Archive for the ‘desensitization’ Tag
There is so much progress that needs to be made in regard to how people “think” about animal behavior and training that it can seem overwhelming. But seven years ago I had to seek out and search for information regarding the most humane and effective ways to help dogs with fear based behavior challenges, whereas today it streams on my Facebook page and twitter account. Articles like this one, sharing the research done on how our intervention when a dog is scared can help alleviate their fear, is becoming mainstream. The science and research is being repackaged for mass consumption. It’s about time. But don’t think that everyone is buying it.
There are those who, due to an inconsistency in the terms we use to “talk” about behavior, will go on endless semantic journeys to dispute the claim that “comforting dogs does not reinforce fearfulness.” Comforting will be termed coddling and the methodology for applying either will be criticized. In one way it’s good. It means people are thinking, but when pieces of the puzzle don’t belong there, it’s difficult to come up with the right picture.
One such piece is the misunderstanding that people have regarding the use of the term “reinforcing” and how it is applied to behavior versus emotional responses. Behaviors that are reinforced can be expected to increase. Behaviors based on powerful emotional responses, if paired with what one might label a “reinforcer” (the same bit of cheese that increased the chances that a dog would sit when asked) cause a decrease in the emotional response, and subsequently we are likely to see a decrease in the behavior associated with the emotion. This is because we are counter conditioning the emotional response. Not all behavior is created equal.
Let’s use “hunger” as an example. Though not exactly an “emotion” if we feed an animal who is hungry, their hunger will decrease, and unless there is an eating disorder involved, the behavior associated with hunger, eating, will decrease. We do not reinforce hunger by feeding an animal. We do not reinforce fear when we comfort an animal. In both cases what constitutes food or comfort is dependent on the animal’s definition of them. One dog may find being stroked and held comforting, another might find it annoying. A hungry lion would not look at a bale of hay and see a meal, but a horse would. In either case if we know what a dog finds comforting or an animal thinks is tasty, and give it to them, we are likely to see a decrease in the behaviors associated with either being scared or hungry (after they’re done chewing of course).
I am going to propose that since the word “comfort” seems to be difficult for people to accept, even though it can be clearly defined-
1. To soothe in time of affliction or distress.
2. To ease physically; relieve.
1. A condition or feeling of pleasurable ease, well-being, and contentment.
2. Solace in time of grief or fear.
3. Help; assistance: gave comfort to the enemy.
4. One that brings or provides comfort.
5. The capacity to give physical ease and well-being: enjoying the comfort of my favorite chair.*
can be replaced by the term “to support.”
My aging border collie Finn was walking down a flight of stairs in our house when I could hear his nails scrambling on the wood. I got to him in time to prevent him from tumbling down. I helped him right himself and supported his hind end as he continued down. At the bottom I gave him a cheer and opened the door so he could go outside. I provided him with what he needed to get down the stairs unharmed. It is likely that he will avoid the stairs, and until I can put a runner down I would prefer that he did. But I did not want him to be injured to learn that lesson. Ultimately, when it is safe for him to do so, I want him to continue to go up and down the stairs on his own.
When we offer a stressed and scared animal our support we do so based on the needs of that animal. It does not make sense to state unequivocally that we should not attend to these needs because we may not be clear on what that support should look like. Or having provided that support inexpertly in the past it is proof that it doesn’t help. Our goal is to help a dog develop the skills and confidence they need so that continuing support becomes unnecessary, but until that happens it would be foolish to stop providing it.
Advising that supporting someone trying to learn to swim will keep them a life-long non-swimmer doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous. Someone may not need you to hold their hand as they walk into the waves, but someone else might lest, they be swept under and drown.
During our daily woods walk I spied a piece of birch bark rolled up and lying on the snow. Nibbles also saw it and tentatively stretched his nose toward it for a sniff. I felt myself experience a small hit of adrenalin that often accompanies events that scare or startle me. Other than it being the same size and dimensions of a belly-up grey squirrel, and the brownish-orange colorations on the bark being sort of the same color as blood, it was most definitely a piece of birch bark. Nibbles hesitation to approach it registered in my mind and contributed to my response.
I am not afraid of squirrels, dead or alive, but the “yuck a dead thing” reaction happens regardless of how squeamish something might make me. It wasn’t that I thought it was a dead squirrel, I felt it was a dead squirrel, and there’s a difference. Had it been a dead squirrel I might have had cause for concern. Any animal that might have killed it should have eaten it or moved it off the trail. I would have to decide whether or not to let the dogs think it was Christmas. Did it die from a disease? But I didn’t have to entertain any of those questions because it was clearly a piece of birch bark.
Our brains, and our dogs’ brains, are set up so that information processed by the limbic system, the part of the brain that contains the amygdala, travels faster to the parts of our brain that think and ponder information, than happens in reverse. Had it been a dead squirrel, or something potentially dangerous to me, I was primed to react, even if that only means I would have jumped back and screamed.
How scary or upsetting something might be to us will impact the degree to which we have an emotional response. That emotional response will cause a physical response. Bodies respond to fear in different ways, they freeze, they flee or they fight. With training we get better at responding more thoughtfully when we are afraid, but it’s not easy and takes practice. Even professional actors can experience debilitating stage fright.
When a dog is repeatedly scared by the same thing, and is not given the opportunity, usually through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, to learn to think about it differently, they are likely to continue to feel the same way about it. It’s the feeling that is going to drive the behavior that you see. When we talk about thresholds to triggers we are referring to the level of concern that allows, or doesn’t, a dog to think about what it is they are dealing with. It is up to us to determine the conditions under which our dogs are more likely to learn new responses. Wanting your dog’s response to change is not enough.
On my book shelf is a CD by Wayne Dwyer on the power of intention. It’s an inspirational presentation. But as powerful as intentions are, given the right set of circumstances, habits will win out.
Recently I moved the app icons on my iPod around. I deleted a few and moved some off the main screen. In the process a couple of the ones I use regularly shifted their position. My finger moved to tap the icon for an app that was no longer in the lower left hand side of the screen, but to the right and up a row. I managed not to open the wrong app, and stopped my finger in time. My intention was to open an app, and my habit was to tap the lower left of the screen to do it. I still catch myself aiming for the old, now incorrect, location. Old habits are hard to break.
For up to a year after we moved from one house to another, about a mile down the road past the old house, I would on occasion discover that I was preparing to turn into the old driveway. One day I even made it up the driveway to the house before it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t that I was sleeping at the wheel, I’d not driven off the road into the river, so some part of my brain was doing its job. My intention had been to drive home, but an old habit kicked in.
We want to take advantage of the power of habits when we are working with our fearful dogs. If we can create behaviors that require little thought on the dog’s part, it will be easier for them to behave appropriately in scary situations. If we create those behaviors using positive reinforcement, performing those behaviors can include a positive emotional response at the same time- more bang for our buck.
Sitting and looking at me is a “trick” I’ve worked on with Sunny for years. He will plop his butt down and look at me with the slightest prompting on my part. When the pressure is on, he will do it. It’s become what we call a “default” behavior. If he’s not sure of what else to do, this is his fall-back behavior. I’ve rewarded him with food and praise, a lot, for doing it. It’s proven to be useful at the vet’s office and at the groomer’s. When we’re out and there are people around, he will do it and I can step in between him and the approaching monsters.
Consider helping your dog create the following habits:
- Look at you regularly for feedback
- Feel good when they hear their name
- Sit or lie down easily wherever they are
- Stay or wait when asked
- Come joyfully when called
- Play daily
- Become addicted to learning new tricks
There are some things I take for granted, things that have become part of the fabric of my life with dogs, that I forget that at one time they were new ideas to me. Creating conditioned reinforcers to use in a variety of ways with my dogs is one of them. Here’s a quick primer on what conditioned reinforcers are, how you create them and what you can do with them.
A conditioned reinforcer is anything that is paired with a primary reinforcer, often food, in a way that imbues the conditioned reinforcer with the impact of the primary reinforcer. The conditioned reinforcer causes the dog to feel the way they feel about the primary reinforcer. The sound of the clicker is a conditioned reinforcer. There are other names for conditioned reinforcers, such as secondary or tertiary reinforcer, but all are conditioned reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer, before it’s been conditioned, or the dog has learned to make the association between it and the primary reinforcer, has no intrinsic value or does not necessarily create a positive emotional response in a dog. The sound of a clicker, the words “good dog!”, a dog’s name, have little or no meaning to a dog, but we can change that. Once we do, a conditioned reinforcer can be a powerful tool in training a fearful dog.
The way we can create conditioned reinforcers is simple, we follow the presentation of whatever we want the dog to feel good about, with a food treat, repeatedly. The dog hears, sees, feels or smells whatever we are conditioning them to and they anticipate a treat will follow. Eventually, even if a treat does not follow, once something has been conditioned, the good feeling occurs. For years an aunt would send me a birthday card with a check in it. The check, also a conditioned reinforcer, made me feel good. When I would open the mailbox and see an envelope from my aunt, I would feel good, even before I opened it. When I got older the checks stopped coming, but before I realized that the routine had changed, I still got that oh goodie a check feeling, when I saw the envelope.
Dogs fearful of people need to be taught that certain things should feel good to them, unlike dogs who grew up having positive interactions with people from puppyhood on. Praise or petting, which can be reinforcing for many dogs who have positive associations with people, are not necessarily loaded with enough of the feel good effect to cause a fearful dog to work for them. By following words of praise, ear scratches, a smile, your dog’s name, or clapping your hands with a treat, you will have a variety of things you can use to make your dog feel good. If something makes a dog feel good enough, they will try to figure out what they did to make it happen, so they can do it again. This is how we train dogs to do all kinds of things.
How can you use conditioned reinforcers? They can be used as rewards to reinforce behaviors in dogs we would like to see more of as I’ve described above. We can also use a conditioned reinforcer to mark a behavior to point out more clearly to the dog what it is we are rewarding them for. This is how the clicker is typically used. When teaching my dogs to take a nap, I can mark, with either a click or a word, when they lower their head. Then I toss them a treat. In training this is the deal I make with dogs. They do something, I point it out with a conditioned reinforcer and then I give them a treat, or other primary reinforcer. For some dogs the opportunity to chase a ball or play tug, can replace the food.
A third way to use conditioned reinforcers with fearful dogs is to use their value to change how a dog feels about an event or trigger. Take a phrase, silly boy, for example. Say it and then give your dog a treat, over and over again. The next time something spooks your dog and they startle or cower you can tell them him he is a silly boy, and if he is not too terrified the words can help change how he feels. Some people call this jollying.
I use conditioned reinforcers to help scared dogs stop being scared of me approaching or being near them. I pair my arrival with a conditioned reinforcer, often the click of a clicker, and follow that with the toss of a treat. So long as the dog is happy to hear the clicker, go after a treat, my arrival predicts both of these will occur. This is not the same as having a treat predict the appearance of a trigger, which can ‘poison’ the value of the treat. This is an important distinction to make. Think about luring a dog into the bathtub with a piece of bologna. Imagine how the dog will respond the next time you try to lure them anywhere with bologna. You don’t want this to happen with your conditioned reinforcer.
Pick a few things you can turn into conditioned reinforcers for your dog. Choose words or actions you normally do without thinking about it. Is there something you say when a dog does something you like? Do you cheer or give your dogs a thumbs-up? Grab a bowl of their favorite treats, say it or do it and toss your dog a treat. Repeat until you use up the treats. During the next few days carry treats with you and do the same thing whenever you say or do what you are conditioning. You can work on several throughout the day; smile-treat, yahoo!-treat, good dog-treat, happy hand waves-treat, etc. You will be creating a collection of feel goods and if there’s anything a fearful dog needs, it’s to feel good.
Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.
Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.
Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.
A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.
Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.