But when I get on the elliptical to exercise, she’s outta there. It doesn’t really have alligator jaws attached to it, but I think that’s a good portrayal of how Zani used to see it.
For those who aren’t familiar with these exercise machines, here is a video of an elliptical in motion. It is similar to mine. You can see where a sensitive dog could be alarmed with the motion.
I have mats in that room for dogs to hang out on, and Summer and Clara stay on their mats and get the occasional treat while I exercise. Cricket did so too in her day. But not Zani, until now.
The other day I realized I could probably help Zani get over her fears. It took all of 5 days, and I did it while I was exercising.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
The techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) are often used together to help animals, including humans, recover from fears. They are not bandaid solutions that mask the symptoms. When done correctly, they change the animal’s emotional response.
Systematic desensitization is a procedure in which learned fear of a neutral stimulus is extinguished by exposing the animal to the stimulus so gradually that involuntary fear responses are never triggered. –Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course
This is the technique where you start with the thing the animal is scared of (the stimulus) at a distance or intensity where the thing is not scary. When the animal is OK with that, you gradually bring it closer or intensify it. Dr. Friedman points out that desensitization can only get the animal from scary to neutral. It doesn’t make the animal delighted or happy with the stimulus. But it can get the animal OK with it.
With counterconditioning, the animal’s respondent behavior to a stimulus is replaced with an opposite automatic response.–Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course
OK, counterconditioning is the frosting on the cake. Counterconditioning is the technique that can actually replace fear or another undesirable response with a positive emotional response. This is done by associating the scary stimulus with something wonderful, while the animal is under threshold, consistently over time.
Here is an article that defines the terms desensitization and counterconditioning and lays out how to design a training protocol.
Zani’s DS/CC Story
…is very short.
Starting point: Typically when I would get on the elliptical, she would leave and go into the bedroom across the hall. She often went out of sight and got on the bed. That was her comfortable distance from the elliptical, so that’s where we started.
Picture 1: Since I was tossing treats to the other dogs anyway, I started tossing some into that bedroom (bank shot!). She learned to hang out by that doorway and get the treats. She could be out of sight of the elliptical if she chose. Distance: 16 – 19 feet.
Pictures 2a and 2b: Soon she started waiting in the hallway instead of in the doorway to the bedroom, so I started aiming the treats into the hall. I could tell she was comfortable because she didn’t retreat to the bedroom anymore or show any signs of concern, just happily chased down the treats. Distance: 12.5 – 16 feet.
Picture 3: All my dogs are trained to get on mats. The mats have good associations with relaxation and treats. So I threw a mat down in the area where Zani was already comfortable. She immediately got on it and stayed there happily when I got on the elliptical and started tossing treats. This was a big step, because previously she had been on her feet and moving. If she had had any residual fear, she was free to trot away farther. Staying still in the presence of the elliptical was a big step. Hence, I didn’t cue her to get on the mat. I gave her the choice. I would have tossed treats either way. But she immediately plopped down on the mat and stayed there.
Technically this was a switch to the technique of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior, or DRI, from counterconditioning, since Zani was now also being reinforced for getting on her mat. However, as I mention below, operant and respondent behaviors can be all knotted up at times. Distance 12.5 feet.
Picture 4: Over two more days I moved the mat closer. I could tell that Zani was fine with that because her body language was comfortable, and she always got on the very front of the mat. Final distance: 10.5 feet.
That’s it! She can now participate in the “Eileen exercises and dogs lie on their mats and get treats” event. She is within my treat throwing range and she is completely comfortable. I don’t want any of the dogs closer than the current “front row” while I’m exercising since the moving parts of the elliptical could be dangerous for them. Since Zani generally likes a front row seat, it will be interesting to see if she moves up to try to join or displace another dog. I’m betting she will. I may have to train her to stay back from the elliptical!
Here is a slide show of the steps we took.
I apologize for the poor photos. I wanted to show my view from the elliptical, and the actual distances involved. The light (and the clutter in the room) was not conducive to that. Pictures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 are reconstructions by the way. I didn’t take photos during the process.
To review: the desensitization part was moving Zani gradually closer to the doorway of the back room while the elliptical was in motion. The counterconditioning part was the yummy treats that accompanied the process. DRI came into play when Zani started settling on the mat. It worked because I didn’t rush. I watched Zani to be sure she wasn’t scared and just venturing forth to get the treats, then retreating to safety again. She had to feel safe with every step.
Desensitization and counterconditioning are often said to be slow. They certainly can be. Depending on the history and intensity of the adverse reaction, the attractiveness of the counterconditioning item (usually really good food or fun play), correct timing, and the skill of the trainer, these techniques can take a while.
But guess what? Not always. I was frankly amazed at how fast Zani got over her mistrust of the elliptical, and felt badly that I hadn’t tried to help her in any systematic way before.
Even when these techniques take time, they are always my choice, along with operant learning using positive reinforcement**, for helping an animal overcome its fears. They are completely humane, and the science has supported for decades that they create a true emotional response in an animal. I am privileged to watch my formerly feral dog Clara, under the care of a skilled trainer, blossoming into a comfortable, sociable dog, using these methods.
By the way, the treats I use for the elliptical mat game are pieces of Prairie kibble (which is small) and the undersized leftover pieces from when I cut up Natural Balance rolls. My dogs don’t typically need much encouragement to hang out on mats, and since I am throwing the treats while in motion, I don’t want to cause a scuffle if I were to toss something high value right between two dogs. But if I had planned better I would have used something higher value during Zani’s rehabilitation. The animal’s ultimate conditioned response can only be as positive as its response to that particular item, so one usually uses something really spectacular. Luckily it turned out I didn’t need to. But perhaps to cap things off I’ll surprise them all with a piece of liverwurst (hand-delivered) now and then.
Do you have any great DS/CC success stories?
- Shut Down Dogs Part 2
- Pills, pills, pills!
- How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
- Threshold: It May Not Be What You Think
- OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?
** Operant learning played a role in this protocol as well. Dr. Friedman talks about the “Gordian Knot,” of operant and respondent learning frequently. They become almost instantly intertwined in most training protocols. Once the good feelings associated with the unconditioned stimulus start spreading to the previously feared items, the animal will often on its own develop behaviors to hasten its access to the goodies. In this instance, Zani performed the operant behaviors of chasing treats and lying on her mat. Both of these are familiar, comfortable, and pleasant for her. Sometimes just having a job to do is a great help. On the other hand, the mat itself has already been classically conditioned as a very nice place to be.