Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

A sable dog is sitting on the grass outside, gazing up at the photographer with a calm expression
Summer reports in

Recently I published, “Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes.” This post was about my surprise that Summer started reporting to me for a treat when the big neighbor dog was around, instead of getting herself all fired up running up and down the fence.

A lot of things are coming together for Summer right now. Summer is the first dog I ever seriously trained and also my crossover dog. We have been through a lot together. But I had to put some of her training on hold when Clara came into my life. With three dogs and one of me, there is sometimes a kind of triage that goes on.[1]Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me. Clara’s issues were an emergency when she came to me, and remained that way for more than a year. While Summer is anxious and has some behavior problems, she has always been comfortable enough in her skin to get enrichment from being out in the world, and is adoptable in the case of something happening to me. That was not true for Clara. With her feral background Clara had and still has a very short list of people with whom she could be comfortable.

But Clara’s training has been coming along beautifully and I feel that I can finally breathe a little again. In the meantime, Summer has learned to come to me when the other dogs play and also when most other exciting things happen. When she comes she gets a treat, and we will usually hang out and do a little training, or she can just earn some periodic kibble for lying down quietly.

After seeing the movie in the earlier post, a reader wanted to know whether the behavior was robust enough that Summer would seek me out even when I was out of sight. That is what the movie is about, and the answer is yes. Take a look.

**NOTE** In the one of the outdoor clips, there is a moving shadow that looks like I am gesticulating with my hand. In another something comes momentarily on camera, and Summer flinches away as she comes to me. Both of those are actually Clara’s tail wagging. I have taught Clara a very strong Down cue that I use to limit her interference with the other dogs’ business, but I didn’t try to do it while wielding the camera.

Summer’s practice at self-interruption has allowed her to halt in the middle of her own barking and come find me in a different part of the house.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

How Did We Get There?

I would much have preferred working with classical counterconditioning with Summer from the beginning, especially with her fears of trucks and loud engine noises. That means pairing the appearance of a trigger with great things happening, no matter what Summer is doing. There is no behavioral requirement for the dog. Done correctly, conterconditioning can change the dog’s emotional response to a trigger, rather than just teaching them coping methods.[2]An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s … Continue reading However, the operant work has still helped Summer enormously, and the behaviors she has learned are handy in a multitude of situations, not only having to do with fear.

That’s why I am sharing here a couple of things I have taught Summer that have built her ability to self-interrupt. Even with a non-fearful dog, these things can come in very handy. Every dog, sometime in its life, is going to encounter situations that are so novel or exciting that she has a hard time keeping ahold of herself. The following two behaviors are ones that just about anybody can practice with their dog, except for with the very most fearful dogs.

1) Capture and shape attention. To start off with this, anytime your dog turns or looks in your direction, mark and treat. You can start in the house. Then if you have a yard, you can do this when your dog is calmly going about her doggy business, doing things such as sniffing around, digging, or interacting with another dog. Your dog doesn’t have to completely stop doing what she is doing and gaze at you, not at first. You are capturing mini-behaviors, and over time, shaping her attention to you. She only needs to lift her eyes, turn her head, or take a step in your direction. Anything that is closer to coming to you or looking at you than what she was doing before.

Also, it’s fine if it is “accidental.” For example, let’s say she took a step in your direction while walking around. She wasn’t really coming to you but that doesn’t matter. Capture and reinforce it often enough and it will increase. You can shape it gradually into a recall (if she is not next to you) or eye contact (if she’s right there). Reinforce all these little things and soon you will become a regular focus of her attention.

This is a basic technique of most positive reinforcement trainers and one that can pay off bigime.

2) Alternate periods of arousal with periods of relaxation.  The most common way to do this is to teach your dog to relax on a mat, then intersperse an active game with the mat work. Lots of trainers have versions of this, some with special names for the exercise. But it amounts to about the same thing: helping the dog practice moving from excitement to relaxation and back. For just two examples: Sue Ailsby has this method in the Training Levels, Level 2 Relax. Leslie McDevitt calls it the “off-switch game” in Control Unleashed. Here are a couple of video examples:

Coming Around Full Circle

I am actually doing counterconditioning now with Summer. In a way, we have been working backwards. First I taught her an alternative behavior to getting excited and barking and running around (come check in with me). She is able to do it earlier and earlier and in more and more exciting events. But I’m now going for the whole banana with her, and hope to take the “scare” out of these triggers entirely, starting with trucks.

Since I have seen that her reactivity to mail and delivery trucks has lessened quite a bit through our operant work, I am hopeful that I can take her even farther with counterconditioning. I had always felt that we couldn’t do much about it since I am not always home when the trucks go by,[3]One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great. and I can’t do a controlled exposure through desensitization. The trucks come when they will.  But I am hopeful that by being very consistent when I am home, and perhaps working a bit with recordings,[4]There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts. I can chip away a bit more at her fear.

Has anybody else gone “backwards” like this and taught an alternative behavior through positive reinforcement first, then done counterconditioning? Or does anybody want to share success stories using either method?

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1 Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me.
2 An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s fears have definitely diminished. But it is a more indirect route and not my preferred one for an anxious dog.
3 One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great.
4 There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts.

16 thoughts on “Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

  1. Before responding to your question at the end, I’ll comment on an earlier definition, where you gave one of the two common definitions of counterconditioning, which relies primarily on desensitization and can be found in Wikipedia. The other can be found in Dr. Karen Overall’s texts and elsewhere, in that an alternate and conflicting behavior is first taught, which counters the prior conditioning. Both are useful. One might think of the first type as countering the dog’s emotional state, while the other changes both that state and the behavior, as it includes a degree of desensitization.

    One of the very common issues I see with unsocialized dogs is a skills deficit, where they never learned the needed social skills. If we use your CC definition, we are reducing anxiety and hoping the dog will then, through trial and error, learn the needed skills. An approach which often works with many dogs.

    But if the dog becomes too anxious to respond to you and others in that situation, learning is more difficult. With one recent young pit who was attacking other dogs it took a week to teach an alternative behavior strongly enough. She was conflicted between interest and fear, and she learned to control distance to manage her fear, so that after 3 weeks more she had learned how to meet strange dogs safely. That was after several months of desensitization at the shelter, with no success. As for teaching behaviors in general, we know that learning is easier in a calm and unstressed environment. So teaching an alternate and later conflicting behavior first is always less stressful for all, but the easier approach may be sufficient.

    As for reinforcements always being something “great”, does that always make sense? The reward for a behavior simply has to be sufficiently reinforcing to increase the liklihood of that behavior in the future. Bumping the reward value up a level may increase interest and motivation, but only up to a point. With the dog I mentioned above, no treats were used at all, but only praise. When the new behavior was then used with strange dogs present, the result of her new behavior in the situation caused additional reinforcement from other dogs and all was well.

    Yes, with some dogs you may need a supply of hot dogs handy as they simply don’t care about lesser treats. But in most of those cases, the high value treats are only needed because the person has skipped many of the prior steps that were needed. And for that reason I may often suggest using (relatively) high value treats to people.

    Moving to anxious dogs and delivery trucks, motorcycles and skateboards, you hit practical limits for effective desensitization and that would be a longer discussion.

    1. When using the “classical” counterconditioning definition and technique, most people I know of go far beyond “hoping the dog will then, through trial and error, learn the needed skills.” We are working on behavioral skills to fill that vacuum as soon as the dog as able, and as you mention, we can do that in a less challenging environment. But it’s a good point to be made, lest I have made it appear that those things are mutually exclusive.

      Also, about “great” stuff. I’m writing here to quite a few people who are new to positive reinforcement training, and if my own experience is typical, they are much more prone to under-reinforce than over, both in quantity and quality. I went from under, to over, and to now when I hope I am better capable of judging what is necessary and sufficient. I think we are actually in agreement on this. I used the word “great” both times in the context of counterconditioning, and one generally goes for the big guns then. (I actually wrote a celebratory post when I “discovered” that my dogs would now work for kibble.)

      Agree there are limits on the desensitization. Will write about that in more depth one of these days. Thanks for the comment!

      1. On the classical definition, my emphasis was from seeing a number of dog trainers stop at that point, so some of their clients went no further if they were very new to reinforcement training. I recently tried to explain what you just now said to a dog trainer, and got a blank look in return.

        Past that, I agree with all you just said. Nicely done, as always.

  2. So I just received the Levels books by Sue Ailsby and am starting over and fresh with my dogs. But, reading your posts and wanted to ask something….we struggle with our walks because they have gotten reactive to other dogs and always chase cats and squirrels…Without jumping ahead in the Levels training what should I do as we walk? Probably like in your article, click and treat any attention on me???

    1. Hi Kriss, sorry for my delay in responding. I’ll tell you a couple of things that are in the Levels–first, do you have another way to exercise your dog rather than going for a walk? Sue suggests doing something else if possible so your dog doesn’t practice “taking you for a drag” as she calls it. Also, if you must walk your dog, can you use different gear (such as a front attach harness) than you will eventually use when you teach walking on a loose leash? If your dog is reactive, you really can’t work with him about that and work on loose leash walking at the same time. One of those things will always be sacrificed. (Check out my post called “When Is It OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?“)

      All that being said, getting your dog’s attention in any situation is great, and I’m always in favor of it. I think you do realize you are in between a rock and a hard place with your dog being reactive. But any little increment of orienting to me or letting up on the vigilance is rewardable, yes.

      1. Thank you for the reply! Actually I am working on two dogs. The same age…5 year old Lab mixes..One I have had since a puppy and the other I got as a rescue, a fresh mama dog no word on her pups, she was a “stray”. Very loving and touchable, which I wanted, since the other one prefers playing..balls, frisbee and so on. But I know I need to walk one at a time and train one at a time. Have to work on that, since I keep trying the two together deal! I will check out your post and continue through the Levels. Enjoy your blogs and all info!

        1. Thanks, Kriss! I asked a more experienced trainer about your post, and she didn’t have time to respond, but did suggest the book Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt for dealing with the types of problems you describe. I agree that it can be very helpful, and it is compatible with the Training Levels.

            1. But I am stuck on Zen – probably forever – One is a nudger, the other flops into a down…yikes, just keep moving on I guess??

            2. Kriss, are you on the Training Levels Yahoo group? Those are great questions for the group. Sue has a recommendation for the nudging in the book. As for the down–if the dog is fulfilling the criteria of staying away from the treat, it doesn’t usually matter what else they do. I think Sue says, just watch where the nose goes. They dogs winnow through over time to find out what the real criteria are. For instance, most dogs learn early on the backing away from the treat guarantees reinforcement. But when you think about it, that’s not the actual behavior. You may need them to walk right by or over something later on and leave it alone even though they are right on top of it. They can’t back away. When it comes to that, they can modify what they already know.

  3. Hi Eileen, Thanks for your wonderful blog! We have communicated on facebook and you directed me here. I am owned by 3 vizslas. One an easy as pie super dog that I got from a wonderful local breeder and 2 that are rescues and have some issues that I am working on. My question to you is this – and I’m just curious about the way different people work this out with multiple dogs. How do you separate yours when training? Are they all crate trained? I’m working on that, but one of my rescues was over-crated so hates a crate (and he’s my fearful boy) and the other rescue has some aggression issues and tends to get angry when crated. I just thought I’d ask since you have a feral and Micah (my dog with aggression issues) seems almost feral to me at times – although making great progress. Do you work with them together or separate or both? Just thought I’d ask since you seem to be doing great with a multiple dog household. I only really started to learn more about positive training with Micah (who I got at 7 months last July as a foster). I kind of didn’t pay too much attention to training before that because all I knew about was Cesar Milan type stuff and I didn’t want to do that with my dogs. But now I am working with all 3 with clicker training, etc and it is so fun. But it just seems overwhelming with 3 dogs at times. Do you feel that way with your crew and how do you handle it? For instance, Rudi is my problem barker – and barks when they are all outside when the neighbors next door let their dog out, etc. Then I’ve got 3 dogs who are going to react, want treats, etc … Thanks for any tips!!!!

    1. Hi Jodi! Nice to see you here.

      My dogs are all crate trained, but I do use other methods, too. I have some strategically placed baby gates in my house for management. That way the dogs can see me but aren’t underfoot if I need that situation. If I didn’t have those, and my dogs fussed when I was working with another, I think that would be a time I would give the ones I wasn’t working with a Kong or something else safe to chew up.

      It was a big goal for me to teach my dogs to stay on their mats while I trained another dog, and also to have individual release cues. Here is my blog about training more than one dog. It has a how-to, but there are some important prerequisites listed. A Secret for Training Two Dogs.

      Here’s the one about individual release cues, but you need to teach them to stay on a mat first! The Right Word

      I don’t know how workable this would be for you, but I first taught my other dogs not to react to barking before addressing the problem barker herself. Here’s how I did that: The Barking Recall and Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking.

      Most of these methods necessitate separating your dogs from being a little unit all the time. I would probably take the first step by giving the dogs who aren’t being trained something to do that will take about the right amount of time. Set up a kind of a round robin so everybody wins with every step.

      Maybe some more experienced trainers can chime in with suggestions for Jodi as well?

      Thanks for writing, Jodi, and good luck with your crew!

      PS My feral pup went straight into a crate her first night with me and thought it was fantastic. Was I lucky, or what???

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