eileenanddogs

Category: Classical conditioning

See My Successes; See My Failures

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 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.

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. 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:

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.

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.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

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 miss the closeness of my little Cricket
I miss the closeness of my little Cricket

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 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.

YouTube

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Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

tan puppy on a brick walk. She is leaning back and down, and her tail is tucked and her ears are back
Clara the Wild Puppy

When I started this blog, I assumed that I would write a lot about Clara’s training. Clara burst into my life as a 10 week old feral puppy [see note at bottom about feral dogs], and her socialization window was in the process of closing by the time she came to me.

I slipped in that window before it shut and was fully accepted and trusted. But she growled at all other humans, even at that young age. In general, she related to them as a wild animal would, with huge wariness of any movement on their part and no tolerance for their proximity.

I have been working with a wonderful trainer and friend, Lisa, since those early days, playing catch-up on Clara’s socialization.

Contrary to my assumption about the blog, though, I have actually written very little about what we have done, and I have taken almost no videos of that work.

Tan dog with a black muzzle and tail wearing a pink harness. She is lying down and looking up at her handler with a pleased look and relaxed open mouth. Her tail is wagging, clearly even in the still.
Clara on the sidewalk at the mall

Our sessions took all of my awareness to do the job well. Because Clara’s socialization window had closed, we used the technique of desensitization and counterconditioning to address her fears and change her emotional response to humans to a positive one.

This is a tall order with a a dog with a lot of the habits of a wild animal.  Both my trainer and I had to be very vigilant to always keep Clara in the zone where she was happy and comfortable, but getting graduated exposure to humans and our world. This was new to me and difficult. The careful work demanded that we protect her from sudden environmental changes and overly interested humans. It took an immense amount of concentration, and I was often exhausted afterwards. Wielding a camera would have been out of the question.

Not to mention that even with all that effort going into it, video of the actual socialization would generally have been completely undramatic. When things went as they should,  it just looked like a dog hanging out or strolling around, seeing people from various distances, and getting a lot of food. That is what desensitization and counterconditioning look like when the dog is under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The dog can perceive the trigger (the potentially scary thing, in this case, a human) but at a distance or a presentation that in some other way is diluted such that it isn’t scary.

If the dog is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, she will likely look and act uptight in various ways. And if she approaches her threshold for reactive behavior, her fear will become obvious. Our goal was generally to keep her below both of these thresholds, in a space where she was happy and comfortable.

I do so wish that I had video documentation of how far we’ve come. What with all the videos I have shown with her looking like a normal dog in her interactions with me, I know that you readers out there have a very incomplete picture of Clara.

So I dug up some photos. I have never, ever deliberately set Clara up to react, but I do have this set of video stills from the one time ever she was badly scared in my home. Sorry they are mostly blurry. She was on the move.

There, she looks a little more “wild” in those photos, doesn’t she? I’m rather proud that I don’t have any more accidental footage of her reacting, because those reactions were hair-trigger and very easy to provoke. But one of our goals was to keep them from happening and we did very well. Credit goes to my teacher for that.

The Steps To Get There

Here are some of the many gradual steps it took to get Clara to her current comfort level, both outdoors at the shopping center, and inside one store with some kind help from friends.

Many people reported that my post that delineated a desensitization/counterconditioning plan of graduated exposure to crawdads was very helpful to them in understanding the exposure process in DS/CC. You can look at the following lists as a typical “dog version” of such a list. Humans were Clara’s crawdads (actually quite a bit worse than crawdads are for me)!

Note: These lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. Every dog and situation is going to call for different actions.

List of Graduated Activities Out and About At the Shopping Center

  • We walked around the parking lot on the periphery of the shopping center. Clara got very high value treats (canned salmon dog food in a tube) at the sight of any human.
  • Clara practiced relaxing on a mat in the parking lot.
  • We ventured into the ends and quiet areas of the (outdoor) mall. Clara’s comfortable distance from humans was about 60 feet at the beginning. Farther if they were in groups or included strollers, wheelchairs, children, or people clothed in an out of the ordinary manner. It was a big deal if she had 5 or 6 sightings in an hour.
  • We sat on a bench in a quiet courtyard playing open bar/closed bar (DS/CC).
  • We worked all of these activities very VERY gradually to closer proximity to humans.
  • Simultaneously we started training some operant behaviors when she was well within her comfort zone. Rather than looking at strangers, looking at me, looking at strangers, looking at me, we taught her to take a look, then give me some more extended eye contact. Not forever, but enough duration to prevent the back and forth thing. Later we added a default down. For about a year, this was her go-to behavior when she saw humans. (It’s hardly necessary anymore.)
  • We started hanging out in busier parts of the shopping center, for instance sitting on a bench outside the enclosed area of an outdoor restaurant watching the people (fenced in people!).
  • We practiced passing people on the sidewalk (still doing classical conditioning).
  • We faded the classical conditioning as she chose other activities she enjoyed, such as sniffing after a person had walked by or exploring.

We also worked on an explicit relax behavior for when there was little going on, for which I reinforced her for putting her head down and relaxing in other ways.

List of Graduated Activities at the Gourmet Dog Treat Store

We also spent time during most sessions working on going into a particular store. This work was going on simultaneously to the outdoor work. Clara and I would first wait about 50 feet away while our trainer went to the store to determine whether the “coast was clear.” We were in a place where we could retreat another 50 feet if I saw that the situation might get too intense. Then we embarked on the following steps.

  • Going to the front door of a dog treat store when there were no people nearby (none!) and getting a cupcake that the owner had placed outside the door for her
  • Standing a little ways back from the front door as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Standing at the front door of the store as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Taking the cupcake from the hand of the store owner as she stuck it out the door (Note: being fed by strangers is not a necessary or recommended step for many dogs, and especially not too early in the process.)
  • Coming into the front of the store for the cupcake, then leaving
  • Coming farther into the store. Getting a cupcake and also exploring.
  • Starting to get cupcakes cut up in pieces (for more iterations and more extended contact), from someone in the store.
  • Spending more time in the store; but retreating to a back room before Clara got uncomfortable if customers came in.
  • Classically conditioning being “approached” by employees (soft body language from the humans, no eye contact).
  • Playing with a toy in the store.
  • Matting in the back of the store (rather than retreating to the back room) when some customers came in. We had to make a snap judgment about people as they came in. Safe or not safe?
  • Playing targeting and petting games with the employees as she got her cupcake.
  • Strolling around the store on her own.

Results

So, those were the steps. What does it look like today?

Earlier in 2014 we hit a milestone in our socialization work. In May 2014,  we were able to start walking freely anywhere in the shopping center. We could walk right by people. They could walk straight at us. Clara  associated their approach with good things, but had gone beyond that. It was more like she started taking them for granted in the ways that socialized dogs might. I stopped giving her food every time we saw one.

I think what made me “get it” that the picture had changed for her was that she actually got less centered on me and started really enjoying the environment. One of her biggest pleasures became checking the pee-mail in the shopping center, with or without a dog buddy. I want to emphasize that this was not stress sniffing. It was sniffing with a purpose; she was happily following scent wherever it took her.

I have put together most of the video footage I have of her socialization process up to this point into a movie. As I mentioned above, there is very very little from the early days; what you will see is practically all I have.

Also,  the camera work is poor. It’s not easy to film a dog while holding a leash and having treats at the ready, particularly in the bright sun where you can’t even see what you have in the frame. I’ve edited out most of the parts where I didn’t even have her in the picture. (I finally realized that this was a situation in which shooting vertically made more sense. I was more likely to be able to get most of the dog and some of her environment!)

Hopefully, the footage gives a tiny window into the results (if not the process) of DS/CC. Once more, credit goes to my teacher. I would not have had the skill on my own to go slowly enough, read the situation well enough, or decide what activities to try next.

If the lack of loose leash walking raises questions in your mind, check out my post When Is It OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara at the Mall: The Movie 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Limitations

You can see what a good time she is having in the video. What is not as apparent are the limitations on the situation. In the interest of transparency, here are some of them.

  • Her comfort level is partly specific to that particular shopping mall, although we recently started going to new locations and she has done great. It has been amazing to watch the classical conditioning generalize to other situations and locations.
  • She is more comfortable when our trainer is there.
  • She is more comfortable when a dog friend is there.
  • She is very curious about people, but she still may be bothered by some assertive (rude) behavior from humans: walking straight at her, locking eyes, saying “Oh, how sweet.”
  • We are starting to work on exposure to leashed dogs. She is not particularly inclined to dog reactivity, but she has almost zero experience meeting leashed dogs because we previously had to completely avoid the humans on the other end of the leash.

There are always more challenges, but I now have a dog whom I can take places and have her be very comfortable. More so than many non-feral animals, since she has had so much experience with such a variety of people and situations.

Joy

The last  few months have been among the most exciting in my dog training life. To see Clara walking down a crowded sidewalk, tail wagging, following whatever most interests her, is purely joyful. As it also was recently when we were on a walk in the country and solitary man popped up from over a hill ahead, approached, and stopped to talk to us for a few minutes. Clara stayed relaxed as he approached (his sudden appearance and approach would have have been startling to many dogs), watched him and wagged as he talked to us, and finally lay down on the pavement beside me until we were finished talking. Priceless. I hope you can enjoy this with me.

Related Posts:

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* A reader has suggested that a warning about feral dogs and puppies would be appropriate, and I agree. I have never mentioned this. It is a dangerous undertaking to capture and take in a wild dog. There is a bite risk from adult dogs, and a large risk of transmittable diseases, including rabies, from puppies. The risks are to both humans and other dogs in the household.

I do not recommend that an individual take these risks. I was ignorant, and my dogs and I were very lucky.

You Can’t Cure MY Fear By Shoving Cookies at Me!

You Can’t Cure MY Fear By Shoving Cookies at Me!

I think it’s so interesting when someone says that.

Every so often I hear or read a confident claim from someone saying that desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) wouldn’t work on them.  They seem offended at the very idea that food would help them overcome their fear. The nerve of anyone to even mention it!

Actually, I can relate just a little. Maybe the idea is a tiny bit threatening. So many of us hold our individuality near and dear.  Americans especially, I suspect, are taught (conditioned, hah!) to view conditioning as some kind of mechanistic insult to our personhood. It evokes scary thoughts of self-serving mind control as in Brave New World.

But could any of us really be immune from associative learning and respondent conditioning? Do the processes of learning apply to us or not? Are we really such exceptional super-humans that we know in advance that a method that operates in a fairly predictable psychological and physiological manner just….won’t?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Shoving Cookies

a handful of vanilla sandwich cookies

To start with, the phrase about “shoving cookies” signals either a basic misunderstanding or a deliberate misrepresentation of the process of counterconditioning/desensitization. The claim usually goes something like this:

You could shove all the cookies at me you want but it wouldn’t make me feel any better if I were trapped in a room full of [spiders, clowns, snakes, etc.]

I could end the post right here and just say that’s a straw man argument, because it is. But I’m interested in what’s behind it, so I’ll keep going.

Desensitization consists of exposing a subject to the thing they fear in graded exposures, starting with a form that is dilute and nonthreatening, and working up to full exposure to the scary thing. Counterconditioning consists of changing an emotional response (usually from fear to neutrality or to a positive response), by pairing the trigger of the undesired response with something that evokes desired emotional response. Combining these two methods creates a non-threatening but very effective way to alter phobic fear responses.

So of course if the process were started with a full-blown exposure to the scary thing, those cookies probably wouldn’t do much. Cookies wouldn’t help a person who is already scared out of their wits. However, that scenario is not DS/CC. The desensitization component ensures that we never start at such an over-the-top exposure.

What’s This About Starting with a Low-Grade Exposure?

Performing desensitization/counterconditioning when addressing fears ensures that we start with a low intensity, manageable form of the scary stimulus. This is done for at least two reasons. One is ethics, and the other is efficacy. I have discussed the ethics issue in my publications on thresholds. Since we can’t explain to animals what we are doing or get their “buy-in,” there are issues of consent that are not present with humans. It is more ethical to start with a non-traumatic exposure to the scary thing.

But the second reason, efficacy, applies to humans as well as other animals, and this is why the quote above about creepy things vs. cookies doesn’t cut it. We start with a tiny, controlled exposure to the scary thing precisely so that the emotional reaction to it doesn’t overpower the positive response to the pleasant stimulus we will use for our counterconditioning.

The anxiety-producing stimulus must be presented at a low enough level that the parasympathetic nervous system response to food (or specifically for humans, the practice of trained relaxation or other internal technique) is stronger than that of the sympathetic nervous system’s fear response. (See Behavior Therapy Techniques: A Guide to the Treatment of Neuroses, by Joseph Wolpe.)

Pavlov’s Work as an Example

Let’s compare classical conditioning, which doesn’t usually necessitate desensitization, and counterconditioning, which usually does. We can use Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs as a starting point.

Pavlov’s dogs learned via respondent conditioning to salivate when a sound, probably a bell, immediately preceded the delivery of food. They most likely did not have any negative association with the bell to begin with; it was probably a neutral stimulus. Because of the bell being paired as a temporal precursor to food, the dogs’ physiological response to food (including salivation and other internal preparation of the GI system) transferred to the sound of the bell. This straightforward classical pairing changed the dogs’ simple auditory response to the bell to an appetitive one, apparently without a hitch.

But what if there had been a dog who was deathly afraid of the sound of a bell beforehand? When the bell rang, the dog’s sympathetic nervous system would have kicked in, with a cascade of biochemicals and physiological responses. Just like for the person in the room full of spiders, snakes, or clowns, that situation would have provided a strong competing response that would inhibit the ability to relax or respond to even the yummiest food.

Depending on the order of events, the dog could even get reverse conditioned, and the fear triggered by the bell could get associated with the food. Likewise, the person in the room full of spiders being showered with cookies may not want a cookie again for a long time.

So for the bell-fearing dog and the spider-fearing person, we would use desensitization in addition to the counterconditioning. We would start with a very dilute, weak exposure to the scary thing. Then the seesaw would drop on the side of response to the conditioning stimulus being the more powerful process at work.

This is also why we use something like steak and not kibble when doing counterconditioning on dogs. We take every opportunity to get the strongest positive response possible.

So again, our people with their off-the-cuff denials are not describing DS/CC at all.

Let’s explore how DS/CC is typically done with a human.  I’ll volunteer for the thought experiment.

My Phobia: Crawdads

A reddish orange crawdad (crayfish) is in some green plants and facing the camera. Its eyes and antennae are facing straight forward. This photo could be used as a step in desensitization/counterconditioning .
A crawdad ready to get me. Also called crayfish (the formal name) and crawfish.  (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

I spent a lot of time playing in a murky creek as a kid. Crawdads creeped me out.  I was afraid of being pinched by one, underwater where I couldn’t see it. I felt like they were ugly and sneaky. And I was also really, really grossed out by the dead ones I would see sometimes. They would be in the still, shallow water, and have algae and murk on them. I would think they were alive, just lurking, until I moved the water around them and they would slowly disintegrate. Ewww!

However, crawdads are just not all that dangerous. They generally are not going hurt you very badly, especially if you leave them alone. Certainly, they are not as potentially harmful as bumblebees (which I don’t fear abnormally) or the non-poisonous snakes I had as pets. I believe I was pinched by a crawdad one time. It was completely underwhelming. I felt this little pinch on my big toe, and then it was gone.

The comparative harmlessness of crawdads makes my little phobia a perfect candidate for DS/CC. There is no ethical problem with making me comfortable around crawdads, as there would be, for example, with escaped convicts or bears.

Let’s Make a Plan

So how would we really go about addressing my irrational fear of crawdads with desensitization/counterconditioning?

First of all, we have many more options with humans than with animals (on this page is just a sampling of the many things that have worked with humans). We don’t have to use “cookies,” although we certainly could. With humans, we can often evoke a competing emotional state by using imagination/cognition or a physical activity. There are lots of things one can use.

Now, the idea of cookies (especially chocolate ones) is enticing, but what if I got full too fast? Satiation can indeed be a problem. And all that imagining or virtual reality described in the resource list sounds like more work than I feel like doing. So, my first choice for a tool to use for my own counterconditioning is that potent secondary reinforcer for humans: money!  How about if some rich person funded my DS/CC by arranging for me to be paid $50 every time I perceived a crawdad in any form, proceeding up a desensitization hierarchy? (I’m actually already thinking about how I would go around looking for crawdads.)

To do it properly I would need to establish a hierarchy of exposures, so here is what I came up with. In real life, I would do this in consultation with a knowledgeable psychotherapist, who would also monitor the sessions to gauge the exposure levels and my response.

Steps of Graded Exposure to Crawdads

Each iteration of each step will pay $50, with the option of adjustments by the supervising psychologist.

  1. Read a story in which crawdads are peripherally mentioned.
  2. Write the word “crawdad” myself on a piece of paper. Note that this might be a good first step for the people who write posts about how DS/CC couldn’t work for their fear, since they have already shown that they can write about it. In contrast, there are people with phobias so severe (emetophobes come to mind) that they can’t even stand to see the word that is associated with their phobia.
  3. View a cartoonish picture of a happy crawdad.
  4. Look at these silly crawfish guys at Mardi Gras.
  5. Play with this adorable plush crawfish. (I actually want one!)
  6. Read an educational piece about crawdads and their importance in the environment like this one (with no pictures).
  7. View a realistic still photo of a small, clean crawdad (remember the part about murk—I’m trying to avoid that).
  8. (Steps 8a, 8b, 8c, etc) View a variety of photos, gradually including bigger crawdads and murkier environments. No movement yet.
  9. Watch a video like this one that shows a small crawdad moving around in a crystal clear tank.
  10. Watch more videos, gradually increasing numbers of crawdads, movement, size, and murk.
  11. View, in person, a single crawdad in a tank, such as in the setup in Step 9.
  12. View more crawdads in tanks, raising criteria with movement, numbers, and intensity as with the photos and videos.
  13. Put my hand in a tank with a baby crawdad for it to investigate.
  14. Do the same in a tank with several babies.
  15. [I’m leaving out steps of deliberating touching juvenile or adult crawdads because going that far is not necessary for my needs and could hurt the crawdads.]
  16. Listen to the song, “Crawdad Hole.” I originally had this as an early step, since it’s a very pleasant tune, but then I actually listened to the lyrics, which include a whole bag of crawdads breaking and the crawdads were “back to back.” Oops! Imagining multiple moving crawdads was too intense for an early exposure, but is probably okay about now.
  17. Go explore a creek (something I love to do, by the way) where there are known to be crawdads, but stay on the bank.
  18. Go back to the creek and actively look for crawdads (probably won’t find any). Just for fun, the fee has just gone up and I will get $200 if I see a real crawdad in the wild.
  19. Sit by the creek with my feet dangling in the water. Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.
  20. Wade in the creek (with footwear if appropriate). Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.

I would get paid for each iteration of any one of these tasks. Under the care of the psychotherapist, I could repeat tasks, or add interim steps as needed. (In case the potency of the $50 tempted me to linger unnecessarily on a particular step, the psychotherapist would observe me for possible “fake” responses, and would be free to make alterations in the protocol accordingly.)

For the sake of thoroughness, I added more steps to the list than would probably be necessary for me. You might want to note how many steps there were before the real-life crawdad made an appearance. That is the beauty of desensitization, and why it’s really a shame that people misrepresent it.

If anybody wants to fund my project, please let me know!

Would it Work?

There’s the question. If I went through standard DS/CC of my crawdad phobia, would it work? Probably! Claiming to be exempt from this well-documented process, whether happening naturally in life or in a protocol, is what’s pretty hard to defend.

Our bodies are wired to make associations. If we didn’t build these associations, we wouldn’t have many of the pleasures in life that we do. We do have to be a bit more creative and work a bit longer if we are “rehabbing” a stimulus with negative associations rather than a neutral one. Yeah, it seems kind of silly for the sight of a crawdad to predict $50, but if it did, I bet my feelings about them would change.  And with a bit of finesse, the added pleasure from mucking about in creeks without fear–access to pleasurable activities–would kick in as I weaned off the money.

To make one comment about dogs: I have watched that exact process with my feral dog Clara, and it is thrilling. For a long time, strangers predicted spray cheese. Now they predict comfortably hanging out with her dog and human friends, being able to walk up and give interesting people a good sniff, being able to go in completely new environments and explore without worry, and of course being able to sniff good pee-mail. She actually chooses these activities rather than hanging around for the food. She is free to choose environmental reinforcers. She was formerly prevented from that by her fears.

So I bet I could go from cartoons to plush toys to photos of itty bitty cute (really?) ones all the way up to the gnarly crusty crawdads hiding in the mud. This is not some kind of faith on my part. It’s in keeping with what I have learned that science says about the process, creating a protocol that is in keeping with what we know, and personal observations that are in concert with that knowledge.

Can One Resist?

You do kind of have to wonder whether the people who are adamant that it wouldn’t work would actually cooperate. Could one actually resist counterconditioning?

Stay tuned for a future blog on trying to resist respondent conditioning. There is an interesting story in the literature. But in the meantime, let me leave with some words by Dr. William Mikulas, a behavioral psychologist and also the author of this cool book:

Counterconditioning of fear/anxiety takes place outside of cognitive control, so does not require cognitive acceptance or beliefs. But, of course, cognitive co-operation makes it much easier!!–Dr. William Mikulas, excerpt from personal email, August 2014

Coming Up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

*There are also issues of order and timing that would affect which response would “win.” We’re leaving them aside for now.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

A woman and a small black and tan hound mix are sitting on a bed. The woman is holding a syringe (no needle) against the dog's back while the dog looks at her attentively. She is performing desensitization/counterconditioning for the application of topical flea medicine

Thank you to Jennifer Titus and Debbie Jacobs for their help with the post and movie. All errors are my own and all clumsy training moments are in spite of their excellent counsel. 

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!

DS/CC

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.

A poster showing a dog, in the first pat, having a happy reaction to a piece of meat, then a neutral reaction to a bell. In the second part, the bell ringing precedes the piece of meat. In the last part, the dog has a happy reaction to the bell.
Poster credit to Sarah Pennington of Yaletown Dog Training. Used with permission. Thanks, Sarah!

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

Two syringes without needles: one full of liquid, the other empty but sitting in a bowl of water
Some of the necessary supplies

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:

  1. Don't forget the good treats!
    Don’t forget the good treats!

    Reach over dog’s back with your hand, treat. Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this. *

  2. Reach over and touch dog’s back with your fingers, treat. Repeat the touch/treat as in the previous step.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Repeat Step 4, adding duration with the eyedropper in contact with the dog’s back, then treat. Repeat the touch-hold/treat.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Link to the video for email subscribers

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.

Coming Up:

  • 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?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara pulls on leash edited

Is there actually a situation in which it’s OK for your dog to pull on leash? Oh, yes. For fearful and reactive dogs there are at least two!

  • One is when you are practicing desensitization/counterconditioning with your dog in public and can’t ask her for an operant behavior.
  • The other is later, when she is approaching something she used to be scared of with joy and enthusiasm.

Those of us who have fearful, reactive, fear-aggressive, or feral dogs and are using desensitization and counterconditioning with them out in the world are working on giving them a positive conditioned emotional response. We do this by building associations between triggers that formerly scared them and wonderful things.

Working on these associations first and foremost affects other decisions we make when we have our dog out and about.

Doing DS/CC Correctly

The guidelines for doing successful DS/CC call for great clarity. It has to be absolutely clear to the dog that the great treat exactly follows the appearance of the trigger and nothing else. Each time and every time.  We work on our timing, and on making the relationship between those two things completely salient, doing nothing to muddy up the works. The CARE for Reactive Dogs website has great instructions for the mechanics of clearly pairing the trigger with the treat under the 2nd section: CAREMethod.

In addition, our dogs’ behavior doesn’t matter. Yes, you read that right. As opposed to operant learning, which is about the consequences of behavior, respondent learning does not depend on the dogs’ actions. The pairing of the stimuli to create a new emotional response is the whole game. Of course we take great pains to keep everybody safe and make sure our dogs are under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, but if we screw up on the latter and they see the stimulus and bark or otherwise react, they still get the goodie.

How can walking on a loose leash fit into this scenario? It can’t. Not at this point. It is a trained behavior that asks a whole lot of the dog. However, it is not at all ruled out as a learned behavior after the dog has become comfortable in the world.  Many fearful dogs go on to be wonderful family pets or even competition dogs. And even those who never get completely comfortable in public situations can enjoy learning all sorts of tricks and other behaviors for enrichment and to help them fit into the human world at home better.

So I’m not saying “don’t train your dog.” Working with your dog at home is wonderfully enriching for both of you. You can include some behaviors that will help you when you are out doing a session of DS/CC. Most people pretrain some behaviors that can help them move their dog around the environment and get out of sticky situations. The important thing is not to try to train your dog during a session of desensitization/counterconditioning.

Loose Leash Walking

Loose leash walking is a great skill. It not only makes life much easier and more pleasant for the human, it is of great benefit to the dog. If your dog has been taught to walk at your side before you ever put the leash on, and proofed and taught in progressively more difficult environments, she may never run to the end of the leash and get stopped in her tracks, or experience the nagging discomfort of pressure on some part of her body when she forges ahead.

But doing leash work in progressively more difficult environments is a problem for the fearful dog. If she is still fearful, as soon as the environment holds any challenges at all, you need to be working on the pairing of stimuli to create a positive conditioned emotional response, not trying to practice a difficult behavior.

Pavlov Wins

Text box: "Holding to strict criteria for walking on a loose leash and maintaining the clarity of pairing in classical conditioning are mutually exclusive

Asking for loose leash walking, a difficult behavior, from a dog whose fears you are trying to rehabilitate, not only won’t work, it will likely set your dog’s progress back. Not only does it throw you into the world of operant learning, leaving the dog’s emotional state by the wayside, you are also diluting the purity of the pairing of two stimuli. You must have a one-to-one relationship: experience trigger, get great food. If you start giving the same food for behaviors as well, you are shooting yourself in the foot. (Some people carry two kinds of food, and use the lesser value food for working on other behaviors during “down time.” Others prefer the clarity of not using food for anything else during this period.)

The good news is that if you are consistently treating your dog at the perception of triggers, they will probably develop the operant behavior of sticking close by you anyway. You may “accidentally” make staying or walking at your side a very strong behavior. But you can’t insist on it. And it may break down when your dog gets so comfortable in the environment that she stops noticing the triggers, or chooses other delights like a good sniff of the bushes instead of the treat. But what a happy day that is!

After DS/CC

Conditioning your dog doesn’t happen all at once. She may be completely happy in several public environments, but you still need to generalize to more. If she was feral and humans are strange to her, there are still new challenges to be had even after she is largely happy among people. For instance, although my formerly feral dog Clara has gradually gotten used to people who are flamboyantly dressed, people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers, children swinging bags, workers doing noisy construction,  and many other variations among the human population, there is still the occasional challenge. Last week she got slightly worried about a woman who had a jingling ankle bracelet, just enough to decide to go the other direction.

During this period of training as well, letting the dog lead the way pays off. Clara is now at a stage where she is comfortable enough that she can explore her environment, even with people all around. She often pulls forward excitedly when we are approaching her friends or a favorite part of the shopping mall or some good pee-mail. Likewise, she can “vote with her feet” in a non-panicked way when occasionally she doesn’t like the looks of something.

Even with all her progress, it is too early to ask her to walk strictly by my side.  I need the information that her movements give me. She generally needs very little intervention from me nowadays except to put the brakes on if she is in danger of being bothersome to a stranger or getting in over her head. (She is a very curious dog.) But I still carry the high value stuff in case a new challenge arises.

I do ask for some operant behaviors, and as she gets even more comfortable, it will be possible to work on walking consistently at my side. But frankly, at this point, she is enjoying the world so much that  it gives me great joy to be led around!

Clara stops to smell the roses
Clara stops to smell the roses

What It Looks Like

This video shows Clara at a large public shopping mall where a lot of her socialization has taken place. This is a place she is comfortable, and you won’t see me doing any classical pairing with treats in the video. She can now walk happily down the sidewalks there among groups of people, even next to doors that might pop open at any time.

In the video I show her both eagerly pulling towards things she is interested in, and meandering around checking the pee-mail with me in tow.

Most of the footage was taken on an extremely hot day. We were only out for 10-15 minutes at a time, but the heat is the reason she is panting.

Even though I have to allow the leash to become taut at times, because of her speed or because I am trying to handle a camera and treats in addition to a leash, it pleases me to see that there is no reactivity caused by frustration with the leash. When she is pulling ahead, she is doing so because of excitement and enthusiasm, and that overrules everything else. She just tugs me along.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Pulling Isn’t Comfortable!

That’s right. Much of the gear we use, from flat collars to front attach harnesses, has the effect of making pulling uncomfortable.

So what do we do when we are breaking all the rules, and the dog is allowed to pull?  I used a front-attach harness in the beginning with Clara. Most people with fearful or reactive dogs in public need the control that affords. Now that Clara can do so much more in public,  I’ve gotten her a padded back-attach harness that does not discourage pulling. All dog owners can investigate different gear and see what is the most safe and comfortable for their dog.

But let me be clear: it can be unpleasant for a dog to be restrained, by whatever method. When Clara is “in the lead,” I do my best to minimize physical discomfort and frustration from gear and the “slow attached human.” See the video in the Resources section below for some great ideas on how to do that.

Stigma

If you have a fear-aggressive dog, or any dog that makes noisy displays in public, you have experience with the stigma of a “misbehaving” dog. There is immense social pressure for you to make your dog shape up. Total strangers are completely comfortable giving unwanted advice, or shaming you in public, or even trying to discipline  your dog themselves. Most want you to get tough with your dog and show your dog who is boss. (And all the time your dog is essentially crying for help.)

It can be extremely embarrassing to have a dog that is acting up. But if you have made it through that phase and your dog’s fearful displays are gone, you can certainly deal with the occasional snotty comment that comes by about your dog pulling you around. You know, like, “Are you walking your dog or is your dog walking you? Heh heh heh!” Perhaps you can come up with a clever comeback.

Clara and her buddy taking a break from shopping
Clara and her buddy in a department store display window taking a break from shopping

For me, it warms my heart to see my formerly feral dog having a great time exploring and checking out the pee-mail and pulling me around, while either ignoring the proximity of humans or actually tailing them curiously. When we started, her comfortable proximity to a single non-moving human was about 60 feet, and she was extremely sensitive to any situation where she might feel like her escape options were limited.

I think some people still have an image of a classically conditioned dog as being robotically controlled and micromanaged. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching Clara that the proximity of humans predicts great things has allowed her to get huge enjoyment out of environments that would formerly have been impossible for her to even enter. Also, from the earliest stages of the process, she was free to move around.

Isn’t Sniffing a Stress Behavior?

It can be. But with a little experience, it’s not hard to tell the difference between a stress sniff, and exploratory odor sniffing. I have a followup post about this coming soon.

Resources

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Sniffing for Joy
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks
Summer has gotten less afraid of thunder

Is it weird to write a post saying that something really shouldn’t have worked, but look, it kind of did? Is it irresponsible even? I keep pondering why I feel the need to explain all the strikes I had against me for this project. I certainly want to be responsible and not give people false hopes that if they try something they will have great success. But at the same time, I want to show something that did help my dogs.

Continue reading “What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?”

Thresholds: The Movie

Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.
Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a complete script of the video; or expand the audio (only) transcript below the video.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Threshold Movie Script

[Dogs barking]

>>EILEEN ANDERSON:

Have you ever heard a dog trainer use the term “over threshold” and wondered what it meant?

A threshold is the point or level at which something begins or changes. That’s the standard dictionary definition. But the interesting thing is that there are actually three physiological and psychological thresholds that are important when we are training our animals.

The first threshold we need to know about is the sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here’s a definition: “The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.” Have you ever heard the term, “threshold of hearing?” Right now during this slide I am playing a high frequency hum. Can you hear it? If not, it is under your threshold of hearing for that frequency. If you can hear it, it is over the threshold.

The sensory threshold is involved when our dogs are able to see, hear, or smell something new in their environment.

Another threshold is the threshold of reactivity or fear. This is the one people usually mean when they say their dog is over threshold. The most general definition of this threshold is the point at which the sympathetic nervous system responds when the animal is afraid. This causes chemical changes in the body and overt behaviors usually falling into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.

Dogs who are aggressing are generally over the threshold of fear. Here are two other examples of dogs over that threshold.

[vet clinic noises]

>>EILEEN:

She’s panting, but it’s not hot.

She’s hyper vigilant.

Trying to escape, or hide.

And trembling.

This dog is practically paralyzed with fear.

But there’s one more threshold, and it’s located behaviorally between the other two. If one threshold is where the dog sees something, and another is where the dog freaks out about it, what’s in between?

The point at which the thing becomes aversive, where the dog starts to be uncomfortable with it.  This could be called the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Here is an example of a dog in a situation where a stimulus is over the threshold of aversiveness. In other words, she is stressed about something in her environment, but so far she is holding it together.

[Neighborhood noises: siren in distance, children talking, birds, a sudden thump]

>>EILEEN:

She repeatedly licks her lips and looks behind her.

She’s responding to my cues, but she’s worried about the noises.

In my webinar on thresholds in dog training, I made diagrams of these thresholds, and discussed where each of our common training protocols falls among the thresholds. Here is a summary of those diagrams.

The black line represents distance from or intensity of the stimulus.

All three of the protocols discussed here take place over the threshold of stimulus perception, since the animal has to perceive the stimulus to learn about it.

The combination of desensitization and counterconditioning is correctly practiced under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Protocols that use negative reinforcement straddle the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The animal is exposed to the stimulus at an aversive level, and escape from the aversive level of the stimulus is used as a negative reinforcer for appropriate behaviors.

The closest proximity to the aversive stimulus may be more or less than I show here; the important point is that negative reinforcement protocols have to cross the threshold of stimulus aversiveness to work.

Flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear.

The thresholds aren’t always spaced out nicely. For example, if the threshold of perception and the threshold of aversiveness are very close together in space, a trainer using desensitization/counter conditioning would probably not use distance as the initial way to keep the stimulus non-aversive. The trainer would probably use a different form of the stimulus first. This configuration of the thresholds is probably common with wild animals.

Likewise, if the threshold of stimulus aversiveness and the threshold of fear are very close together, a negative reinforcement protocol would be very difficult to perform without risking flooding.

Finally, the thresholds move because of environmental factors, the animal’s stamina and psychological state, and of course as we train. This is what we hope will happen as we train.

For more information on thresholds, please see the links to my webinar and blog in the video description. Thanks for watching!


Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

I recently gave a webinar entitled, “Over Threshold: The Changing Definition,” for the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). The webinar is still available as a recording, and I encourage any interested folks to check it out. It is not expensive. (And thank you to everybody who already came! That was so cool to recognize some names!)

I am outlining here some basics from the webinar. The reason I created the webinar in the first place was to allay confusion in the dog community about definitions and to aid in communication. I think some straightforward definitions and a “map” will help many people and their dogs.

I argue that there are three distinct, necessary, and useful definitions of the word “threshold” in dog training. They are:

  1. Sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here is one textbook definition: The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.—Psychology, Peter Gray, 5th edition, 2007. In the webinar I go into the history, discuss types of thresholds in psychology (yes, even within the discipline there is more than one), and cite several more definitions and supporting information. There are many sensory thresholds: hearing, different aspects of vision, smell, touch, etc. One way the psych definition of absolute threshold is unfamiliar to our common use of “threshold” in training is that it is the stimulus that is above or below the threshold of the organism’s sensory capabilities. We say, “That sound is under the threshold of hearing,” not, “The dog is over its threshold of hearing.”  Organisms’ responses to sensory stimuli are often invisible to the naked eye, and the responses generally do not correlate to overt, “dramatic” behavior.
  2. Threshold in the common training sense. You can find definitions of this usage in books by Leslie McDevitt, Debbie Jacobs, Laura VanArendonk Baugh,  and more.  These definitions roughly agree. Here is Debbie Jacobs’, which is very straightforward:  The threshold is the point at which your dog can no longer deal with a trigger before reacting in a negative way (with fear or aggression).” — A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog, 2011I argue that this usage of the term generally corresponds to the response of the sympathetic nervous system: the fight/flight/freeze response or the fear response.  In this usage, it’s the dog that is said to be over threshold, not the stimulus. I also cover usages of the term “threshold” by behaviorists including Steven Lindsay, Dr. James O’Heare, and Dr. Karen Overall. They discuss dozens of sensory, physiological, and behavioral thresholds, and always specify which one they mean.
  3. Threshold of stimulus aversiveness. This threshold is the point at which an existing stimulus becomes aversive, generally because of the intensity of the exposure. I gave this threshold a name, but I didn’t invent the concept. It is necessary to locate this threshold through our dogs’  behavior when doing both desensitization/counterconditioning protocols and operant learning processes. Jean Donaldson defines it thusly: In DS/CC,  “under threshold” is: An intensity of stimulus that elicits no fear (and so the intensity of stimulus that would not function as R-)…. Not “mild fear” or “manageable fear,” it’s NO fear.–The Pitfalls of Negative Reinforcement, PPG Webinar, 2012.  Attention to this threshold is necessary also in negative reinforcement protocols that involve escape,  since the stimulus exposure must be over the threshold of aversiveness in order for escape to function as negative reinforcement.

I believe that most of the problems in discussion of thresholds in the dog training community are due to two major points of confusion: 1) Whether we’re talking about the dog or the stimulus being over threshold (confusion between Definitions #1 and #2); and 2) The fact that many of us haven’t realized there is a difference between Definitions #2 and #3.

Mapping it Out

Here is a graphic showing these three different thresholds, and where the major types of protocols for working with fearful, aggressive, or reactive dogs fall among them:

Thresholds for blog
 This graphic may be shared for educational purposes with the copyright and credits included, and I would appreciate online citations to link back to this post or the webinar page.

The combination of desensitization/counterconditioning is performed under the threshold of aversiveness, as Jean Donaldson describes. Protocols using negative reinforcement (escape/retreat from the aversive stimulus) must take place partly over the threshold of aversiveness, or else the movement away is not reinforcing. They generally go back and forth over that threshold. Finally, flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear response. In the webinar I split things out further and map six different protocols separately; I have roughly grouped them for this graphic.

I also talk about the ways that some of the thresholds move and change, through training, external events, and the emotional state of the dog. I describe how certain protocols become more difficult if two of the thresholds are very close. For instance, for wild animals the threshold of sensory perception of a stimulus and the threshold of aversiveness of that stimulus may be practically on top of each other.  I address the often-heard claim that there is no negative reinforcement happening if the dog is “under threshold.” (Which threshold?)  Also, I discuss which protocol is likely to take place closer to the stimulus—but also why the absolute distance is not a good point of comparison.

Conclusion

I will be working further on this topic, in part because of some great questions asked at the end of the webinar, so you may expect more from me about it at some point.  For now I encourage anyone who wants further information to view the webinar.

Please note that the webinar does not have information on how to perform the above-mentioned training/conditioning protocols, on reading dog body language, or other training tips. It’s not about how to train a fearful or aggressive dog.  But the feedback I have gotten from viewers is that it has clarified an area of considerable confusion and that it will help their training.

Related Posts

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Goodie or Doodie? When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On

Goodie or Doodie? When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On

Priiiiiiingggggg!

I use WordPress.com to host this blog. It has a smartphone app. The app is most useful to me for checking statistics and getting notifications.

The app has a pleasant little sound effect. You can assign it to sound as a notification when different things happen on the blog. I didn’t understand the nuances when I first got it. Continue reading “Goodie or Doodie? When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On”

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