of a happy occurrence in Blue's opinion? Is Classical Conditioning the answer? Thank you so much in advance for any advice you can offer!


Marie said...

Hi Renee, Sorry I was away and didn't see your question.

The main problem is that the dog can't relax until THEY feel safe. You want her to defer to you because you know you are in control of the situation but the dog doesn't know that. It is about the dogs perception of the event.

For visitors I would toss treats when they appear. Toss them away from the person. If the dog looks at you use a thumbs up and a smile as your "marker". Remember it doesn't matter if she is barking at the time. We are not rewarding bad behavior, we are trying to change the emotion of the event for her. Strangers showing up means "the bar is ope", good things happen. When they leave, the bar closes. This way she will start to look forward to people coming, or at least associate them with positive things happening. Make sure you use a HIGH value treat. Dogs biscuits aren't usually good enough.

You can also add a hand signal for "friend" as she gets better. Oh look it's a "friend", toss treats. I wouldn't let others toss the treats until she is very comfortable with them being there. Then you can up the ante with having them toss the treats.

I would also crate train her and teach her to go into it on cue. This way you have a back up plan for delivery men or when you can't control the people well enough to NOT approach her. I would also have some stuffed kongs in the freezer to give when she is crated to keep it a positive for her. Oh look someone is here, go to your place and get a yummy kong. (or bully stick or antler, etc) This will also be conditioning her to look forward to people because that is the only time she gets that treat. Again make sure it is something the loves.

I hope that helps!! Let me know if you have any more questions.