THE COUNTERCONDITIONING REVOLUTION: HOW TO UN-RING THE BELL
So your dog screams like an out-of-control monster when he encounters things in the environment that upset him. If you are lucky, it’s just one thing, such as skateboards. Most owners, in my experience, aren’t that lucky, though, and their dogs overreact to multiple stimuli. How do we reach inside your dog’s mind and convince him that what’s scary to him now will bring him joy and fun tomorrow? I know just the dog-and-handler team to illustrate how to un-ring the bell.
Jenny Kaye is caring, calm, thoughtful, and an all-around delightful Colorado native. She is the kind of person who deserves the best dog because she is so giving to everyone she meets, especially to dogs. She had shared her life with many dogs and had never experienced any serious training or behavioral issues with any of them. Perhaps it was her many years as a schoolteacher that gave her the patience, wisdom, and sense of humor that she would need to handle the dog that brought her to my office.
I met Jenny through her Border Terrier. I will forever be grateful for this dog because she introduced me to such a tenacious, big-hearted human. I find that it happens a lot—the owners who will move mountains to help their dogs are those special people who I enjoy calling my friends. Jenny had named her rambunctious little Border Terrier puppy Gracie, but within a short time of our working together, we nicknamed her “Amazing Gracie” because her quick progress was nothing short of amazing. Jenny and Amazing Gracie are now active in agility, nosework, group hikes, daily public walks, and much more. I jumped for joy when Jenny’s response to an email I sent her ended with: “Gotta run! Headed to Target to get a frame for Amazing Gracie’s Canine Good Citizen certificate!”
How did she take Gracie from a dog who, as Jenny described it, turned into a shrieking, hysterical, whirling dervish at the mere sight of another dog to a focused, calm companion that enabled Jenny to quit the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club forever? How did she coach reactive Gracie into becoming Amazing Gracie? And, how did this lovely human open my heart and my eyes to finally understand that there are owners who won’t give up on their dogs and who are in it for the long haul?
Jenny Kaye’s “Amazing Gracie.”
For most of my career of helping dogs, I had seen too much of the ugly side of human behavior in those who dumped dogs at shelters as though they were tossing out old clothing. Jenny’s smart and willing devotion to her dog began the process of healing my battered heart that had seen too much misery in the name of dog training. Jenny was the first such good-hearted person, and she would be followed by countless others. Person by person and dog by dog, I started to mend, and I learned to trust that there are caring people out there. Many humans are willing to be good to animals, even greatly troubled animals. As with all good stories, we need to start at the beginning.
When I first met her, Jenny was no longer willing to walk two-year-old Gracie down her neighborhood street because of the extreme manner in which Gracie reacted whenever she saw, heard, or imagined that she heard another dog. Gracie would emit a high-pitched noise that sounded like a screaming hyena, and she’d bark furiously, lunge, and spin at any oncoming dog. She had never been in a fight, and her behavior was puzzling, indeed.
“When did you first notice this behavior?” I asked Jenny as scruffy Gracie sat next to her, adoringly looking at Jenny and appearing like a perfectly well-behaved, gentle little dog.
“Within a month of bringing her home!” Jenny exclaimed. I asked her to tell me all that she knew about Gracie’s breeding. Their first meeting serves as a bit of foreshadowing.
“My husband and I loved to watch sheepdog trials held around the state,” Jenny says, “and I was pining away for a Border Collie. My husband convinced me that the breed would not be a good fit with our suburban lifestyle. One year, I met a woman at the trials who had the most adorable puppies with her. They were Border Terriers. I was intrigued and asked if I could sign myself up for a future litter because I wanted to research the breed. It was two years before I heard from her.”
As Jenny waited on that phone call, she read everything that she could get her hands on about Border Terriers. She found out that the breed is even tempered, intelligent, highly trainable, alert, affectionate, cheerful, and willing to please. She discovered that they are good with children and the elderly, making them excellent candidates for therapy work. After learning about all of these positive attributes, she thought, “What’s not to love?”
When Jenny finally did hear back from the breeder, she and her husband started to plan the seven-hour drive to get the puppy for whom they had waited two years. Because they had always had dogs in their lives, their home seemed far too quiet without a dog in it after their schnauzer had passed away at age fourteen. “We were slowed on our mad dash to pick up the puppy because of an unexpected blizzard,” Jenny says, “but I was determined to get that puppy!”
When Jenny and her husband arrived, the breeder took them away from the house to an indoor/outdoor kennel run, and there sat Gracie, all wiggly and beaming a happy-dog smile. Jenny opened the kennel gate, and Gracie rushed into her arms; it was love at first sight for both of them. Gracie was about ten weeks old. The sire wasn’t present, and Gracie was kenneled with her mother and a remaining sibling. Jenny didn’t have the opportunity to ask many questions of the breeder because they had to head home quickly before another blizzard blew in.
Within a month, when Gracie was fourteen weeks old, Jenny became concerned about Gracie’s “freaking out” at other dogs. She contacted the breeder, who simply said, “That’s unacceptable,” and didn’t offer anything more. Had the breeder noticed her undesired reactions to other dogs? How did the parent dogs react to new dogs? It is often accepted that many terriers will be rambunctious and even a bit belligerent around new dogs. However, I’ve worked with countless terriers over the decades, and that “typical” terrier bravado is not what we were observing in Gracie. She was terrified of other dogs, and I would put her in the previously mentioned category of “the quick or the dead” in her response to seeing them.
Training success begins with the dog’s focus on the trainer.
Imagine going through life from a young age worrying frantically that every time you went outside, you could possibly die by the teeth of your own species. Did I know if that was what Gracie was thinking? No. I could only observe her intense behavior, and I surmised that she was feeling tremendous fear—out-of-proportion fear for the circumstances—anytime she was anywhere near other dogs.
Even if the breeder had agreed to take Gracie back, it was too late; Jenny was already attached to the dog, and the dog was attached to her. Unfortunately, far too many breeders know that new owners will fall in love with their puppies, so the breeders wash their hands of any problems because they know that the owners won’t bring the dogs back for trades or refunds. There are good breeders out there who work hard to create sound, healthy dogs, but as with all things dog, it is up to owners to figure out the good breeders from the bad.
Stiff body language, such as that of the larger dog, is a warning sign of potential canine trouble ahead.
A reputable breeder will take back what he produces at any point in the puppies’ or dogs’ lives. If you purchase a puppy, be sure to read the contract carefully and understand what the breeder is willing to do should your puppy display serious unwanted behavior despite your best efforts to positively socialize the young dog. Quality rescues will also take their adopted dogs back. Those who truly have a heart for the welfare of dogs care more that the new home works for both the humans and the dog than they care about making big bucks. This is yet another reason to never purchase a dog from a pet store or other source where the dog’s lineage and background is unknown—you know nothing of the puppy’s genetic background, you know nothing about the health and stability of the mother dog or the conditions in which she was kept, and good luck finding the breeder when you decide that you have to return what is most likely an inbred dog with severe health or temperament issues (or both). In my experience, there are more unscrupulous breeders who prey on your good heart and your warm feelings for your new puppy than those who breed first for temperament and health and who will take back the offspring they’ve created, no questions asked.
When there were no other dogs around, Gracie did display many of the positive traits that Jenny had learned were typical of the breed, especially Gracie’s love of children. The dog issue, however, was getting worse, so Jenny decided that she had to get Gracie into puppy training with a professional trainer—something that we trainers usually applaud, and something that I asked you to do at the beginning of this book.
At the recommendation of neighbors, Jenny enrolled Gracie in a puppy class at a nearby pet-supply store. One might expect that owners could depend on quality training from a store that makes its profits off pets. They must have experts on hand, right? Wrong.
Imagine taking a course from an “expert” in how to pack a parachute properly. You go into the class not knowing how to do it, which is why you signed up for the class in the first place. Then imagine that the parachute is difficult for you to understand, but your instructor ignores your pleas for help. You’ve never done it before, just as Jenny (or perhaps you) had never owned a reactive dog before. You get no help in class, so you try it on your own, and then, one day, you have to jump from the plane. Do you feel good about the chances of your parachute opening just right and landing safely on the ground?
Make training fun for both you and the dog. Find out what truly motivates your dog and use a lot of it in training.
This is what happens to aggressive and reactive dogs that get no effective behavior modification from instructors. Without it, many of these dogs’ behavior will get worse, and they could end up biting people or other dogs. You, as the owner, are liable for your dog’s behavior, and you could be sued if your dog bites. You can be sure that the damage is compounded and that the relationship between you and your dog is further harmed (sometimes beyond repair) when you or a trainer use force to train your dog.
From the first class, Gracie shrieked and freaked out at seeing the other puppies. The only instruction that Jenny received from the trainer was to “yank on the collar to create a pop and tell the dog ‘uh-uh.’” Doing this did nothing to stop the spinning dervish at the end of her leash (in fact, it made Gracie scream louder), so Jenny experimented on her own during the class in an attempt to get her dog to calm down. They came early to class. They came late to class. They snuck up and down the store aisles during class. Jenny bought the best training treats money could buy. Nothing helped her dog. Jenny was only becoming more embarrassed that she couldn’t stop Gracie’s outbursts, and she was growing all the more concerned for her upset dog.
Like many dog owners, Jenny thought that it might help Gracie to be around other dogs in a controlled setting monitored by professionals, so she took Gracie to a nationally franchised doggie daycare for playtime with other friendly dogs. After Gracie’s first day at the facility, Jenny never returned because she noticed that in all of the photos that the daycare staff sent to her, Gracie’s cute bearded face was completely soaked with water. Jenny surmised that each time Gracie began her screams of terror around other dogs, one of the employees gave her a blast of water in the face. Spraying dogs with water or something such as a breath spray is an all-too-common go-to move for workers without basic knowledge of canine communication and body language, or for workers who are aware but have no time or inclination to do anything different. Some places even go as far as putting bark collars or shock collars on the dogs without the owners’ consent or knowledge.
Sticking a scared dog into a melee of amped-up unfamiliar dogs would be like lowering me into a pit of black widow spiders and then rapping me on the head every time I screamed or tried to escape. What, then, are my choices? Fight like a savage as black widows bite me? Shrink into a ball on the pit floor as they crawl all over me? Or do I bite you for hitting me as I make my escape? (I would bite you.) Spraying a terrified dog in the face in the midst of other dogs is an excellent way to prove to a dog like Gracie that other dogs are indeed a risk to her.
Next, Jenny tried a beginners’ agility class with Gracie, hoping that the excitement of running, jumping, and navigating the obstacles might be enough to divert Gracie’s attention from the other dogs. That failed, too. The instructor told Jenny to stand behind a barrier with her dog until it was their turn to try the agility course. By the time it was their turn, they were both exhausted from the struggle of trying to keep Gracie focused and not barking at the other dogs that she could hear but not see. It would be hard for any of us to perform or learn a new skill if we were in such a terrified state of being.
Jenny found me through a Yahoo! group for trainers and owners. She scheduled six appointments with me, which told me that she was serious about working hard to change her dog’s behavior. At that point, Gracie had not been close to another dog in a year. Jenny still walked Gracie in public, but they were early-morning members of the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club and were usually finished with their walks by 6 a.m.
There is usually a long history that becomes a feedback loop from owner to dog, and they both become hypervigilant about scanning the environment, looking for triggers. If the human sees the trigger first, his most common response is to stiffen up and pull the dog back on the leash. Stiffness in the body is a warning signal from dog to dog, and it is likely that when the owner stiffens and pulls back on the leash, those actions become a conditioned signal to the dog to be on alert.
A properly fitting harness is a must-have for dogs.
When the dog sees the trigger first, just the sight of it becomes the dog’s cue to freak out, and the barking and lunging ensues. The owner then responds in kind with pulling or stiffness on the leash. Both dog and owner then enter into what is almost a reflexive response—they are not thinking about what they are doing, but they are reacting in an instant to the perceived threat.
When a dog barks and lunges at another dog (or a person), often that other dog takes the hint and moves away. This is what the reactive dog wants, so the other dog’s moving away serves to reinforce the barking and the lunging, thus strengthening the unwanted behavior. This also applies if you allow your dog to chase a passerby along the fence or bark at dogs and people from a window in your home. It is critical to stop that self-reinforcing behavior. It is unfair to work with your dog in a controlled setting—like Jenny and I were doing on private property—and then permit him to fence-chase a passing trigger at home. That behavior can trump and undo all of your hard work. It is so vital that I have even fired clients who do not step up and stop their dogs from fence-chasing and barking at the windows.
Here are the steps we took to help Gracie adjust to observing my dog. First, I asked Jenny to stay with Gracie on leash behind her car. I got my female Border Collie, Echo, from the back of my car and, with her on leash, we walked to the front of my car, about 25 feet away from Jenny’s car. I asked her to bring Gracie around to the front of her car.
I had prepped Jenny earlier by telling her: “The second Gracie sees Echo, please drop the meat treats rapidly, one by one, in front of her nose onto the ground.” An owner could hand the treats to the dog just as well as tossing them to the ground, but I like to encourage the dog to put her head down and use her nose because a dog can’t sniff and bark at the same time very easily. I asked Jenny to keep her leash loose and to take several deep breaths, and she did; it’s critical for the handler to stay relaxed. If the owner is too anxious, I will bring in one of my assistant trainers to replace the stressed-out human holding the other end of the leash. On occasion, I have put my dog in a down-stay so that I can handle a client’s dog; however, I prefer that the owners handle their own dogs. I want the owners to start building their confidence from day one so that they can handle their dogs without me being present.
It is important for me to note that my three dogs are experienced in working with reactive and aggressive dogs. My dogs can look at a lunging dog—who is directing intense energy at them—and not respond. My crew is also under excellent voice control. You can believe that I reinforce the heck out of my dogs with delicious treats when I ask them to help me with another dog. They have become conditioned to look at me for a treat when another dog is doing his “go away!” dance. Often, my male Border Collie, Radar, will hit his mat in a down and not want to get up and leave the area, and that’s because growling dogs = excellent meaty treats to my own dogs.
What we were doing with Gracie during that first meeting would not work as seamlessly if both dogs were fearful and reacting—although we do just that with dogs in our Growly Dog classes (more on that later). I have used realistic-looking stuffed dogs in first meetings to ensure safety for all of the dogs (I eventually bring in one of my real dogs that has been trained to ignore whatever the dogs in class do). Thus, my fake Rottweiler, which I named Wylie in honor of my first Wylie—the real Rottweiler—has been nipped by real dogs more than once.
When Jenny and Gracie appeared at the front of the car, I started talking soothingly to Echo so that Gracie would hear me and look not only at me but also at Echo. I reassured Echo that she was doing exactly what I wanted her to do: sitting calmly and looking directly at me, no matter what Gracie was doing.
Gracie looked at us, and Jenny instantly began dropping cooked chicken just over Gracie’s nose. Gracie kept her eyes on Echo, but she also put her nose and mouth to the ground to scoop up the delicious chicken. Good work! Had Gracie not eaten and had reacted instead, I would have asked Jenny for a calm U-turn retreat, and we would have started again from farther apart.
Treats and More Treats
Remember this sequence: the trigger appears in your dog’s line of sight, and that event causes chicken to arrive. There’s a dog across the street that your dog looks at? Chicken! A skateboarder is rolling loudly down the hill? Chicken! A mommy is pushing her baby in a baby stroller? Chicken! UPS man? Double the chicken! Your dog is not required to do anything other than eat or at least sniff the chicken.
We first train a calm turn-around or U-turn in our training center so that the dogs know this behavior before they do it in front of a trigger. If a dog is unable to eat the treats or if he takes the treats in an aggressive or hurried manner when a trigger is nearby, then the owner needs to back up. The dog is about to go into or is already in the first stages of going over threshold. When a dog is in that reflexive state, the tastiest, best-smelling meat in the world will not be effective, and it doesn’t help for the owner to yell “sit!” (or, worse, a word that rhymes with “sit”).
It’s crucial to learn to read your dog’s canine language. If a dog is not able to eat in the presence of a trigger, then he is too amped-up for what you are attempting. Back up, give the dog space and a visual time out, and begin anew.
I asked Jenny several times to walk calmly behind the car with Gracie on a loose leash and to instantly stop feeding Gracie when they were out of Echo’s sight. Jenny’s timing was perfect; it helped that she was already familiar with clicker training. Good timing is a mechanical skill that is important to success, but don’t fret about it too much when you are first learning—dogs can learn even if timing isn’t perfect, although good timing speeds up the learning process and communicates more clearly to your dog.
It can help to have another person film your timing and leash-handling skills. I will repeat: it is crucial that the leash is not tight in the handler’s hands. We want the dog to have a choice, and we want the dog to choose to stay close to the handler and choose to look away from the perceived threat and up at the handler.
When the dog (not you) sees the trigger, the chicken begins to flow. You should never begin to offer treats before the trigger appears because doing so can and does create a dog that becomes afraid of chicken and might even generalize this fear to all treats that you are trying to deliver. The treats should also never appear at the same time as the trigger. We want the trigger to predict the chicken, so the trigger appears, and then, no matter what the dog is doing (even lunging, barking, etc.), the chicken appears because your dog saw another dog.
Often, clients worry that they are “reinforcing the dog for barking” the first few times we do this. We have to start where the dog is, and if he barks once or twice during the beginning stages, just ignore him—please, never punish him. Very quickly, your dog will begin to make a more positive association with his trigger if you have used proper timing, offered the right treats to motivate your dog, and remained at a safe distance. It works because we know that classical conditioning works. It really is that simple!
We repeated Gracie’s coming around the car, seeing Echo, and experiencing (under threshold) the miracle of chicken falling from the sky in the presence of another dog. After many repetitions in which Gracie never barked or lunged (we would have ignored the behavior if she had), I gave Echo the cue to look at Gracie. Echo looked. Gracie stiffened, but, importantly, Jenny did not. The chicken waterfall kept on falling. Echo returned her calm gaze to me, and I reinforced her for a job well done.
At this point, Jenny began to smile. Often, it is during the initial meeting, when the previously barking, lunging dog does not utter a peep at my dogs, that I have to stop the session for a few minutes to allow the owner to collect herself. It’s easy for an owner to shed tears when she understands what is possible with her once out-of-control dog. It may be the first time in the dog’s life that the dog didn’t react to another dog. It’s also the first time that the owner allows herself a hint of hope that her dog can live a more normal life. It is the first step away from the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club.
We worked many more repetitions, and, soon enough, the second Gracie saw Echo, she would turn and look expectantly at Jenny as if to inquire, “Where is my chicken? I see that dog over there so—ahem—chicken, please.” Because Jenny has great clicker skills, I asked her to click the instant when Gracie turned her head away from my dog and looked up at Jenny’s eyes. It’s a big breakthrough when a dog eagerly looks at a trigger and, instead of reacting in a negative way, remains calm and looks back to her owner. This shows that learning has begun, and a new way of living in a world once full of triggers is just beginning for both species.
Also, when a dog turns her head away from another dog, it is a calming signal. We are also instilling a natural calming signal in our once-reactive dog by teaching her to look at the other dog and then literally “turn the other cheek” (and eyes) away, which informs the other dog that our dog means him no harm.
Once the dog is turning her head away from a trigger and looking back to her owner, future walks become opportunities to earn chicken. Both dog and owner begin to change their internal emotions upon seeing a trigger. What once was “Oh no!” becomes “Hey! Look! A dog!” And, no, you won’t need to lug chicken around with you forever. In fact, it’s important to randomize the delivery of the chicken once the dog’s behavior becomes fluid. These new skills teach the dog that there is a better way to react when seeing his nemeses.
You may not believe how we ended our first session, but it is the truth of that day and many days like these with my fantastic clients (both human and dog). We took the dogs for a walk on Jenny’s property. I let Echo off leash because she is under excellent voice control, and I knew that she would not get into Gracie’s space. For the first part of the walk, Jenny kept Gracie on leash and clicked and treated her every time she glanced at Echo. Gracie’s body language—and Jenny’s—was relaxed and happy, with no stiffness.
Next, I asked Jenny to unhook Gracie’s leash. What happened? Gracie enjoyed a beautiful, sunny Colorado morning, running alongside Echo. They explored the underbrush together and chased chipmunks and nary a growl, bark, or lunge occurred. Jenny was so happy with the results that she named the area of her ranch where we first began working “Echo’s Overlook.” Jenny has gone on to work with excellent, qualified force-free trainers in her new hometown, and she and Gracie are busy every week, enjoying group activities that always include lots of new dogs. Jenny and Gracie are now out of the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club and are enjoying public outings together every day. Gracie even has some dog friends that she loves to play with.
Conditioning and Desensitization
The process we did at Jenny’s ranch with Echo and Gracie is called counterconditioning. Technically, it is classical counterconditioning. Does the name make a difference? Not really. What matters is that you understand both the sequence of events and the reasons behind it. Call it the “saving-my-dog technique” for all it matters.
It is imperative that owners learn how to change a dog’s underlying emotions when these emotions cause major disruptions to the dog’s and the owners’ lives. Adrenaline and cortisol, the two key “stress hormones,” can remain circulating in a dog’s system for seven days and as long as month, respectively, after a stressful event. We can reduce the anxiety of many dogs and work toward having them present us with joy behaviors when they see something in their environment that once caused them to overly react. I have seen this in my own dogs as they help reactive or aggressive dogs. My dogs have formed an association (there is Dr. Pavlov on your shoulder!) between aggressive-looking dogs and delicious meat delivered by me. My dogs aren’t required to sit (an operant behavior) politely and not respond to the furious dog, although they can do that as well when I ask them to. I started training with classical counterconditioning in that I didn’t expect my dogs to do anything except remain calm enough to eat in the presence of a threatening dog.
Unfortunately, a dog owner needs to have a plan to deal with off-leash dogs before heading out on a walk with his or her leashed dog. Annie demonstrates one such technique with a stuffed helper.
To recap: classical counterconditioning uses Dr. Pavlov’s discovery that innate responses can be transferred to other situations. In this case, we are using delicious meat (chicken falls from the sky) that appears after the trigger appears to form a positive association with that trigger. Just as Dr. Pavlov’s laboratory dogs couldn’t not drool (unless they had a health issue that interfered with drooling) when they heard the bell, your dog cannot not eventually start forming a positive association with oncoming dogs if you use good timing and have a neutral, calm dog helping you from a safe distance. (Of course, if your dog has a condition that gets in the way of this process—for example, if a dog is pathological—the best training in the world is not going to help him, although medication can help to a degree.)
Canine Good Citizen Echo is an instrumental helper in Annie’s training program.
We aren’t using classical counterconditioning alone, mind you. To be most effective, we pair it with desensitizing. Trainers and behaviorists often refer to these methods as DS and CC, or even DSCC. Remember the discussion in Chapter 7 in which the owner started ringing a handheld doorbell device to acclimate her dog to the sound of the doorbell? If that device had a volume button on it, we’d use the lowest setting first and then gradually—as the dog got used to it and learned that it was a neutral stimulus in the manner in which we were using it—we would turn the volume up.
When I asked Jenny to step around the front of her car and let Gracie see Echo and me from 25 feet away, that’s desensitization. I didn’t ask Gracie to come around the car and find Echo 2 feet away from her; we purposefully started at a much greater distance. Many studies demonstrate that desensitizing and counterconditioning work best when used in tandem. They go together like barbecue and beer, peanut butter and jelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (for my age bracket), or Kim Kardashian and the paparazzi (for the younger folks). Don’t use just one of these important technique; use them both. Think of Kim Kardashian changing her hair color with no media to swoop down upon her! It’s just not the same!
We would also never put two reactive dogs right next to each other and throw meat at their feet. We would start with gradual desensitization in which the reactive dog first sees the other dog for a short time period and/or from a safe distance (the dog, not the human, determines what feels safe for him).
Remember when you were mean and shoved me into a pit of black widows? Doing so is a process called “flooding,” where you have flooded me with overexposure to my biggest worry. I might (like many dogs do in such a horrible situation) be so overwhelmed that I freeze. It may appear as though I am tolerating quite nicely the black widows climbing all over my skin, but I’m not. I am too flooded to do anything, so I freeze.
Please never flood your dog. It is detrimental to the healing process. Too often, owners and poorly informed trainers look at a shut-down dog and think that they are seeing good behavior and training when they are actually seeing an overwhelmed dog.
A better way to desensitize me is to take one black widow spider, enclose it safely in a glass jar, and show it to me from down the block and behind a double-paned window. You pick up the jar, I see that it holds a scary spider that could kill me, and then you hold up a large sign that says “I just deposited $1 million in your bank account.” Do that a few times, and I will happily be able to view many black widows from that safe and now-rich distance. Will I learn to love black widow spiders? No. But I can tolerate them after I have enough money in the bank (with a dog, you are putting trust in the “bank”).
Will you always need to pair black widow spiders with $1 million? Will you always need to pair oncoming dogs with chicken falling from overhead? No. In fact, I might start collecting any and all spiders in hopes of more money for different variations of the theme.
Soon enough, with your dog, you move over to operant conditioning when your dog’s trigger appears. See that dog? Please sit for me. Thank you! And the walk continues without drama. The “sit” is already a conditioned, enjoyable behavior because you previously trained it with food in a calm setting. You then progressed to random food delivery, which you later replaced with allowing the dog the chance to sniff all of the doggie messages left on the neighborhood fire hydrant.
Monster is quite the character. A trainer who works with reactive dogs needs a dog-friendly dog like Monster to help in training.
Before you go off merrily on your way and start dropping chicken from the sky when your dog sees something that concerns him, you should know that there is also something called operant counterconditioning. While it may seem that scientists enjoy torturing us with such terminology, the only thing you need to know here is that if the word “operant” is in front of “counterconditioning” in this context, it means that a different behavior is reinforced in the dog—a behavior that is physically incompatible with the previous distressed (a.k.a. freaked-out) behavior.
For example, I can ask my dogs to sit when they see a lunatic dog lunging at them and threatening them from 25 feet away (often closer). My dogs cannot both sit and lunge at the same time, and neither can anyone else’s. I have worked with my dogs to give them a behavior that is incompatible with lunging. I didn’t need to train this with my crew; they started offering it because they got reinforced for sitting in all kinds of situations. Once you have calmed down your dog’s emotional response to seeing a trigger, then and only then can you tiptoe into the world of operant conditioning, in which we ask a behavior of the dog in the presence of a trigger.
Ready to try this on your own? I’d rather you didn’t, at least not the first few times. It is much quicker, and yields much better results, to hire a truly experienced and qualified trainer or behaviorist to get started on the right paw. The Pet Professional Guild (www.petprofessionalguild.com) is one of the few organizations in the industry that has taken a public stand and does not tolerate or endorse the use of force (e.g., prong collars, choke collars, spraying dogs in the face, hitting or kicking, and the like) on animals.
But some of you will do this on your own, and that’s why I have walked you through the process. Because of cost, time, or whatever reason, if you are going to set out on your own to help your dog, I would rather you have a firm understanding of how to use these tools. I highly recommend the videos compiled by trainer Eileen Anderson on her website (http://eileenanddogs.com). Another of my favorite resources is trainer Debbie Jacobs’s website (www.fearfuldogs.com). Debbie hosts a terrific webinar and has an active Facebook group, Fearful Dogs: www.facebook.com/groups/fearfuldogs. If you look elsewhere for resources, please make sure that the trainer is actually qualified to be demonstrating DS and CC.
You get what you reinforce in dog training, and there is nothing nicer on a dog who has “sit” as a default behavior.
Finally, where in the world do you find dogs like mine that will not respond to an out-of-control leash lunger? You could begin as I sometimes do, using a realistic-looking stuffed dog as a helper. Real dogs that can handle this job are hard to find, but trainers who work with reactive and aggressive dogs need to have at least one highly specialized and highly trained helper dog on staff because nothing can help calm a reactive dog like a willing helper dog. This is yet another reason why I urge you to work with a true professional. If there isn’t one in your area or one who can make an appointment with you in a timely fashion, there is a way to work on DS and CC on your own once you have a complete understanding of how to do it.
It is imperative that you begin in a controlled environment, such as in your living room that has a big window facing the street. Start by putting your dog on a secure harness with no tightness on his neck of any kind. Chop up the food that your dog loves the most into small pieces, and don’t feed him a big meal prior to your training session. When your dog sees another dog (or person or whatever his trigger is) passing by the window from the safety of your home, chicken falls from the sky. As the trigger disappears from his sight, the food stops instantly. Some of my clients have had great success with this method from behind their chain-link fence—they no longer allow the dog to chase his triggers from behind the fence, but they use it to their advantage in training.
You can also have your dog in his harness, with plenty of chicken on hand, and go to the most securely fenced yard that you can find with a dog residing in it. Lead your dog to a spot at least 25 feet away from the fence and behind a visual barrier (such as a car). Step out from behind the barrier with your harnessed dog. Note: you will be holding the leash loosely and taking deep breaths or even singing to yourself to keep yourself calm. When your dog sees the fenced dog, you know what to do by now: chicken falls from the sky. Ignore any barking, lunging, or freaking out from your dog. I repeat: by giving him the chicken, you are not reinforcing the unwanted behavior in this context. We have to begin somewhere, and sometimes that means initially ignoring the unwanted behavior because punishing it will make your dog more afraid of his triggers.
Some dogs have undiagnosed physical pain or undiscovered hormone issues (such as thyroid problems) that contribute to unwanted behaviors. Some dogs will need to be put on antianxiety medications before counterconditioning can be effective. The first step in training is always to visit your veterinarian and rule out any potential contributing medical concerns.
If the dog doesn’t eat the food, back up and try again from farther away. Any time you do a U-turn or the fenced dog moves out of your dog’s field of vision, the chicken stops instantly. Keep doing this process day in and day out until that Holy Grail of days comes along, and your dog sees that other dog, pauses, and looks back at you to ask, “I see that dog. Where is my chicken, please?”
There are a multitude of potential problems that can arise when you do this on your own, in public, and not with a qualified trainer in a controlled setting. Loose dogs are a huge problem that can ruin that day’s training plan or, worse, set your dog back. Anything and everything can happen in public.
How quickly does DS and CC work? It depends on things such as owner compliance with training protocols, the amount of prior training the dog has been given, how many triggers the dog has (you need to use DS and CC for each trigger, one at a time), how long the dog has been practicing the unwanted behavior, the physical health of the dog, and the genetic factors that may influence his behavior (such as the severe OCD that my German Shepherd Zemi experienced).
This year, I shortened my Growly Dog class from six sessions to just four sessions to accommodate my clients’ busy lives. We have up to five reactive or aggressive dogs in a 1,000-square-foot training area. By week four, we are generally working the dogs out from behind visual barriers and getting new behaviors that we have taught them over the four weeks—and they are able to perform the behavior as the other dogs observe. Surely everyone who wants to see new behavior in their dog can spare four weeks of training time!
In some ways, DS and CC is easy; in other ways, it can be tricky to learn good timing or find calm dogs (or humans!) to help you. In case you are feeling down about your ability to work this procedure on your own, please read on! I will give you the real secret to quality dog training in the next chapter, and I promise that you can achieve success.
Being a training assistant is exhausting!
In working with reactive German Shepherd Lola, Annie used one of her highly trained nonreactive dogs, Monster, to slowly introduce on-leash dog-to-dog meetings.
Annie offers Lola a squirt of Easy Cheese for being calm around Monster.
This jump and lunge was coming from a starting point of curiosity and not aggression or reactivity.
Lola was a little unsure, but she and Monster quickly became friends. She had not been able to get close to another dog in more than a year.
Once Lola was comfortable around Monster, Annie started asking her for specific cued behavior, such as “sit.”
Lola demonstrates that she is quite relaxed by doing a “down” only a few feet from Monster.