Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Summer with HammerLife intervenes in our most careful, gradual training programs sometimes. I’ve got a dog that was born feral and a recovering reactive dog, both of whom I work with on their issues, including that I take regular lessons from a very talented trainer. Clara, the formerly feral dog, has made great strides in her ability to be comfortable around humans other than those on her very short list. She was still a wild puppy through almost all of her socialization window. I have done lots of DS/CC as well as positive reinforcement-based training with her over the last three years, and she now does well in many environments that would be challenging for almost any dog. And my mildly reactive dog Summer has been making great progress lately, mostly with an operant approach. But Clara in particular has very little experience with strangers in the house.

Ready or not, though, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed some work done on my house that would necessitate the long-term presence of workmen.

Usually when I have someone working in the house for an hour or two, I stash all the dogs in the bedroom with stuffed food toys in their crates. I turn up some loud music to mask some of the sound and we get through it. They do fine for a few hours.

However, this time the workers needed access to almost the whole house, including our major hangouts. And the project was days, not hours.

How We Coped

First, Summer and Zani got to go on a field trip every day. They went to work with our dear friend. They thought it was great. They got in the swing of things by the second or third day and were very cute when I would take them out front to wait for their “ride.” They were so excited when our friend pulled up.

Clara and I took up residence in the study, a small bedroom that was one of the few places the workmen didn’t need access to. This room was completely familiar to her, and a place where she would typically snooze while I worked at the computer.1)It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit. We had a door we could close, but the room was right on the hall that the men had to walk up and down all day. I left it open the first few times so Clara could see what was going on (not sure whether that was a good idea, but she did great), then closed it for the rest of the time. I kept Clara on a harness, dragging a leash, because I am a worrywart about the possibility of doors and gates being left open when there are people coming and going.

I made a couple of really good frozen Kongs for Clara every day. I included high value stuff like some bits of chicken in each one. The men were there way too long each day for Clara to be able to eat the whole time, but I would give her a Kong when they first got here, and then another sometime in the afternoon when things were busiest. I used dog food roll for treats in the interim, and some spray cheese when things got tough. I cut down her other meals accordingly, but she always got a decent breakfast. No point in facing a stressful situation on an empty stomach!

Luckily, Clara is not sound phobic. Nobody likes booms, sawing, or machinery noises, but beyond the startle/annoyance factor, she doesn’t mind them much. It is all about the strange people for her. So her main triggers were the human noises: hearing the guys talk to each other or to me, or hearing them come in the door or walk around, especially right by us down the hall.

Oh yeah, and she wasn’t really fond of it when an electrician had to go in the attic and was obviously walking on the beams right above us. She looked at me like, “You have got to be kidding me!!”

Here is a printable list of our coping strategies: Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Clara asleep during construction

Clara asleep during construction

The Order of Events

Even though it meant that I might get a small barking outburst from her, every day I made sure Clara saw and/or heard the guys coming in before we went into our room and she got her Kong. I wanted to make sure that the prediction went the right direction. Guys coming in the house should predict a great treat. I didn’t want being given a Kong to predict that something scary was about to happen.

After a couple of days Clara learned the sound of one guy’s truck, and would run to the door, ready to bark, when he got there. Instead I would lead her straight into our hideout, and once inside she would turn to me for her Kong.

Throughout the day, whenever there was a triggering event, be it a man’s shout, a door slam, or a startling noise, I generally gave her a treat. I say generally because I had to limit it somewhat. It was just too long a time to be completely consistent, or even Clara would have gotten sick from all the food. So even as she was generalizing, looking to me for treats with every sound, I had to deliver them less frequently. I did my best to save the good stuff for the more dramatic moments, like the predictable time at the end of the day when the last workman would come knock on the study door and give me an update.

One other thing I was careful about–I tend to get hypervigilant when I am expecting visitors. I look out the window at every little sound; I go look out the door, etc. I do this whether I am expecting my favorite people in the world or someone I would rather not see. I just get very anticipatory. I actively fought this behavior on my part this week because I did not want my peering out the window and door to become a predictor for the dogs of invasion by workmen. So I was purposely less vigilant and more discreet when I did take a peek.  I’m pretty sure I prevented that particular connection from being made.

Counterconditioning without Desensitization–                                 No Wait, it’s Management

Following triggers with treats is classical conditioning or counterconditioning–if one can be consistent, if one’s timing is good, and if the dog is in shape to take the treats. But I have to say that because of the long periods of time involved and my lack of control of the process, this wasn’t a training situation, it was management. There were simply too many events every day. My goal was to keep from hold our own and prevent backsliding, and I achieved that.

And there was zero desensitization involved. When we have control over triggers, we can start them at a non-aversive level and gradually increase the proximity or amplitude of the trigger when the animal is ready. (If you add a goodie after each exposure you get the magic combination of desensitization and counterconditioning.) But most real-life situations don’t work like that. I don’t have the means or the time to hire a guy to come impersonate a workman for a month, first just driving up to my house, then walking to my front door, then coming in, then talking to me, then making gradually more noise, etc. All of that would have to be carefully coordinated so as not to be an aversive exposure, include only a limited number of reps per day, and require exquisite timing on my part. Ain’t happening.

So at best, we had management and a bit of counterconditioning. Clara did learn that having workmen in the house predicted Kongs and spray cheese, so I guess I can say that we did build a classical association!

Summer

Summer offering eye contact again

Summer continues to do really well with her triggers and did fantastic the couple of times she had to be around the construction. One day the workmen stayed late and she “came home from work” about an hour before they left. All three dogs came in the study with me, and Summer did phenomenally well, not reacting to the workman talking on his cell phone, whistling, or walking up and down the hall. You’ll see in the video–she looks quite relaxed. (As opposed to Clara, who is looking pretty worn out–it was her seventh hour of commotion, as opposed to Summer’s first!)

Getting the Connection

You can see in the video at least one Positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+), where Clara’s tail starts to wag after the man walks by us. You can also see a good handful of “expectant” responses from both Clara and Summer when they hear something. No tail wags or obvious drooling, but the “where’s my treat?” look. This is not all the way to a complete CER+, but think how much nicer it is for the dog than barking, lunging, and panicking.

Link to the video for email subscribers

Did I miss any tips? I can always add to my list. Here’s the link one more time:

Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Other Posts on Helping Dogs Cope with Hard Stuff

 Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Notes   [ + ]

1. It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit.
This entry was posted in Classical conditioning, Differential Reinforcement, Management, Sound sensitivity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

  1. Chris and Habi says:

    Eileen –

    All I can say is WOW! Beautiful job with a difficult situation. The girls did wonderfully! All the prior work you have done with Clara and Summer obviously pays off when ‘life interferes’. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful approach.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  2. Rose says:

    Summer is unbelievably cute in that first photo! Great post and video 🙂

  3. Gerry says:

    You said: She looked at me like, “You have got to be kidding me!!”

    Without guessing just how much we’re reading into that, it does become one of the funniest situations in our relationship with our pets.

    On the compressor noise, it’s always facinated me how, with better hearing than people, many dogs do learn to sleep though noises that we’d often have trouble with.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      That was pretty anthropomorphic of me, I’ll admit. But I do think I get something like an incredulous look sometimes. Like, “OK I get a treat for this.” “And a treat for this.” “And THAT??? I should REALLY get a treat for that!”

      I have a good idea where Clara spent her first 10-12 weeks, and it was fairly close to a private school and its grounds. Although as soon as I got her I started conditioning her to all sorts of outdoor equipment sounds just to be sure, she was already very good with them. I feel fortunate that we got a break on that!

  4. Nicely done. It’s quite difficult to keep dogs calm through multiple or lengthy duration novel situations, and of course they will be anxious from time to time. I think we just have to do the best we can, use the science and build confidence whenever possible. Love the photo of Summer, and also Clara is quite beautiful.

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