The trigger becomes the bell (Week 1, Reactivity Class)

Notes from Week 1 of the Feisty Fidos class
Deven Gaston, Canine Campus

Put herself in time out. #pyrrha #gsd
Our feisty fido, looking demure.

Our first class, as with most of Deven’s first classes, was dog-less. She gave us an overview of her training philosophy, the goals for this class, and particularly focused on getting us humans in the right mindset. Her teaching style reminds me a lot of what I’ve seen of Suzanne Clothier; she’s very frank and funny and clear. Deven always tells it like it is.

The phrase that’s stuck in my mind after our first class is: The trigger becomes the bell.

We’re going back to classic Pavlov in this reactivity class (the “bell” referring to the sound in the classic experiment, signaling that the reward was coming). This means that this is going to be a long, slow behavior-modification process. We don’t have labs where we can knock this thing out and create new neural pathways and associations. We have to practice this in real life, with real-life interruptions and mistakes and uncontrollable variables.

Training dogs out of reactive behaviors will take weeks and months, maybe even years. “This is not an exciting class,” Deven told us. “You are going to need tons and tons of patience and repetition and consistency. But it will work. If you stick with it.”

Key takeaways

  • Distance is always the biggest factor in intensifying fear. Dogs get into the fight/flight zone when they are too close to their triggers. The leash keeps them from flight, which is why so many dogs have on-leash reactivity; they don’t have the option of running away, so they decide to put on a “fight” display.
  • Distraction training (“look at me”) doesn’t really work. It doesn’t change the dog’s feelings toward the trigger, and in many cases, it can often make it worse.
  • Before implementing a new technique, always ask yourself, “Would this work for ME?” If this was how someone was trying to modify my behavior toward a fear trigger, would this tactic help or hurt?
  • With reactive behavior, be aware of the “audience effect.” Reactive dogs are embarrassing. We tend to treat them differently than we know we should when people are watching (e.g., a smack on the head, a jerk on the collar). Be mindful of this. It’s just making your dog more scared and confused.
  • Reactive aggression is NOT a character trait, and it’s NOT a choice: It’s a REFLEX. This is just the primitive part of the brain firing in the fight zone; the frontal cortex is not even engaged. Decision making is too slow for a dog confronted with a fear trigger, so they just react.
  • Remember that dogs start learning these displays over time. They will begin to generalize eventually. A man with a baseball cap scared me once? OK, I’m just going to react to all men with baseball caps from now on, just to cover my bases.
  • In classical conditioning, always remember that food is NOT a reward here; it’s a way to form an association. Remember with Pavlov: The dogs didn’t do anything to get food. The bell rang, regardless of what the dogs were doing, and out came the food. With this training, your dog’s fear trigger becomes the bell.
  • In this class, you are blazing a new path of associations. The old path (reactive behavior) has to grow over and become unused for the new path to remain intact.

As Deven reminded us, “The goal of this class: Your dog is comfortable in the presence of her triggers. This does not mean that she is comfortable interacting with her triggers but that she can remain in their presence without a display.”

It’s a lot to take in, but, wow, I am already really thankful for this class, and I am committed to the long road ahead!

How does a dog learn to have great recall?

OK, I have a question for all of you dog training pros out there:

If your dog has great recall, how did you train him/her?

Dublin's intense face
Dublin.

I’ve always thought about this, and one of the most puzzling things to me is that the dog I know with the BEST recall wasn’t that seriously trained (or trained with methods that I disagree with, or have been taught are flat-out wrong).

Dublin is the dog with the most outstanding recall that I know. She lives, as you may remember, next door to my parents and my dad considers her his surrogate dog; he spends a ton of time with her. Dublin will stop on a DIME when you call her name. Dad told me that this past week, she got out of the gate to chase a cat in the neighborhood, but she stopped immediately when he called her — in the middle of a cat chase! And ran right back to him. This astonishes me, and yet I’ve seen her do it. She comes right to you, every single time. Dublin responds to anyone who calls her name, too — even to her family’s little girls.

But this is what bugs me. When I asked my dad why Dublin has such great recall, he always tells me this story: “When Dublin was a puppy, she was about to wander into the street, so I grabbed her and smacked her pretty hard and told her not to do that again. She really learned, though! She’s come perfectly ever since.”

Dublin

All of the reading and training I’ve done tells me that this can’t be true, that dogs don’t learn from physical punishment, that Dublin must be afraid of my father, etc. If you’ve seen them together, however, it is impossible to believe that she comes out of fear. This dog trusts my father utterly; she adores him. In fact, my dad might be the only person that Dublin truly loves; she’s more or less indifferent to everyone else. I’ve honestly never seen any anxiety or fear when she interacts with him. Furthermore, he doesn’t use physical punishments with her on a regular basis. He swears this was the only time he ever smacked her.

Dublin has not really received any formal training; I don’t think she even knows how to go “sit” or “down” on command, but she is an excellent Frisbee player, athlete, and all-around wonderful family dog.

So, what do you think? Why does Dublin have such great recall? Can it really be the smack from my dad when she was a puppy, as he claims?

How did you train YOUR dogs to have great recall?