The slow and steady work of making associations (Week 3, Reactivity Class)

Notes from Week 3 of the Feisty Fidos class
Deven Gaston, Canine Campus

I missed writing up a Week 2 recap, but you can read the fundamentals of this class on my Week 1 post (which I recommend, for anyone who has a reactive dog).

As Deven said, “This class is about as interesting as watching paint dry.”

Because that’s the long, slow, hard work of classical conditioning and making new neural pathways. During the past two weeks in class, we’ve just worked on clicking and treating (that’s where the operant conditioning mix comes in) the dogs for perceiving the trigger of another dog in the room.

Week 2, we worked with Deven’s shy, reactive dog Surprise, who remained still and didn’t want to make eye contact with any of the class dogs. (We’re all separated out in different rooms, and Surprise is walked around the center of the room.) This week, Deven brought in her bouncy, friendly mini Australian shepherd Rumba. Rumba was more of a challenge for the class dogs, because she was more active and clearly wanted to engage. (Rumba particularly seemed to want to meet Pyrrha!)

We practiced Patricia McConnell’s “emergency u-turn” several times each, in the class ring, and then we worked for the rest of the class on just clicking and treating for perception of Rumba, over and over and over again.

This class was a good reminder of two things:

  1. This is slow and steady work, and hundreds of repetitions are needed.
  2. Practicing this behavior “in the wild” is much harder, which is also why it takes so long to recreate these pathways.

But we’re in it for the long haul!

Getting to know Brynn
Pyrrha and Trina.

 

In other news:

We have been doing more evaluations of Brynn/Trina, and I think we’re not going to keep her, for a number of reasons. I know, after all of that fanfare!

Essentially, she is a lot more naturally shy than we thought. She’d been getting so confident and comfortable in our home that we were pretty fooled by her behavior, and kind of shocked during our outings to realize that she is naturally pretty fearful of new people, children, and other dogs on walks. She’s also afraid of getting in the car and strangers. (I think her super-relaxed behavior on the Downtown Mall that first night may have been influenced by drugs?? Ha. She had just been spayed a day-and-a-half ago at that time, and I think she was still pretty out of it, which led to her reallllly chill demeanor, despite the craziness of the environment.)

Again, these are not black marks on her personality, and we will continue to work with her and socialize her, but we are looking for a genuinely confident, “bombproof” puppy. Trina is not that, but she will still be a wonderful puppy for the right home.

As much as I want to keep her, I also know that I don’t want two leash-reactive, shy dogs. So. A hard decision. More on this later. It’s been a bad week, whew.

Getting to know Brynn

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!