Velcro, a type of fastener with two different fabric surfaces that adhere to each other, typically makes a loud ripping noise when pulled apart. Some dog harnesses, coats, medical supplies, and other gear use Velcro closures.
This ripping sound can be aversive. Some sound phobic dogs are triggered the first time they hear it. And some dogs who are OK with most sounds may find it unpleasant when Velcro is unfastened close to their ears.
I recently “inoculated” my dog Zani against fear of the Velcro ripping sound. Zani has a few minor sensitivities to sounds that are different from the Velcro sound (and are well controlled with meds and training). But she just plain dislikes sudden loud noises. So I wasn’t dealing with a pre-existing fear of Velcro on her part, but she didn’t love it either. I thought it would be nice if she could. So I set up a nice classical association: Velcro would predict great things.
With some care, this toy could also be used as part of a desensitization and counterconditioning program to help a dog who is already afraid of the Velcro sound. But what I’m showing here is a plan for a dog who is not afraid of it, just finds it a bit unpleasant. For more information on desensitization and counterconditioning, check out my DS/CC resource page.
A Convenient Toy: The Lotus Ball
Clean Run, the publisher and agility supplies vendor, produces and sells a treat-holding toy called the Lotus Ball. It consists of three sections that pull apart, with a space in the middle for a treat. The sections seal together with tough Velcro. I ordered one of these last year when I was trying a variety of toys. It instantly occurred to me that it would be great for classically conditioning a dog to the sound of Velcro.
Lotus Balls Treat-Dispensing Pull-Apart Toys (US store)
Link to info about international dealers for Clean Run
(These are not affiliate links. I never receive a kickback for products I mention here, and I don’t do solicited or sponsored reviews.)
The Lotus Ball can be pulled apart by the dog or by the trainer. We did it both ways in my little training plan.
The toy is perfect for conditioning. If you always fill it with food before the dog opens it, there will be a one to one correspondence between the Velcro ripping sound and the goodie. The sound becomes a perfect predictor of good stuff. In setting up the plan, I saw my job mainly as controlling the distance so I didn’t start right up close to Zani’s ears. I also took the normal precautions so as not to accidentally reverse the relationship. I didn’t want my messing around with the food to predict an unpleasant sound instead of the proper association of sound predicting food.
Note: In the movie I show most, but not all the steps we took. I was unable to film a few repetitions I did in other parts of the house.
Caution: This movie is full of Velcro noises! If they scare your dog, or if you want to start with a clean slate and condition him, watch the movie out of his earshot.
Goal: Make the sound of ripping Velcro have good associations for Zani, even when it’s close to her ears.
General Approach: Use the Lotus Ball, then other items with Velcro, to countercondition Zani to the sound of ripping Velcro. Let the sound predict yummy treats. Graduate the exposure by controlling the distance, starting far enough away so that the sound is not loud or startling. Then move gradually closer.
- I chose freeze-dried lamb lung as the treat. It needed to be high value but dry so it didn’t goop up the Lotus Ball. Other candidates could be dehydrated raw food, beef jerky, or homemade treats that aren’t too moist. I didn’t use lamb lung for anything else during this time.
- Whenever I needed to load the treats into the ball, I snuck to the back of the house where Zani couldn’t hear it. (The Velcro is really loud!) I needed a pure association between noise -> treat, so I didn’t want her hearing that sound any other time.
- Over the course of a couple of days, I left the loaded ball sitting on a high counter and a few other places around the house where the dogs couldn’t get it. My goal was to be sure that I didn’t get reverse conditioning. I wanted to teach Zani that smelling lamb lung didn’t predict anything, nor did seeing the ball, nor did the rattle of the bag of lamb lung. The association would go in one direction only: the Velcro noise would predict the treats.
- Now came the training. I got the loaded Lotus Ball and set up a barrier between Zani and me. I stayed a few feet away from her.
- I grabbed the Lotus Ball and opened it as I approached, letting her hear the Velcro from a distance. (That’s what the barrier was for; to keep her from coming up too close too soon.)
- I held the Lotus Ball out to Zani and let her eat the treats out of it.
- I repeated this process a few times over a couple days, but got closer to Zani each time when opening the Lotus Ball. I did this twice a day at most, and at separate times. I was careful about my predictors. For example, I only used the gate a few times.
- I also made sure to continue to have the loaded Lotus Ball out at other times when not doing any training.
- I varied the location. I have a kitchen counter my dogs can’t reach, and I could do repetitions from there when Zani was able to be closer. I also have a tall dresser in my bedroom where I could put the ball. I could open the ball high up before I got to the dog. I stopped using the barriers and the distance when Zani was eagerly trying to get to the ball when she heard the noise.
- Because I made opening the ball the only predictor of that particular yummy treat, Zani was soon running to me when she heard it. I let this happen organically, just making sure she didn’t get too close to the sound too soon.
- I also carried the ball around a few times and let her see and smell it without the noise (and without getting the treat). This was another way of teaching her: no noise, no treat.
- After Zani was used to the noise, I also let her play with the ball herself, ripping it open on her own.
These are the steps I followed for my individual dog. Many dogs would need to go more slowly. Some might do better playing with the ball by themselves first. But you can get the general idea. Also, what these steps above achieved was “love for Lotus Ball Velcro.” The association needed to be generalized to other Velcro sounds, but that turned out to be pretty easy for us.
I hunted the house for items with Velcro and I performed the process again. I used some strips of Velcro that weren’t attached to anything, an Ace bandage, and one of my jackets. None of them was as loud as the Lotus Ball, so I didn’t have to take as many steps. I paired the noises these items made with treats, just as I had the ball. Zani generalized the Velcro noise quickly.
Finally, I did it with Zani’s coat, which Velcros all the way up the back. I practiced as before, holding the coat, starting with a bit of distance. I worked closer, getting the coat closer to her head, then finally putting it on her and ripping it open to take it off. I was ready with the high value food.
If you follow a similar plan, you’ll be prepared ahead of time if your dog ever needs to wear a coat or a bandage or an Elizabethan collar. The Velcro will be a plus, not a problem. At some point you can start to vary the treats, but be sure it’s something good when your dog actually has to wear Velcro. And if that happens only rarely, you can maintain the Velcro Wonderfulness association by bringing out the Lotus Ball to play with now and then.
Finally, don’t be surprised if your dog comes running from another part of the house if you unfasten some Velcro for an unrelated reason. Give her a goodie if you have it! I was wearing an ankle brace during this process and I had to sneak around to put it on and take it off, or else pay up!
- Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning
- Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking
- Stinky Stuff On My Back!
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson
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