This month’s blog series is all about helping fearful dogs. We’ve covered how to recognize signs of fear and how to get to the root cause of the fear. Now we’ll take a look at my very favorite fear-fix: classical conditioning.
Remember Pavlov and his salivating dogs? Ivan Pavlov won a Pulitzer prize for his research on digestion. In the process, he made a simple discovery: unconscious body functions can be trained to respond to a previously neutral stimulus. The dogs salivated when they heard the bell. This observation was groundbreaking then and is still fascinating. It’s also very useful to those of us the applied fields of behavior modification.
Through the use of simple association (this = that), you can alter your dog’s expectations, physiology, and emotion, and therefore, his behavior. The most important, and often misunderstood, aspect of this technique is that there is absolutely no behavioral requirement while making the pairings. That is, the dog doesn’t have to DO anything.
It is just a simple association. When this thing shows up, this other thing will happen. And over time, it is very, very powerful.
But, you probably knew this already. How long did it take for your dog to figure out that when you pick up a leash, he’s going for a walk? Or when you turn on your laptop, life is about to get very dull? Not very long!
Your dog is observing you all the time. He is paying close attention and analyzing every gesture, every context, every clue about what’s going to happen next. You can use this to your advantage if your dog has fear. Simply put, you can change your dog’s emotional state to respond to a particular event or cue. You can help your dog relax and even feel HAPPY about what previously caused the fear. For this, my favorite game to teach is “I Spy.”
Did you every play I Spy as a kid? A friend would look around, find something in the room of a particular color and say, “I spy something green.” And you would look around and guess: “Is it the plant? The pillow?”
Your friend would smile and say, “No, no.” Finally you’d figure it out and guess it right, “It’s my scarf!” And your friend would laugh and agree. You didn’t have to do anything; just see the green scarf and win the game.
Here’s how it works.
This dog-friendly I Spy game is similar, but with food involved. Food is a fabulous tool in working with fearful dogs because… well, dogs love to eat. Also, food goes away when it is eaten, so you can give more again. Toys have to be taken away and that can be another game entirely.
Food is also amazing because the very nature of eating and digesting REQUIRES that the body be relaxed. When there is arousal, the body cannot accept or process food. If there is too much arousal, food may be quickly expelled from the body through vomiting or diarrhea. Obviously, that is not a condition in which positive associations will be made.
Some people insist that they have dogs that don’t like treats. Typically, they are using the wrong treats. We’ll explore this deeper in a future blog. But we teach about finding your dog’s favorites in our Dog Smart class which you can register for online. In order to help your dog overcome his fear, you are going to need high-value treats. Cheese, warm chicken and liver are often best. Also, opt for teeny, tiny because we will be giving a LOT of them.
If your dog refuses a favorite treat in a certain condition, chances are you are too close to the very scary thing. Or it might also be too loud, too strong or too overwhelming. Increase your distance, turn down the volume, reduce the intensity, simplify the situation and try again. Or change to a higher value food. Or both.
When fear is too big, the dog reacts and usually aggression or panic-escape behavior results. Think about fight or flight. The dog is either fighting for his life or getting out of there. This moment when the brain moves from reaction to response is called “threshold.” You need to keep your dog from being that scared if you want to change his behavior. When you’ve discovered how far away you need to start for your dog to be able to be aware of the very scary thing but still eat the food, you are in a sweet spot for classical conditioning.
Start by presenting the very scary thing far away or at a lowered intensity for just a little time. As it appears, the food also appears. The dog eats the food. The scary thing goes away, the food goes away. Repeat. Scary thing happens, food happens. Scary thing leaves, food leaves.
But here’s the trick: the scary thing is ALWAYS far enough away, small enough or quiet enough that the dog recognizes it, but does not have a fearful response. This is very important.
Over time, with enough pairings, this I Spy game will result in your pet learning that the very scary thing is actually pretty cool. What formerly caused fear now brings digestion and feelings of contentment. When this begins to happen, you may change some of the variables (distance, intensity, duration) or you may choose another tack. In next week’s blog, we’ll discuss how to train your dog to make behavior choices that are incompatible with behaviors usually offered during fear.
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