Before I got serious about training, I regarded putting topical flea treatment on my dogs as one of those necessary evils in their lives. After all, it happened only once a month at most. And it didn’t occur to me that I could make that awful smelling stuff any easier to bear. So I would either catch and hold them while I applied it, or apply it by stealth while they were eating. Summer and Cricket were cooperative, if unhappy. Zani actively avoided me when I had the applicator in my hand. I had to chase her down.
Fleas have been rare around here for a couple of years now, for whatever reason, and I have rarely had to treat the dogs. It became a non-issue for a while.
Please note that I am not making any recommendations regarding whether to apply flea treatment, how often, or what product one should use. But even if you never use the stuff–stick around long enough to see what this is about. The processes described here can be generalized for other kinds of handling as well.
Anyway, recently I saw some signs of fleas, so I decided it was time to start applying the treatment again. I recalled how unpleasant Zani used to find the application of the liquid to her back. I decided to do a little desensitization/counterconditioning with all the dogs to see if I could get them a little more comfortable.
I didn’t go for the whole banana, the whole classical reaction, as I explain below in “How Far to Go.” But in three short sessions I got three dogs who were pretty blasé about the process, and looked forward to their treats. I wish I had done it much earlier!
Desensitization/Counterconditioning (DS/CC) is a method wherein you replace one emotional response, in this case,”Ewwww, run!” with another one: “Yummy, fun!!”* You do this by pairing the individual aspects of the “ewwww”-invoking activity gradually with a wonderful treat. So the holding of the plastic medicine tube can come to predict good stuff just as reliably as if you were holding a dinner bowl or a food toy if you do the procedure properly. Ditto the smell of the icky medicine, and all other aspects of the process you can identify and practice.
For detailed instructions on performing DS/CC, check out this description from the ASPCA, and the CARE for Reactive Dogs site. The protocols on the CARE website are designed for dogs with fear and/or aggression issues, and they focus on exposure to people, other animals, or scary objects. But guess what: the concept is exactly the same. You can use the same process to help your dog learn to accept stinky medicine as you do to help them stop being afraid of that guy with the beard, dark glasses, and cowboy hat. Or the FedEx truck.
Also you can check out my post and movie about thresholds, which clarify some terminology and discuss the need for each step of counterconditioning to be done at an exposure level that is non-aversive to the animal.
There are two different procedures that are both referred to as counterconditioning. One is classical or Pavlovian counterconditioning, where the behavior of the subject animal is irrelevant. You are building an association between one stimulus and another, like Pavlov’s bell that predicted food. The other procedure is operant counterconditioning, where the animal is asked to perform a certain behavior while in the presence of a formerly aversive stimulus. The behavior is usually one that tends to elicit an incompatible state of mind, such as relaxing on a mat or a behavior that the dog finds especially fun.
What I usually do, and what you will see in the movie, is pure classical conditioning. Zani is not required to do any particular behavior. She is just learning the pairing of various handling actions with great treats. She does lie down for a lot of it, but that is not required.
A Proposed Step by Step Protocol for Topical Meds Application
I have never seen a protocol for DS/CC presented for this particular husbandry task, so I made one, and made a movie of it.
Here’s how I went about it.
What’s Unpleasant About Getting the Treatment?
First I had to figure out what I would need to address. Here are some of the things my dogs didn’t like about getting their topical flea treatment applied.
- They sometimes had to be restrained.
- The medicine smelled very unpleasant.
- I had to reach over and touch them on their back with a tube or syringe.
- The touch had a few seconds’ duration.
- The sensation of the liquid flowing onto their back was probably pretty weird.
Even though there was apparently no pain involved, it was a moderately unpleasant process.
Supplies for the Conditioning and Application
What did I need?
- Clean eyedropper or a syringe without the needle
- Used flea treatment applicator tube (for the medicinal smell)
- Water-filled eyedropper or syringe
- Actual flea treatment applicator, or the liquid in a syringe
- High value treats: meat, cheese, liver or tuna brownies, dehydrated raw meat, etc.
- Washable or disposable towel
Setup and Position
What would be the optimal setup? I took my dogs (one at a time) to a comfortable area. They could take any position, and could leave if they wanted to. That would simply be a message to me that my treats were not good enough and/or I was proceeding too fast. I would need to adjust accordingly.
Sitting is the least desirable position, since if the treatment is applied it will run straight down the dog’s back, but it is probably OK for most small dogs since the amount of liquid is less. Once my dogs realized that the actions I was performing predicted treats, they stuck around and got comfortable. Either standing or lying down work fine for the actual application of the medicine for most dogs, but I didn’t worry about that during the initial conditioning. The focus is entirely the dog’s comfort level, not requiring a particular behavior.
The Steps of the Process
Here are the steps I chose for my dogs, written out as instructions. You may be able to skip some of the steps, or you may need to further split them out into smaller increments. Let your knowledge of your dog and her response to each activity be your guides.
Perform desensitization/counterconditioning for each of the following steps as follows:
Reach over dog’s back with your hand, treat. Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this. *
- Reach over and touch dog’s back with your fingers, treat. Repeat the touch/treat as in the previous step.
- Put the used applicator tube close enough for your dog to get a whiff, treat. Do not let your dog lick or mouth it. Also, you don’t need to wait for an obvious sniff. You don’t want to teach an operant behavior. She’ll get the smell if you just wave it by her face. Repeat the presentation/treat.
- Show your dog the clean eyedropper or syringe without the needle before you start. Reach over and touch dog’s back with it, then treat. With big dogs, practice touching between their shoulder blades and also a place farther down their back, if included in the instructions for the treatment. Repeat the touch/treat.
- Repeat Step 4, adding duration with the eyedropper in contact with the dog’s back, then treat. Repeat the touch-hold/treat.
- Return to Step 3 for a few repetitions, letting your dog sniff the used applicator. Then use it to touch your dog’s back as you did with the eyedropper as in Steps 4 and 5, and treat. Repeat the touch/treat, then the touch-hold/treat.
- Switch back to the clean eye dropper. Put some water in it. Repeat the duration touch to the back but this time squeeze out some liquid, then treat. This will likely surprise your dog. Be ready to start out with a very small amount. Take your time with this step as you build up to the approximate amount of liquid you will need to apply. Repeat the liquid application/treat. (Don’t do too many repetitions of this at once since your dog will get wet! But you may need to do a lot of short sessions since this is probably the single most novel experience for the dog. You also may need to back up to Step 5 a few times.)
- It’s show time! Clear the area of food bowls and anything that you don’t want to get droplets of medication on (your dog will shake at some point). Get the actual medication in the correct dosage. Offer it to your dog to sniff, give a treat. Apply the medication to her back according to instructions, treat. Treat a few more times if you like, especially if you think the liquid causes discomfort.
- Your dog will eventually shake off, so keep her in the area of the house/yard where that is OK. Keep your treats covered. Hang around with the towel and you can hold it next to/above your dog to limit the shower of medicine.
You may need additional steps to get your dog comfortable. For instance, if you use latex gloves on your hands, you will need a step for the dog to smell them, and you may need to spend more time desensitizing her to the hand touch. Also, you may note that I didn’t work on the restraint part. After I worked on the other stuff my dogs didn’t need to be restrained.
What if it Stings?
As far as I can tell, the topical flea treatment does not hurt my dogs. But I have heard that it is painful for some dogs and can remain that way for quite a while. If that is the case for your dogs, when you give them the actual treatment it might be a good time to hand feed them a meal. Also in that case, periodic maintenance treatments with plain water in the applicator would be helpful so that the application doesn’t predict a long-term discomfort every time.
Tips for Successful DS/CC
The key to successful DS/CC is making the particular action predict the goodie, and making sure that prediction doesn’t attach to anything else.
- Don’t get in a rhythm of touch, treat, touch, treat. Wait varying amounts of time in between repetitions. This is harder than it sounds. Humans don’t choose random intervals well. If you need to, write out a series of random numbers (within reasonable boundaries) before you start. Silently count out the seconds between reps using the random numbers.
- Always treat just after the action, but not simultaneously. Don’t move that treat hand until you have performed the action, or it is well underway if it is a duration procedure.
- Do use a unique treat that they don’t get any other time, at least during the initial conditioning. Make it a good size. Fewer reps with a spectacular treat are usually better than lots of reps with even a very good treat.
- Do change up everything else. Sometimes use a treat bag, sometimes put treats in your pocket, sometimes have them in a bowl on the floor if your dogs can work with that. Do sessions at different times of day. Use different locations. Wear a hat. Skip a day or two. Do a stealth, unexpected action once in a while. When they are least expecting it, whip out the eyedropper, touch their back, give the awesome treat. (In the video, I recorded all of the sessions in the same location, but that was to simplify the filming.)
- Demonstrate that some common actions do not predict treats. Move your treat hand, but don’t give a treat. Rattle the treat bag, but don’t give a treat.
- Avoid the temptation to start a repetition every time your dog gives you eye contact or does something else that is charming. Stay strong and be random! You can probably see me responding to Zani sometimes in the movie. It’s a real challenge not to respond to the dog’s behavior.
- Don’t reverse the conditioning by reaching toward or even looking at the treat before performing the action.
- Practice without the dog first if you need to.
The movie doesn’t show the gradual change in Zani’s attitude to the handling steps; that would be a bit longer! My focus is to show how to break down the handling, and hopefully to show a dog who is more than just tolerant of the different activities. But you can see that she is not pulling away or trying to leave. If at any time I had seen signs of discomfort, it would’ve been time to go to an easier step.
How Far to Go
In Step 1 above, I wrote, “Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this.” You can decide ahead of time, or as you go along, how far you want to take the conditioning. Do you hope for the dog to be tolerant, neutral, or delighted?
If it were a perfect world and you had infinite time, it would be great to condition your dog so strongly that she started wagging her tail at the scent of the flea treatment and drooling when you got out the applicator. But most of us have bigger fish to fry. I have a formerly feral dog who still gets weekly conditioning for working in close proximity to unfamiliar humans. Another dog is sound sensitive to high frequency beeps and chirps, a third to thunderstorms and delivery trucks. I’m working on these and also with all three dogs on foot handling and nail trimming. All of these issues affect their quality of life to a much greater degree than getting medicine put on their backs at most once a month.
So I didn’t go for the full-bore, Pavlovian reaction on this one. I aimed for a neutral response, but I actually got more than that, even before doing all the steps as many times as I planned. You can see in the movie that Zani is having a pretty good time, and looking anticipatory when I perform some of the actions.
Since the treatment is needed rarely, I’ll do a few more sessions now and then, and will probably do a refresher first when I need to treat them again.
I hope anyone who tries this will let me know the outcome. Also be sure and comment if you have any more tips about the process. Have you had to split things down into finer steps when working on handling?
*We can’t directly perceive the dogs’ actual emotions, of course. But we can discern the change in their response through their behavior.
- The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
- Punishment is not a Feeling
- Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
- What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?