Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Rewarding reactivity

Finn, Sabu & Debbie

It’s interesting to look back at my life and see where the paths of knowledge or interests I’ve followed began. When I was in high school, back in the seventies, I was having a tough time getting myself to classes despite the fact that I was capable of getting good grades. A creative guidance counselor arranged for me to volunteer, in lieu of attending classes I did not need to graduate, at a variety of organizations in the Boston area, one was a day care center for autistic adolescents. It was here, with a pocketful of M&Ms that I was first introduced to behavior modification and positive reinforcement. I was assigned the task of teaching one of the boys to hang up his shirts. This was my first experience in using ‘back chaining’ to teach a behavior. The first skill he was taught was to put his shirt, already on a hanger, onto the closet rod, and we worked backward from there.

One of the greatest delights in my life was a cocker spaniel named Sabu. Sabu and her mother came to live with us after her owner and breeder died. Both dogs were among the cutest and sweetest cockers on the planet, as I came to realize when different vets or trainers we encountered over the years commented on their temperaments. My friend John bred a litter or two a year and the pups had an idyllic life on 180 acres in rural New Hampshire. When John traveled, as soon as the pups were old enough, he packed them up in a picnic basket and brought them along. They went for car rides, attended contra dances and were fussed over by children and adults, as is the lot of these stuffed animal looking dogs. I used to joke that neither of my dogs ever met a person they didn’t think could open a refrigerator door. They greeted new people like long lost friends, a behavior I encouraged when they first arrived to live me. I made sure that children got a handful of treats to reward the girls with after asking them to perform a simple trick. At the time terms like positive reinforcement or classical conditioning were not yet part of my vocabulary.

While Sabu’s mother Mitzi was a confident flirt around both people and other dogs, Sabu was timid with dogs and although never aggressive, displayed an obvious discomfort with being approached by them. She was one of those dogs that once all the sniffing was over was fine, but when a nose was aimed for her butt she plunked it down and cast warning glances at any dog that was intent on invading her personal space. Unfortunately over the years when I fostered dogs for our local shelter there were occasions when an exuberant and often clueless, larger dog bumped into her, or knocked her over. She began to visibly cringe when dogs ran past her, until ultimately one day she stopped joining me for our daily woods walks.

I felt terrible about this and came up with a plan for getting her to rejoin me. As you might guess with a cocker it started with a pocketful of treats. After coaxing her to join me on a walk, whenever a dog raced past her I called her to me and gave her a treat. Soon a dog passing her was the cue to turn around and come to me for a treat. As time went on her startled response diminished and I had the task of changing the rules, a dog had to run by her and either graze her or come within a few inches in order for her to get a treat. She had begun taking the opportunity to notice dogs moving past her, whether they were 1 foot or 10 feet away, to spin around and get a reward, the experience of being out with other dogs was no longer fraught with worry but had become a non-stop opportunity to get treats. The emotional landscape of the experience had changed for her and the challenge of cutting back on the treats was less of a concern to me than the fact that she was back enjoying our walks together.

It was years later when I was boarding a reactive cockapoo, that I pulled this technique out of my back pocket. This little brown cockapoo was ok, most of the time, with other dogs, but she responded aggressively to other dogs running or moving closely past her. She was not a good candidate for boarding with me, but I agreed to work with her. With this girl I started by creating a strong history with the conditioned reinforcer, ‘yes!’. She was a quick study and when we were out for our walks I decided that of all the behaviors she performed in relation to other dogs; looking at them, running toward them, sniffing them, barking at them, the only behaviors that were completely unacceptable to me included making contact with another dog’s head, with either her feet or mouth or using her teeth on any part of their body.

This time instead of calling her to me as I did with Sabu, I began to mark with ‘yes!’, any of the behaviors which were acceptable, even if they led up to the inappropriate behavior. I tried to catch the behavior chain early on if I could, marking the moment when her eyes locked on her target, but even if I wasn’t successful and she began to head for the other dog before I could call out ‘YES!’, she’d stop the chase and return to me for a reward. Early on in this process I was marking her behavior frequently, paying close attention to any interest she showed in another dog. One day I watched as she raced toward another dog and before I could get the word out of my mouth, she stopped next to the dog, turned to look at me as if to say, ‘this what you want me to do?’. This was a pivotal moment because I was not managing her behavior, she was! Once this happened it became easier for me to shape the behavior down so that the arousing chases became shorter and shorter.

Little did I know back in high school that one day I’d be substituting liver treats for M&Ms, or that modifying behaviors could be so exciting.

Two concepts

When speaking recently with a trainer/friend who I helped out with a shy dog class, she told me that one of the participants, a skilled dog handler who had worked for years with rescue dogs, mentioned that she learned two important concepts in the class.

1. You do not reinforce fear in a dog; by being kind to them, moving them away from something that scares them, moving something that scares them away, or giving them a food treat when they are scared. Think about it, when you take a sad little kid out for ice cream are you hoping to make them sadder? When the doctor offers your child a sheet of Mickey Mouse stickers when they come into the office, scared and apprehensive, do you chide the doctor for reinforcing fear in your child? (Things can come to predict scary events for both people and dogs, so if the doctor handed the child a sticker prior to each needle jab or intrusive temperature taking, in that case the sticker would let them know something bad was coming up and the anticipation of it would begin.)

Emotions, when rewarded, usually decrease in their intensity. Behaviors, when rewarded, usually increase in frequency. Think about how this applies to people and consider correlations with dogs. We share similar parts of the brain that manages this stuff so it’s often a reasonable comparison.

2. Dogs don’t learn easily, if at all, when they are too anxious, scared or stressed. The point at which operant learning effectively stops will vary from dog to dog and situation to situation, but by realizing this, she understood why dogs did not respond to either rewards or punishment when they were behaving in a fearful or reactive way.

I believe that by understanding these two concepts you are laying the foundation for effective and humane handling of fearful dogs. Just something to think about.

What is it about dogs?

There are probably as many reasons as there are relationships addressing why people feel as strongly as they do about their dogs. I have my own theory about it (though will readily acknowledge that I am probably not the first to come up with it) and it goes along with the ‘mindfulness’ theme I touched on in my last post.

Throughout most of my adult life my work has included both travel and outdoor recreation. There is not much that I enjoy more than being outside moving, a source of pleasure I think I share with dogs. Indeed my enjoyment increases when I am sharing the experience with dogs. But that’s not why I think I feel as strongly as I do about dogs, it’s not just about shared interests.

When I am sitting in the back of a raft above a rapid, planning the route through the waves, and then shouting out commands to the crew, “ALL AHEAD!”, “BACK LEFT, FORWARD RIGHT!”, my thoughts and actions are completely in response to where I am and what needs to be done each moment as I experience it. I am not thinking about whether or not I paid the mortgage or if the pants I am wearing make my bum look big. I am required to act in a way which is as truthful to the situation as I can manage. The same kind of truthfulness is required when climbing up a rock face, zipping down a steep hill on a bicycle, and when interacting with a dog.

Dogs, similar to physical activities that requires deliberate action and finesse, can take us out of time and to a place in our minds that despite any intensity of focus it requires, provides us with a kind of relief from ourselves. Good books, tasks that require attention to detail, music, and many other activities can help us achieve the kind of presence in the moment that is a continuous challenge to our forever active brains. And although it’s a contradiction, the more we are able to step away from the endless dialogue we have with ourselves, the more we can feel and act like ourselves.

Each dog, and every glance we exchange is an opportunity for me to transcend the limitations created by my own certainty.

Yuck! Do I have to??

As a kid did you ever have an older relative that sort of creeped you out? Maybe they smelled funny, looked weird to you, liked to grab you, pinch your cheeks and leave wet spots where they kissed you? Your parents encouraged you to go ‘say hello’ and gave you warning stares as you scrunched up your face with disgust at the prospect. When you knew smelly Auntie Debbie or Uncle Jack with the scratchy face were on their way, what might have been a perfectly good holiday was going to be marred by having to interact with these two.

Now how about if, as it turns out, your favorite dessert is an apple crisp your dad only makes when one or the other of these two is coming by for a visit. It barely compensates for your displeasure, but it does add something to what might otherwise be a completely unpleasant experience. Add to this the fact that both auntie and uncle have stopped touching you, they don’t try to coax you over for a squeeze and your parents no longer require you to offer them anything more than a polite greeting. Months go by and even though your discomfort lingers a bit, as time goes one, you no longer feel dread hearing they are coming, seeing their car pull into the driveway or watch as they walk into the room.

Much to your surprise and delight you also learn that not only do they enjoy one of the same computer games you are rapidly moving up the ranks of, they are pretty good at it. When they visit they make sure to spend some time away from the living room chatter, and play the game with you, something you wish your parents would do with you more as well. It’s getting easier and easier for you to enjoy having them around and actually have begun to anticipate their visits with enthusiasm.

As you get older and you develop more social skills and confidence you find that potentially unpleasant interactions no longer have the same impact on you as they did when you were younger. There are still people you’d rather you didn’t have to hug and kiss, but you are able to grin and bear it. And you never know which might bring apple crisp and a good game of alien space invaders into your life.*

*Puppies might prefer cheese & a tennis ball

Calm attentiveness

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

black dogOne of the most important things I think we can do with our dogs is attend to them. Our shy dogs who, without words to tell us what they are feeling and what their next move might be, are showing us with every blink, turn of the head or lowering of their tail.

A woman contacted me recently who had reclaimed a fearful dog she had fostered. Although she had been willing to keep the dog, the rescue group felt it was best that he go to someone with 20 years of experience training dogs. Despite those years of experience, the dog was returned to the rescue group, the fur beneath his collar rubbed off from leash corrections (e-collar??) and with new aggression issues toward strangers. Since we have the brain to do it, let’s just imagine what it was like for this dog who trembling, went from shelter to rescue then foster care to a new home where abuse masqueraded as training.

I will assume that the woman who adopted the dog had the best of intentions, she was going to ‘fix’ a scared hound dog. Yet I can’t help but wonder why at some point when leash corrections were not working, she did not come to the conclusion that the problem was in her technique, not in the dog’s ability to change. Obviously the dog could change, his behavior got worse.

The dog has returned to a sanctuary where, despite a lack of years of experience training dogs, his newest owner knew that he could not be bullied out of his fear. I often think that the most important thing we have when it comes to working with fearful dogs is our humanity and our ability to see suffering for what it is.

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