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 beginner 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 an extremely 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.
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. How come she didn’t start liking being picked up? That’s how it works, right?
The concept 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. The procedure progresses 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 the 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:
- You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies at Me! (DS/CC of human with a phobia)
- Socializing a Former Feral Dog (DS/CC of dog with fear of humans)
- Stinky Stuff on my Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment (DS/CC for approaching and doing husbandry tasks to a dog)
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 out 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.
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.
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 was faithful with her 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 (we are working on it now), will profit from it. Another lesson for me was 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 will be making a movie in the future on the specific topic of counterconditioning a dog to being picked up. In the meantime 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.
- For more resources on desensitization/counterconditioning, see my DS/CC resource page.
- Also here is a direct link to my Pinterest board that has only videos of the process or result of well done DS/CC. Videos on Desensitization and Counterconditioning