Calming The Capricious Canine:
Week 2 - Management
Now that you have found your dog’s basic threshold - Well done! Pat yourself on the back. You are better equipped to manage your dog’s reactions and set them up for more success in the future! Now be sure to take this baseline into consideration when planning outings and training sessions. Sure, things happen, but we want to control environments as much as possible. This week I will introduce my systematic desensitization protocol and you will practice it while also practicing managing triggers.
First a little jargon because words do matter in behavior! Before we can understand “desensitization” we have to understand “sensitization.” Sensitization is a non-associative learning process in which repeated administration of a stimulus results in the progressive amplification of a response (wikipedia - because it was convenient and in common english!).
Our dogs are “sensitized” to the presence of triggers. It is an emotional response (non-associative), and not cognitive. This means that no amount of talking, cuing, or yelling will change behavior. This is also why I will tell you not to say anything or cue anything during the following protocol. If we want to change this reaction we need to “desensitize” our dogs. That means we are going to change the emotional (non-associative) reaction. To do this we use food.
And we are going to need A LOT of food. And, since we are working with dopamine to change these associations we need special food. I used turkey hot dogs in my videos, but you can use chicken, cheese, tuna, steak, liver paste, meat baby food, eggs, etc. Just try and stay away from processed dog treats. They can work but the dopamine created from processed foods is shorter lasting in the brain.
The Popcorn Game
Who is familiar with this meme?
For those not familiar, the point of the meme is the act of eating popcorn while watching drama on FB and message boards, and our dogs are going to do just that with triggers, with one exception - treats instead of popcorn.
So how does this work? When our dogs are looking at a trigger, but below threshold, each bite of food is desensitizing their reaction to the trigger. This can be a VERY powerful technique when you are in the threshold sweet spot. Your dog should be able to watch the trigger with little to no vocalization or pulling. It doesn’t matter what the trigger is. It could be a person, dog, squirrel, bicycle etc...
Going back to the lesson from last week, you need to find threshold. Be about 2-3 feet back from threshold, and stationary. When your dog looks at the trigger, IMMEDIATELY feed them. Do not cue a sit, look, watch, “what’s that,” or anything else. Let them pick the body position and when they want to look. Basically don’t say a word. No marker words like yes or a click either. You can praise if you really want to but that’s it. Just let them chill there and watch.
If they don’t look at the trigger it may be a sign that they are actually over threshold. The same is the case if they will not eat food. If that is the case back up 10-15 feet and try again.
You can even do it fully relaxed!
After about 10-15 feedings, break away from the trigger. This can be done by lightly pulling on the leash, cuing their name, and leading them away. If they react then they either were actually over threshold from the start, or did too many repetitions. Every dog is different so it takes practice to get this down. Don’t get discouraged if your dog goes over threshold in the beginning. If your dog has a bite history and there is not barrier, have your dog wear a muzzle for this exercise.
Interruption via touch
After 2-3 days of practicing the popcorn game you can add in a touch interrupter if your dog gets stuck and doesn’t want to walk away. To interrupt with touch, our goal is not to startle but to connect and redirect. This means gently touching your dog on the back, or hind hip while saying their name. If your dog has ever redirected at you, only practice this with a muzzle or skip it entirely.
Practice doesn’t have to be out in the open. If you are struggling to find enough distance barriers are your friend. Barriers include fences, windows, and car windshields. You do the popcorn game just like you would if you were in the open or in the house but with a barrier between you and the trigger. This can help lower threshold until your dog has some practice at the training too.
I want to thank my student Susanna for this awesome video of training in the car!
When using fences, ensure that you are still within threshold. Here is my dog Mashi outside a dog park fence. I am rewarding him for listening to the noises in the dog park instead of the visual triggers.
Continue name game
Try to do at least 3 Popcorn game setups this week.
Try one setup where you use touch to interrupt and move on.