See My Successes; See My Failures

I wrote in my first post that one of the things I have to offer the world is a window into my mistakes as a newbie trainer. Last week I posted an update on the smashing success of my feral dog Clara (which I can’t really take credit for; most credit goes to my teacher).

So today I’m going to show you something that didn’t work with one of my other dogs, at least not how I expected it to. I think it may be very helpful to some people, as I made a common error. I don’t enjoy these pictures and videos of my dear little Cricket showing stress signals, but perhaps publishing them can help some other people and their dogs.

Counterconditioning Failed?

This post is for all the people who “tried counterconditioning and it didn’t work.” There are myriad mistakes people make with this procedure, but mine was one of the most common.

When she was about 14, I started giving my little old dog, Cricket, a treat every time just after I picked her up. I did it for the rest of her life. Then how come she didn’t start to like being picked up? That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?

The procedure of desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) is that we pair the scary thing, called the trigger, with something the dog loves, like some meat. That’s the counterconditioning part. Whenever the dog perceives the trigger, out comes the meat. The desensitization part means that we start with a version of the trigger that isn’t scary.  That’s right. Things go much more quickly if you start with a non-scary presentation. This usually means farther away (sometimes very far) but there are other ways to dilute the intensity of an exposure, depending on what exactly is triggering the dog’s fear.

With a dog who is scared of moving cars, for instance, you could start at a large distance away from the cars. You do the pairing thing when cars come by until your dog not only isn’t bothered by cars but starts looking for them because they predict goodies. Then you would do the same thing a little closer. Lather, rinse, repeat. Alternatively, if the big problem is the movement, you could start a bit closer with one stationary car, and have a helper drive the car, at first very slowly and for very short distances, in similar controlled exposures. The more details you can tease out about the fear, the better you can aim your graduated exposures at the trigger.

The following posts have sample lists of this gradual exposure process that is involved in desensitizing to a scary or unpleasant stimulus:

Are you back? Good. So, counterconditioning can be done without these gradual desensitization exposures but it is less likely to be effective. If you leave them out, you will likely start at a point where your animal is already bothered by the trigger. Replacing feelings of fear and anxiety with a positive conditioned emotional response can sometimes be done, but it takes a lot more time and may never be effective as when desensitization is involved.

My Case Study

So, to Cricket’s problem with being picked up. Take a look at this picture. I am reaching for her. Her body language shows classic stress. She is leaning back, away from me. Her ears are way back, almost 45 degrees from normal. Her eye is rolling and you can see the white (whale eye). She is doing a huge lip lick. Look at her tight little jaw muscles, too. And she is about to raise her right paw.

Cricket's feelings about being reached for are pretty clear
Cricket’s feelings about being reached for are pretty clear

As I said above, I started giving Cricket a treat immediately after I picked her up, as soon as I had her in my arms. I was extremely consistent about it. Over time, her stress at being picked up abated **somewhat**. But it did not disappear.

Why Didn’t Counterconditioning “Work”?

The problem was that Cricket’s discomfort was not limited to the event of being picked up. You’ll see in the movie that she was visibly upset long before I touched her with my hands. You can see her stress response as I walked towards her and leaned over.  She even appeared to consider punching me with her muzzle when I finally grabbed her.

To properly countercondition a dog to being picked up, we have to use desensitization as well. We need to start with versions of the triggers that are non-aversive, plus we need to make sure we work on every aspect of the situation. If the dog is uncomfortable being approached, having a human stand close, and being leaned over and reached toward, each one of these needs to be treated with DS/CC, and all should start with a version that is not uncomfortable to the dog, that is,  under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Oops! But it Worked After All

The title of this post was actually a little tricky. My attempt at counterconditioning Cricket to being picked up didn’t work. She remained uncomfortable with being walked at directly, being leaned over, being reached at, and being picked up as long as she still had her marbles. (In truth, she stopped being bothered by these things when she had advanced dementia, but that was definitely not due to my counterconditioning attempt!)

However, something did get counterconditioned. Once again, the sequence was to walk over to her, lean down, reach out, grab her around the abdomen, and pick her up. Then I would immediately give her a treat. If I was carrying her for a while, I would give her another treat from time to time.

I counterconditioned Cricket to being held. The instant the picking up process was finished, her head would whip around to look for her treat. And she remained quite happy with being held and carried around for the rest of her life.

Full Disclosure

I did realize what the problem was well before Cricket died. I chose not to try DS/CC on the other triggers because by that time, I already had to pick her up and carry her probably a dozen times a day. One of the principles of successful DS/CC is that you do the pairing every time the action is performed; you never perform the action without the treat. Also, you work on one action at a time. That simply was not feasible. But I faithfully gave her a treat after being picked up. Her discomfort abated somewhat, and she was already anticipating her treat when she was in the air, coming up to be held.

It was a lesson learned for me though, and Zani, whom I may need to pick up a lot as she gets older, will profit from it.  We are working on it now. Another lesson for me was to start early with all husbandry behaviors!

Whenever we think the science doesn’t work as predicted, examining our own actions and techniques is a great place to start.

Anybody else have any educational failures? Man, dog training is sure like that for me. The dogs are like little maps of all my mistakes!

Related Posts and Resources:

I don’t have a “picking up a dog” movie to show the steps of desensitization and counterconditioning But you can get an idea of the first steps of a handling protocol from this movie of mine, or this movie by Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners about teaching a dog to wear a muzzle. Neither video is an exact match for how we would start out if teaching a dog to like being picked up, but you can get the idea of starting at the very beginning, rather than lumping all the steps together.

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

18 thoughts on “See My Successes; See My Failures

  1. Brilliant. Observe. Break it down. If you think you’ve broken it down into small enough steps….look again….there’s usually more. P.s I liked the rattie blog very much too!

    1. Yes! Look again! Sometimes it takes several of those “look agains,” doesn’t it? thanks for the comment!

  2. Eileen,
    Thanks, as usual, for sharing and for your excellent insight! Maybe you have an idea for me: I need to CC/DS my dog to elevators! I can obviously handle the approach and enter and door closing part, but once the “little room” starts to move, it’s hard to be incremental – and that’s obviously the part that really needs the work! I can’t figure out how to keep him under threshold! Thoughts?

    1. Leslie, I want you to know I have been thinking about your interesting problem ever since you commented. Here are my thoughts, and I’m hoping some pros will join in. You’ve got the approach and enter and door closing, and I would add also every other possible thing you can single out. If the elevator makes a sound, can you record it and do classical conditioning at home? I would do this a lot, since that happens simultaneously to the elevator moving. (Including that some elevators “ding” each time they pass a floor. Would’t it be great if the bell predicted something great? Where have I heard that before….) Also, if you have enough control that you know you can take your dog in without the elevator being called elsewhere, another thing to practice is the sudden appearance of people when the doors open. (I have a dog who is fine with the movement of the elevator, but is very wigged out by people suddenly appearing when the doors open.) So you could have friends or an obedient stranger help you with that part, while keeping the elevator on the same floor.

      For the actual movement, the only thing I have come up is not very similar but might possibly be handy: a wobble board like people use in agility. Maybe some others can join in about whether that is a good idea or not, or perhaps have a better idea.

      But I would continue on as you are doing and attach a classical response to every possible aspect before you get the elevator to move, and then move only one floor if possible. And use something very high value you can feed the whole time the elevator is moving: jar of baby food, something in a food tube, or spray cheese if that is high value for your dog. And I am guessing that moving up is less scary than moving down, but whichever one you think is less scary for your dog, start with that.

      Only you know how much of this is feasible; I hope some is helpful. It is possible to get a positive conditioned emotional response with the dog somewhat over threshold, but everything you can think of to do ahead of time will be that much more help.

      Anybody else have ideas?

      1. Thanks for your suggestions, Eileen. Now the trick is to find an elevator that’s not too busy, where I can have control of when it comes and goes, and whether or not it comes and goes where I can also take my dog!! I’m determined to make this happen for Luke, and I just read your post on Food Tubes, which I think will be an excellent tool to help out. Thank you for all the excellent posts and advice and sharing. You are an amazing person!!

        1. Well gosh, thanks. The elevator thing is a real challenge. Good luck, and I’d love to hear how it goes!

    1. I had the same experience – I think many small dogs are taught to hate being picked up by people swooping on them willy nilly! I taught my second Papillon a May I pick you up? signal – a hand cupped ready to slip under her chest. As far as possible, I let her decide whether she wants to be lifted or not, and I always start the lift by running my hand down her side, rather like letting a very small horse know what is happening. If she is ready, she lifts a leg and does a small hop to help the lift.

      My poodle will leap into arms with minimal encouragement, but hates being loomed over, so needs a completely different approach!

  3. Hi. This was a very relevant post for me. My year and a half old lab mix, Duke, doesn’t like to be picked up. He’s about 30 kg and my upper body strength was particularly low last year (around the time he reached his adult weight) and I fumbled with heaving him up into my arms. I didn’t drop him but he slowly grew to fear my own uncertainty. Eventually I realized that I didn’t have to rely on strength alone and that holding him in a particular way, with my arms spread to support his weight (my forearm inserted between his front legs and supporting his entire chest) was a far more secure way of doing it. It’s grown a lot easier to pick him up now and I never fumble.
    But the fear remains. He sits or lies down to stop me from putting my right arm under his belly or turns about so I can’t position my arms right. His tension the entire time is obvious. The trouble is that I need both arms to hold him and can’t treat him while holding him up any way. A helper isn’t available most of the times I need to pick him up. And as you rightly pointed out even if I could treat him after he was in my arms, that wouldn’t solve his anxiety before the fact.
    Any advise would be welcome, really. =) Thanks.

    1. Trojanwalls, I’m getting to your comment, and also have asked for some help from pro trainers.

  4. Great comments so far! I will catch up with responses tonight or tomorrow; in the meantime if you all want to help each other, feel free! I know we have some folks here who are very well versed in DS/CC. I will keep publishing comments throughout the day.

  5. we can call ourselves lucky to be able to work with such forgiving creatures…letting us make such mistakes and still wag their tails….

  6. I think I did this with lunging at things on the leash – she’d lunge and then look back at me excitedly for her treat. Broke my heart! Figured out what was going on though and she’s getting better now…

  7. This video has given me so much to watch for and think about. Many thanks. My Nora weighs 12lbs and generally dislikes being picked up. Did you post a follow-up video about small dogs? I see how difficult it would be to countercondition each response. Do you have any suggestions about how simplify counterconditioning when there are multiple stressors?

    1. Hi Joanne,

      I still haven’t published my video on the whole process of picking up a small dog. Zani and I do work on it from time to time. The only hint I have about doing DS/CC when there are multiple stressors is to try to do them separately, starting with the ones that you really can tease out and separate. For instance, if a dog is bothered by the sound and motion of a car, work on the sound first, since you can keep the car motionless and rev the engine. You can’t do the opposite–work on the motion first, since the car will always make some noise. Not all situations are easily separated though. I’s definitely a challenge when there are a lot.

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