Why Wait?

I stood in front of the copy machine, not so silently cursing the manufacturer, the store where I purchased it, and the salesman who recommended it. The darn thing wasn’t working. I pressed the number of copies button, hit the start button and nothing. It didn’t work and if that wasn’t bad enough, after setting it up I was going to have to pack it back up again and return it.

The owner’s manual sat unopened on the desk next to the machine. I hadn’t bothered to read it. Why should I? I’ve been using copiers since they were called mimeographs. I practically grew up using them helping my father produce newsletters for his business. It was just a copy machine for heaven’s sake, how difficult could it be. Fortunately I didn’t embarrass myself by picking up the phone to complain to some poor tech support in India. Instead I read the manual. As it turns out the “start” button was not the same as the “power” button. Tucked behind the machine, out of my sight was the all important on/off button that changed the course of my day. This was nearly as bad as the time I called in an electrician to repair a light fixture because I hadn’t screwed in the bulb tight enough.

Many of us assume that because we have lived with dogs all of our lives that we know how they work, what makes them tick. And unfortunately for many of us if we picked up an owner’s manual written by someone without the requisite background and understanding themselves, we’ve been led astray and our lack of success in getting dogs to do what we want is seen as their flaw, not ours or the method we are employing. When this happens the labels start getting slapped on the dog. They’re dominant, submissive, red zone, vindictive, stubborn, lazy, stupid, etc., ad nauseam.

When we are trying to help fearful dogs not be so fearful the way we do this is through counter conditioning, which means we change how the dog feels about the stuff that scares them. It’s not easy and depending on what it is they are afraid of, we may have limited success, but at the end of the day, it’s what we’re doing. How we go about trying is important. The most important piece of this training puzzle is that the scary thing needs to predict a good thing, before the dog has a chance to experience the fear of it. Given how quickly brains and bodies respond to things that scared them in the past, this isn’t always easy or possible. Sometimes we can get away with having the scary thing be not so scary by keeping it further away from the dog, or making it go away sooner rather than later. But we have to quickly follow its appearance with whatever we are using to counter condition. This is usually some kind of yummy food or a toy the dog loves.

We know that we do not reinforce fear by providing a dog with comfort, food or a toy. This is because when we present something to the dog that they like, immediately after or while they are experiencing the scary thing, we are counter conditioning, not reinforcing. But this will only be the case so long as the scary thing is not so scary that the dog can’t begin to feel good about the treat or toy. If I was in a car crash and someone walked up to me, my knees shaking, tunnel vision setting in, heart racing and stomach turning, and they handed me my first Publisher’s Clearing House check for a million dollars, I’m still not likely to learn to love being in car crashes, even if I wasn’t killed or injured. We also know that the emotional response of being afraid can be made worse if we don’t intervene soon enough or do something that contributes to it, such as yelling at the dog, poking them, yanking on their collar or  shocking them.

A common error that handlers make is not providing the treat or toy (the US or UCS) soon enough after the appearance of the trigger cartoon of dog thinking about a bone(the CS). One of the reasons this occurs is because they are waiting for an appropriate behavior to reinforce. This is not to say that rewarding a dog for an appropriate behavior is wrong, but that if you wait too long for that behavior you run the risk of the emotional response the dog is experiencing, becoming stronger or more intense so when you finally do introduce the reward its counter conditioning “power” is lost. This is the case whether you are using positive or negative reinforcement to create an alternate or incompatible behavior. For some dogs even waiting for them to turn and look at their handler takes too much time and their negative emotional response is too strong to change given where you are and what you are using as a reward.

Once the treat or toy has been paired with trigger it is often possible to switch to rewarding for behavior so long as the dog continues to feel happy and safe in the presence of the trigger. When this happens we can start to build duration in the dog’s ability to remain in proximity to the trigger, or to changes in the trigger’s behavior. When it comes to addressing fear in dogs, what are you waiting for?



7 comments so far

  1. The Love of a Dog on

    Wonderful post and couldn’t have said it better myself. Dogs live in the now, so to work with them and to work them through issues, you have to work in the now. You can’t be late when it comes to rewarding or correcting behavior, and you also have to be two steps ahead of them when it comes to being aware of the surroundings and situations. Anticipating what could be a trigger and keeping that threshold low is so important when it comes to working through fear and behavioral issues. Loved this post and looking forward to browsing through your older ones too!

  2. torybirch on

    Thank you for this post. I have waited on treating Loki for him to calm or look away from a trigger at times. Other times, I don’t wait because I know that the trigger is too close to expect him to look away for Behavioral Adjustment Training. I need to make sure I am not expecting too much from him in situations that I cannot control as much as I would like and work to make the best of the situation by treating him or removing him asap.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Always important to go with the least invasive of procedures and that is managing to avoid or eliminate the source of stress and using counter conditioning to change the emotion, and using R+ to build a new alternate behavior.

  3. sara, oreo and chewy on

    Good stuff! I’m guilty of waiting for a head turn, because after so much rewarding for a head turn, I usually DO get that behavior. But, you are so right, that sometimes I should just feed before the head turn to make him feel better.

    Thanks for the tip.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      If you are seeing an improvement in behavior, then your timing may be fine.

  4. Jean Melom on

    One of my challenges with my fearful dog is that she perceives the negative stimulus before I can. For example, she barks when she hears sounds outside the house that are too quiet for me to hear. Thus, by the time I know she is feeling fear, the time for counter-conditioning has passed, and a treat offered would reinforce her negative behavior. Do you have any suggestions for this?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Watch the dog. It’s important that the negative stimulus occurs before you respond with a treat to counter condition. You have to be fast or you have to be able to predict what is likely to scare the dog in certain situations so you can manage appropriately to keep the dog’s level of response low enough that you can counter condition. Bail out of the situation if you think that counter conditioning is going to be ineffective.

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