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!

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Eating out of toys

One of the best recommendations I’ve received from our trainer is this: Feed your dog all its meals out of interactive toys.

Her reasoning is as follows: Dogs, in their most natural state, spent a lot of physical and mental energy finding, stalking, killing, and consuming their meals. Today, dogs eat out of bowls in the kitchen and barely use any brain power or calories during dinner. We waste a huge opportunity for physical and mental stimulation when we just plunk down a bowl of kibble and let them scarf it down. Instead, she recommends, feed your dog all its meals from interactive toys that make them “work” for their food and solve problems in the process.

For a few weeks now, we’ve been trying this recommendation and feeding Pyrrha from a variety of toys. Verdict: Very pleased, and why didn’t we try this sooner?

The presentation of the feast
The presentation of the feast.
Eating out of a ball
Making it roll.
If I make it roll this way...
Only use those bowls for water now.
Getting a little help from Guion
Getting a little help from Guion.
With the Kong
With the giant Kong.

Now, Pyrrha eats her meals in about 5-20 minutes (depending on the toy difficulty), instead of in a mere 60 seconds, as when she was eating out of a bowl. She’s learned how to solve problems on her own and adapt to the changing rotation of toys. She’s very engaged in mealtime now. Even though our floors are now slobbery and coated in food remains, I think this new feeding ritual is totally worth it.

Do you ever feed your dogs out of interactive toys? And why, after having read 60 books, have I never read this recommendation in a book before? It’s such a great idea and such an easy incorporation into one’s daily routine! I’m a big fan.

Pyrrha’s first day of school

First day of school at Canine Campus
Canine Campus: Trainer Deven working with Anka.

Last night, Pyrrha attended her first “day” at school!

We have enrolled her in a general obedience class at Canine Campus and I’ve been really grateful and pleased with everything we’ve been taught so far. Deven (shown above), the head trainer, studied with Pat Miller and Suzanne Clothier, so she won me over from the start. Speakin’ my language, you know?

Deven is also very experienced with shy dogs, and that also put me at ease. On the first night of class, people attend without their dogs (since dog training is really just human training in disguise). We talked with Deven about Pyrrha’s various issues and fears. She said that the goal for this class might just be to get Pyrrha comfortable in a new and distracting environment. The training facility has several break-out rooms with dutch doors, so we could move into those rooms and still hear the lesson, but Pyrrha could be essentially removed from visual distractions.

First day of school at Canine Campus
Distracted.

Last night, we showed up about 15 minutes early, because I wanted Pyrrha to be able to scope out the place before everyone else arrived. She acted with her typical vigilance and extreme alertness–and looked a bit on edge whenever a new dog came into the room–but Deven instructed us all to not let any of the dogs meet each other. After Pyrrha understood that none of these dogs could come up to her, she started calming down–and even looked somewhat happy and eager (lying on the ground with her tail swishing, mouth open, playful expression).

First day of school at Canine Campus
Sorry for the poor photo quality. Weird lighting in there.

We have a class full of fun characters: A handsome Welsh springer spaniel named Rufus; a sassy JRT mix named Hannah; a very bright shih-tzu named Tsunami; an older merle border collie; an adoptable mix named Buster (seen in the background of the photo below); and Anka, an all-black German shepherd mix puppy, whom Deven is working with in the first photo. It was SO tempting not to snap all their leashes off and watch them romp around and play. But, that’s not why we were there…

First day of school at Canine Campus
I’m trying to get her attention. It’s kind of working!

Once class began, we moved Pyrrha into one of the break-out rooms, since it was clear that she could not focus on us when she was out in the big room with all the other people and dogs. This seemed to work quite well. We practiced some basic cues, like our “look” cue, targeting, “give,” and some loose-leash walking. I’m always amazed at how much I learn from just hearing Deven talk about these principles. I’ve read too many dog training books, but I’ve learned far more in two classes with Deven than I did in a year’s worth of reading. I know all of these things, these various theories, even how to teach these cues, but seeing Deven put it in practice and actually trying it with Pyrrha has made such a world of a difference.

First day of school at Canine Campus
Over-exposed Guion, working with Pyr in the break-out room.

The other big thing I learned last night is that my husband is a GREAT trainer. He might be naturally better at it than I am. This is extremely hard for me to admit. I am supposed to be the “dog lover”! The amateur “expert” on training! I read 60 books! He read 0! But, no. Guion is just inherently good at this. His timing is better than mine is; he doesn’t repeat cues; he waits for her to figure it out before jumping to the next thing. Ugh! Haha. I am proud of him. I really am. Just a little envious, that’s all.

Pyrrha came to class hungry, so she was VERY eager to learn. It was exciting to see her so engaged and focused on us–but I think that was mainly the hunger speaking. Still. It was nice to see her aptitude to pick up new cues and behaviors. I think she might be pretty smart after all. 🙂

First day of school at Canine Campus
Getting some praise from Dad.

We learned more than I think she did. But I guess that’s the point? Very much looking forward to our next class!