What does this mean?
When a pet is showing an undesirable response (barking, lunging, growling, or jumping etc), that response is usually associated with an underlying emotional state that is also undesirable. Anxiety, fear, aggression, and uncontrolled excitement are common motivational emotions for unwanted pet responses. To help the pet respond in a different way, it is useful to change the animal’s association with the stimulus – the cause of the emotion – and hence, the underlying emotional state.
In other words, if a dog is frightened by a large dog, or becomes hysterical when the doorbell sounds or the postie arrives with the mail, or barks endlessly when travelling in the car, we need to change the dog’s perception of that stimulus from one of fear or over-excitement, to one of enjoyment and pleasure. We could do this by playing the dog’s favourite game whenever a big dog is in the vicinity, or by having the postman feed the dog treats, by asking visitors on arrival to feed the dog treats once calm etc. The goal is to change the meaning of the stimulus – the cause of the dog’s fear/anxiety/excitement – from one that predicts something unpleasant/over-stimulating to one that predicts something desirable/calming.
There are some important prerequisites to this training, so please complete the Calm Confidence Training program and read the Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning fact sheet before you proceed.
■ The first step in changing an animal’s response to a fear stimulus is check how the pet responds to the stimulus according to its proximity, size, speed of approach, location, or other characteristics, such as sound volume. For example, a small dog may be fearful of a large dog that is less than ten metres away, but not if it is fifty metres away, or a dog may not be frightened of a stationary and silent vacuum cleaner, but barks and lunges when it is active.
■ The next step is to find a reward that the animal finds especially enticing (a primary reinforcer), usually human food, such as ham or tiny cheese cubes. It is important to have a gradient of reinforcers, from those that are extremely desirable to those that are less so (secondary reinforcers). In dogs (and cats) that are not food motivated, a game of tug or ‘chase the feather’ may be more rewarding that a piece of cheese or bacon, and a rub or a scratch may be appreciated more than a secondary reinforcer. Each animal is unique, so it is important to test various reinforcers and not just assume that your fussy eater will work hard for a boring dry biscuit.
This is an important process, because your pet will not work hard for the reward if it is not good enough – you must find something irresistible to make your pet want to try hard to win it from you. Your training will excel once you get the reinforcement gradient right!
Extremely desirable rewards – the primary reinforcers – should be saved for training and conditioning sessions, and should not be given routinely, otherwise they are not special!
■ Next, two simple tasks must be taught to the pet.
• The first is a task to get the pet’s attention. This can be as simple as teaching the pet to look at you using a command such as “look”, “watch” or “focus.” The goal is for the animal to have eye contact for several minutes but remain neutral and relaxed. A leash and possibly a head collar should be used for additional control.
• The second is a ‘follow me’ command that allows you to depart a difficult situation very quickly and with a minimum of fuss. The dog should learn to associate a phrase such as “let’s go” or “this way” with turning 180 degrees and briskly walking the other way. This should be performed quickly, but without anxiety or tension, especially without dragging on the leash. Keep the lead loose and use a happy high-pitched voice and pats on your thigh to entice the dog to follow you away from the potentially difficult situation.
Once the three objectives outlined above are established – the gradient of response to the stimuli, the gradient of rewards, and the ‘focus’ and ‘follow me’ on command responses – it is time to start the conditioning process.
Putting it all together – conditioning a different emotional response
Let’s use the example of conditioning a small dog that is fearful of large black dogs. First, enlist the assistance of a very friendly, well behaved large black dog, handled by an experienced understanding and patient handler (ask your local trainer or vet for help in sourcing a suitable pair to assist you). The handler of the target big black dog does not need to do anything but stand in one place with the dog for around ten to fifteen minutes, ideally every few days for a week or two.
Have plenty of primary reinforcer treats and a favourite ball or tug toy, and choose a training location that is not likely to bring any surprises or unwelcome distractions.
Begin with the stimulus (the large black dog and handler) at the predetermined distance at which little or no response is noted. In other words, if your small dog is fearful at 20 metres, start at least forty metres away. Ask the pet to “focus” and begin feeding the treats, regardless of what the pet does, as long as they are not lunging or barking. They can look at the stimulus, but if they lunge and bark, they do not receive the treat. (If they are lunging and barking, or even growling, clearly you are not far enough away from the stimulus).
Once you can maintain a reasonable level of ‘focus,’ reward the dog even more than by giving a treat, through giving the ‘follow me’ command of “let’s go” or “this way”, and take the small dog away from the direction of the big black dog for a brief time. This is the best reward of all for the small dog, being taken further from the source of fear, so is best used after a particularly good response to the ‘focus’ command. Take a moment to relax and play. Repeat the process by moving forward to the same place (no closer) several times.
When the small dog is more focused on the treats than the presence of the big black dog in the distance, it is time to move a little closer towards the stimulus. This should involve going a maximum of 10% of the distance closer (i.e. a tiny increment closer, not too close too soon!). Repeat the entire process, and be sure to give the follow me command and move away from the stimulus for regular breaks, before going closer again.
This process of moving forwards and back, forwards and back, should be like an incoming tide creeping up a beach with each incoming wave, receding back down the sand before washing a tiny amount further up the beach again. It is important to grasp this concept, because it is very effective in taking the pressure off and reducing any building anxiety that the small dog feels in seeing a big black dog in the vicinity, albeit far away. Even though it is not close enough to elicit the major fear responses of barking and lunging to occur, this does not mean there is not an unidentifiable level of anxiety building in the small dog. It is imperative to release this anxiety by moving well back away from the ‘danger zone’ before applying more pressure by going forward again, in tiny increments.
Keep heading closer and closer in tiny steps to the potential threat. Keep asking for focus and keep feeding treats for good responses, and keep moving well back away again. You may not need to move back as far away from the target after a while, so remain vigilant and observe the demeanour of your small dog, to be sure you do not place so much pressure on it so as to ruin the entire training session with too great a build-up of tension. If this happens, the little dog could erupt into the more characteristic defensive aggression behaviour of explosive lunging and barking. If this happens, you have failed! Count it as a loss, learn from your error of going too close too soon, and start the entire process all over again.
If you get it right, the repetitious lavishing of praise, treats and retreats on the dog – as you creep closer to the target – conditions it that being in the vicinity of the big black dog is not causing it any harm nor posing any direct threat, but, in fact, is quite a good experience. You are changing the emotional state from a negative one (anxiety and fear) into a very good one (anticipation, joy, happiness). If you get this process perfect, the dog will barely even notice that it is gradually getting closer and closer to the target, because your constant cycle of reinforcement completely distracts the little dog from everything but you!
If so, end the lesson! Always finish on a good note and never press on for so long that the little dog becomes tired and bored (or that your assistant with the big black dog becomes tired and impatient!). If you have not made contact – crept so close to the big black dog that they can almost touch, that is okay. Do not feel you need to make contact on the first occasion – this will depend on the level of anxiety the small dog feels in the first place, as well as a huge range of other contributing factors. Tee up your helper for another session in a few days’ time, and arrange to meet in the same location. After several more sessions, or after you have made contact, tee up to meet in varying locations. You may be able to move closer in larger increments as the small dog improves, and you may be able to spend more time close to the large black dog before retreating and ending each session.
Once the small dog becomes confident and calm around the big black dog, you should enlist the assistance of a new helper with a different large dog and begin the process all over again. You will find the small dog will progress much more rapidly the second and third and fourth times around, because it will start to ‘generalise’ that all big dogs mean treats and praise and rubs and games, rather than be a source of fear requiring the need for defensive-aggressive behaviours, such as barking and lunging, or fear behaviours such as pulling away or running off.
Applying this process to any behaviour problem
You can apply this process to any behaviour problem situation whatsoever – the treatment for anxiety, fear, over-excitement or aggression in a dog towards another dog, person or object is exactly the same! Just replace the concept of the ‘big black dog’ with whatever it is that elicits anxiety, fear, over-excitement or aggression in your dog, and apply the same process. Just aim to reward calm confident behaviour as you gradually increase the exposure to whatever it is that is causing the response. The stimulus may be a particular person, a vacuum cleaner, a motor bike, the lawn mower, a person carrying an umbrella, granny’s wheelchair, the grandchildren, the doorbell sounding – anything! The gradient may be to start from far away, to turn the volume down or switch something off, to start with something smaller or lower, to start with something in a stationary position, reduce the time of exposure, slow down the approach of something etc.
Even problems with riding in the car can be resolved using the same process – by working out how the stimulus triggers the fear, then breaking down the intensity of the stimulus – the level of exposure – into smaller increments. For example, start with the car stationary, without the motor running, all doors and windows open, someone the dog trusts sitting in the rear seat with the dog, feeding it treats for calm, confident behaviour. Gradually build up the dog’s association with the car until everything is closed up, the engine is running, the car starts moving a few metres at a time and the time in the car extends from a few seconds to many minutes. In other words, break down the intensity of the stimulus into tiny parts and gradually build the exposure as the dog improves. (See the Car Phobia fact sheet)
Similarly, building up confidence and calmness in the dog suffering from separation anxiety follows exactly the same process – rewarding calm, confident behaviour with very gradually increasing amount of separation in both distance and time. Start with the separation of distance within sight, then extend it to out of sight separation for a second or two, and build up the length of separation to many minutes or hours – all the while rewarding calm and confident behaviour. (See the Separation Anxiety fact sheet)
Avoid the following pitfalls, which will make progress more difficult
■ The process with the big black dog, described above, is an example of conducting this conditioning training in a very controlled environment, using a reliable handler and target stimulus. All other situations, especially those known to elicit undesirable responses must be avoided. If you were to experience a different large black dog in an uncontrolled environment, all your training so far could be ruined with one bad encounter.
Depending on what the problem behaviour is, this may mean curtailing walks, confining the dog when visitors come over, not allowing the dog outside in the yard unattended and off leash, not allowing aggressive displays at windows, doors, and fences, avoiding car travel, predicting when the postie will be biking by, not leaving the home dog alone etc. Every opportunity the dog is given to exhibit the undesirable behaviours in an uncontrolled situation, and allowing it to be exposed to the eliciting stimulus, is reinforcing those unwanted behaviours and is detraining the dog.
■ Do not attempt to train for longer than the dog can behave or remain attentive. If the dog becomes distracted, reactive or stressed, the stimulus was too close or too intense, and future sessions must ensure better control of the stimulus intensity. You may need to be quite a distance away for the dog to be calm and controlled. Remember, the dog learns best when calm.
■ Limit the number of exposures within a training session. You want the dog to be successful and end each session on a positive response. The goal is for the dog to learn to associate experiencing the stimulus with something pleasant. This treatment can often help decrease the arousal level so that the dog can be controlled during the situation.
For more information on this process, and for preliminary calm confidence training guidelines, see the Calm Confidence fact sheet.