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Category: Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Using Sound Apps for Desensitization & Counterconditioning for Dogs

Using Sound Apps for Desensitization & Counterconditioning for Dogs

“What’s that noise and where’s it coming from?” Dogs’ hearing abilities are different from ours—a fact that is frequently and strangely unconsidered in the development of many audio products for dogs.

Dog trainers often recommend smartphone apps and YouTube videos for desensitizing and counterconditioning dogs who are afraid of specific noises. There are many apps designed for this, and they typically have recordings of a variety of sounds. However, the physics of sound production and the limitations of consumer audio present large problems for such use, problems substantial enough to prevent the success of many (most?) conditioning attempts.

This post describes the pitfalls of using sound apps and other recordings for this purpose. It maps out a strategy for sound desensitization that avoids most of the problems.

Why Many Audio Conditioning Products Fail

If quizzed, most people would likely guess that dogs have hearing abilities that are vastly superior to ours. In fact, it’s a mixed bag.

Humans can hear slightly lower frequencies than dogs can (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). We can also locate sounds quite a bit better than they can (Mills, 1958), (Fay and Wilber, 1989, p. 519). But dogs are the big winners in the high frequency range—they can hear tones over about twice the frequency range that humans can (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166), (Heffner, 1983). Also, dogs can also hear sounds at a much lower volume level than humans can over most of our common audible range (Lipman & Grassi, 1942).

Yet the superior aspects of dogs’ hearing are rarely considered when we decide to use sound recordings in conditioning.

There are four major acoustical problems with using human sound devices to condition dogs.

  • The inability of smartphones to generate low frequencies, such as those present in thunder
  • The limited ability of even the best home audio systems to generate these low frequencies in high fidelity
  • The upper limit of the frequencies generated on all consumer audio
  • The effects of audio file compression on the fidelity of digital sound

There are other problems when using apps that can make or break attempts to positively condition a dog to sound.

  • Lack of functional assessment before attempting conditioning
  • The length of the sound samples used for conditioning
  • The assumption that lower volume always creates a lower intensity (less scary) stimulus

Some, but not all of the above problems can be addressed with do-it-yourself work and a good plan. But sound conditioning of dogs using recordings will always have some substantial limitations that can affect success.

What Is the Frequency?

Frequency is the aspect of sound that relates to the cycles of the sound waves per second. Cycles per second is expressed in units of hertz (Hz). I’ll refer a lot to low and high frequencies because they pose different challenges.

To help with the concept of frequency, think of a piano keyboard with the low notes on the left and the high notes on the right. The low notes have lower frequencies and the high notes have higher frequencies. Keep in mind that sound frequency goes much higher than the highest notes on a piano!

Common sounds with low frequencies include thunder, large fireworks demonstrations, industrial equipment, the crashing of ocean waves, the rumble of trains and aircraft, and large explosions. Common sounds with high frequencies include most birdsong, the squeaking of hinges, Dremels and other high-speed drills, referees’ whistles, and most digital beeps.

Motorized machinery generates sound frequencies that correspond to the rotation of the motor. These frequencies can be high like the dentist’s drill or low like aircraft. Motors can also vary in speed. For instance, when you hear a motorcycle accelerating, the frequency of the sound rises as the engine speeds up.

Humans can hear in a range of 20–20,000 Hz (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166), and dogs can hear in a range of 67–45,000 Hz (Heffner, 1983).

Some sounds don’t have a detectable pitch, meaning they include such a large number of frequencies that you can’t pick anything out and hum it. These are called broadband sounds. A clicker generates a broadband sound.

Missing Low Frequencies

…the better to hear you with!

Our human brains are great at filling in blanks in information and taking shortcuts. This makes it hard for us to realize what a bad job our handheld devices do in generating low-frequency sounds. Our dogs undoubtedly know, though.

Many people purchase sound apps in order to try to condition their dogs to thunder. The frequency range for rumbles of thunder is 5–220 Hz (Holmes, 1971). Handheld devices can’t properly generate those low frequencies. They generally have a functional lower output limit of about 400–500 Hertz. If you play a recording of thunder (or a jet engine, or ocean waves) on a handheld, the most significant part of the sound will be played at a vanishingly low volume or be entirely missing.

When performing desensitization, we aim to start with a version of the sound that doesn’t scare the dog, so using a handheld could possibly be a starting point. But you would have to fill in the missing low frequency sounds gradually as part of the desensitization process, which would mean using a different device after the first couple exposures anyway.

Home sound systems, including some Bluetooth speakers, can do a better job. They usually generate frequencies down to 60 Hz. This is roughly the lower limit of dogs’ hearing, so it’s a good match. But even the best home system can’t approach the power and volume of actual thunder, and the sound is located inside your home instead of outside. Some dogs do not appear to connect recordings of thunder on even excellent sound equipment to the real thing, or they will respond to recordings with a lesser reaction (Dreschel & Granger, 2005).

In one study of thunder phobic dogs, the researchers brought their own professional quality sound system to each dog owner’s home; great mention is made that the sound system was large (Dreschel & Granger, 2005). This bulk indicates that they were serious about being able to generate low frequencies. In general, the larger the speakers, the better they are at generating low frequencies. The difference today is smaller than it was 15 years ago, however. Sound systems have improved a lot in recent years.

Some of the sound apps for dog training now instruct you to send the sound to a home sound system rather than using the speaker in the handheld. This is excellent advice for any sound. But the bottom line is that you will not always be able to emulate low frequencies well enough to function as desensitization for some dogs.

This image compares the magnitude of a recording of a roll of thunder played on an iPhone 7 vs. a home sound system (Altec Lansing speakers). The Blue Yeti microphone I used to capture the sound for analysis was the same distance from the speaker in each case.

This plot shows that the smartphone speakers don’t generate low frequency sounds effectively

The part of the plot in the oval is the approximate range of the rumbles of thunder. The navy blue line represents the sound generated by the smartphone in those frequencies. The red line was from the Altec Lansing home speakers. The speakers generate sound down to 60 Hz effectively (as per their specifications).

In contrast, the output of the phone is virtually inaudible below 300 Hz. Sounds below about 44 Hz in that frequency range are generally indistinguishable from indoor ambient sound.

Missing High Frequencies

All consumer audio equipment is designed for human ears. Our handhelds, computers, TVs, and sound systems put out sound only up to the frequency of 22,000 Hz. Humans can’t hear higher frequencies than that. But dogs can hear up to about 40,000 Hz. So again, the recordings are not high fidelity for dogs.

This is different from the thunder situation. The low frequencies of thunder are present in high quality recordings, but our equipment can’t perfectly generate them. With high frequencies, it’s not only a limitation of our speakers. The sounds in “dog frequencies” are not recorded in the first place.

It’s not that it can’t be done. Biologists and other scientists use special equipment that can record or play back sound in the ultrasound range. The recording device requires a higher sample rate (how often the sound is digitally measured) than consumer equipment and the speaker for playback requires a wider bandwidth for frequency response. 

How much do the missing high frequencies affect the fidelity of recorded sound for dogs? We can’t know for sure. But virtually all sounds include what are called harmonics or overtones. These are multiples of the original frequency into a higher range. Dogs can hear these in the range from 22,000 to 40,000 Hz, but they are never present in sound recordings made even by very high quality equipment.

Because of these missing frequencies, dogs with normal hearing will likely be able to discriminate between a natural sound and even the best recording of it. 

Other Sounds Missing Due To Compression

Digital audio files are large. Most files that are created to play on digital devices are saved in MP3 format. This format was created in the 1990s when digital storage was much more limited than it is today. Hence, MP3 files are compressed, meaning that some of the sound information is removed so they won’t be so large.

MP3 is termed a “lossy” compression because sound data is permanently lost through the compression. The compression algorithms are based on the capabilities of the human ear. Sounds we humans are unlikely to be able to hear are removed.

Some of these limitations may be shared by dogs. For instance, quieter sounds that are very close in time to a loud sudden sound are removed. We can’t hear those because of masking effects, and it’s probable that dogs can’t either, although there may be a difference in degree.

However, there are other limitations of the human ear that dogs do not share. For instance, our hearing is most sensitive in the range of about 2,000 to 5,000 Hz. So very quiet sounds that are pretty far outside that range will likely be eliminated by the compression algorithm. Dogs’ most sensitive range is higher than ours, so sounds they could hear are probably omitted from compressed recordings.

Keep in mind that dogs not only hear sounds that are higher than we can perceive, but they hear all high-pitched sounds at lower volumes than we do.

So the MP3 compression process is another reason that some sounds in dogs’ hearing range that would be present in a natural sound would be missing in a recording of it.

If you make your own recordings, there is an easy thing to do to prevent this problem. You can save your sound files in WAV or AIFF formats as discussed below. I haven’t seen a desensitization app that uses these formats, however.

Behavior Science Considerations

The problems I’ve discussed so far are caused by physics of sound and how it is recorded, compressed, and played.

The following cautions have to do with applying what we know about performing classical conditioning to sound without errors.

Lack of Functional Assessment

Trainers and behavior consultants who help dogs with behavior problems perform functional assessments. They observe and take data to help them understand what is driving the problem behavior. In the case of fear, they analyze the situation in order to determine the root cause of the fear.

In the case of sound sensitivity, a dog may react because the sound has become a predictor of a fear exciting stimulus, as is the case with much doorbell reactivity. Or the dog may be responding to an intrinsic quality of the sound, as in the case of sound phobia. These are different fears that require different approaches. Sound phobia is a clinical condition that necessitates intervention. Many such dogs need medication in order to improve.

Trainers, working with veterinarians or veterinary behaviorists, can make these determinations. Consumers often can’t. And as the sound apps being marketed to consumers become more elaborate, pet owners who follow the directions have a good chance of worsening some dogs’ fears.

Jo is not impressed

For example, a newer sound app allows you to set up the app to play the sound randomly when you are not home for purposes of desensitization (without counterconditioning, although a mechanism for it is planned for the future). The instructions show an example of a dog’s doorbell reactivity going away through use of the app (although I’m skeptical that it could work long term). The app was programmed to play doorbell sounds randomly when the owner wasn’t home. This decoupled the doorbell as a predictor of strangers at the door.

This protocol would give any professional trainer pause. First, the cause of the reactivity, the dog’s fear of strangers, isn’t addressed at all. All things considered, that is not a humane or robust approach. The dog’s fear is left intact while the inconvenience of their barking at predictors is removed. Second, for a dog with a true sound phobia, playing a feared sound repeatedly when the owner isn’t home, even at a low volume (more on this below), could have ruinous results.

Apps that can play randomized, graduated sound exposures can be a good tool for trainers, as long as the trainers are aware of the physical limitations outlined in this post. They should not be marketed or recommended to consumers. Following the directions that come with the app could actually make a dog worse.

Length of the Sound Stimulus

Many noises in the apps are too long for effective desensitization and counterconditioning. Real-life thunder and fireworks both have an infinite array of sound variations. If you play a 20-second clip of either of these, there will be multiple sounds present and a sound phobic dog may react several times, not just once.

Classical delay conditioning, where the stimulus to be conditioned is present for several seconds, and the appetitive stimulus (usually food) is continually presented during that time, is said to be the most effective form of classical conditioning.

Delay conditioning would be appropriate to use for a continuous, homogeneous sound, such as a steady state (non-accelerating) motor. But fireworks and thunder are not continuous. They are sudden and chaotic. They consist of multiple stimuli that can be extremely varied.

To offer a visual analogy: if your dog reacts to other dogs and you seek to classically condition him, you might create a careful setup wherein another dog walks by at a non-scary distance and is in view for a period of, perhaps, 10–20 seconds. You would feed your dog constantly through that period. That is a duration exposure to one stimulus. (And you would try to use a calm decoy dog who doesn’t perform a whole lot of jumpy or loud behaviors!)

But for the first time out you would not take your dog to a dog show or a pet parade or an agility trial to watch 60 different dogs of all sizes and shapes coming and going and performing all sorts of different behaviors, even if you could get the distance right and the exposure was 10–20 seconds. That is the visual equivalent of the long sound clip of fireworks. There are far too many separate stimuli.

Also, if you play a longer clip, one lasting many minutes, as has been done in some sound studies, you are essentially performing simultaneous conditioning, a method known for its failure to create an association (Schwartz, 1989, p. 59). The fact that you started feeding one second after the sound started is not going to be significant if the thunder crashes and food keep coming for minutes on end. You have not created a predictor.

And if you are feeding the whole time but the scary sounds are intermittent, you are probably also performing reverse conditioning, where the food can come to predict the scary noise.

If you are working to habituate a non-fearful dog or a litter of puppies to certain noises, the longer sound clips are probably fine. They may even work for a dog with only mild fears of those noises. But the more fearful the dog is, and the closer the dog is to exhibiting a clinical noise phobia, the cleaner your training needs to be. To get the best conditioned response, you need a short, recognizable, brief stimulus. 

After you get a positive conditioned response to one firework noise, for instance, you can then start with a different firework noise. After you have done several, you may see generalization and you can use longer clips. But don’t start with the parade!

Assumptions about Volume

Most mammals have what is called an acoustic startle response. We experience fear and constrict certain muscles reflexively when we hear a loud, sudden noise. It’s natural for any dog to be startled by a sudden noise. It may be that dogs who have over-the-top responses to thunder and fireworks have startle responses so extreme as to become dysfunctional. For dogs who fall apart when they hear a sudden, loud sound such as thunder, it makes all the sense in the world to start conditioning at low volume, because this practice can remove the startle factor.

But it’s different for dogs who are scared of high-frequency beeps and whistles. These odd, specific fears are not necessarily related to a loud volume. I have observed that, with these dogs, starting at a quiet level can actually scare the dog more. Remember, dogs don’t locate sounds as well as humans do. It could be that the disembodied nature of some of these sounds is part of what causes fear. (Have you ever tried to locate which smoke alarm in a home is emitting the dreaded low battery chirp? Even for humans, it can be surprisingly difficult. And we are better at locating sounds.)

When lowering volume is ruled out as a method of providing a lower intensity version of a sound stimulus, virtually all apps for sound desensitization are rendered useless.

Solutions

With apps that can do more and more for humans, it seems odd to suggest that in order to help your dog, you might have to invent your own helpful tools. But doing so can help you make recordings of better fidelity and more appropriate length, and if you or an acquaintance are at all tech savvy, you can also alter sounds in other ways besides volume.

  • Record sounds yourself using an application that can save the recordings in WAV or AIFF (uncompressed) formats. This eliminates one of the ways that recordings can sound different to dogs from real-life sounds. Newer smartphones are fine for this. Even though they can’t play back low-frequency sounds, they can record them.
  • Create short recordings of single sounds, especially for dogs with strong sound sensitivities. Or you can also purchase high-quality sounds. For instance, you could purchase a 20-second recording of a thunderstorm, and edit out one roll of thunder to use. But be sure that the file you purchase is uncompressed. I use the site Pond5, where I can buy appropriate, high-fidelity sounds for $3–7 apiece.
  • Play sounds for desensitization on the best sound system possible, especially if you are working with thunder, fireworks, or other sounds that include low frequencies. Be aware, though, that you can’t always successfully condition to those sounds.
  • For dogs who are afraid of high-pitched beeps, create a less scary version by changing the sound’s frequency or timbre rather than by lowering the volume. Generally, lowering the frequency works well. You will then need to create a set of sounds for graduated exposures. They should start at a non-scary frequency, then gradually work back up to the original sound. See the papers by Poppen and Desiderato listed in the references for validation of this approach.
Silly human says what?

There are several ways to change the frequency of a recorded sound. You can use video software that has good audio editing capabilities, the free computer application Audacity, or professional sound editing software. You can also generate beeps at different frequencies using a free function generator on the internet.

The one advantage of working with dogs who are afraid of such sounds is that the original sounds themselves are usually digitally generated, so when you create similar sounds the fidelity will be high. (In other words, when a dog is afraid of a smartphone noise, a smartphone is the perfect playback tool.)

This is not a project to be undertaken lightly, but it can be done if you have tech skills and a good ear. Be sure to use headphones and be at least one room away from your sound sensitive dog when you start working with recordings of beeps. My dog can hear high frequency beeps escaping from my earbuds from across a large room.

I create sound series for desensitization for dogs who are afraid of whistles, digital beeps, and some other sounds (not thunder or booming fireworks). You can check out the information on my Sound Sensitive Dogs site for more information on this service.

Sound Conditioning Is Not Always a Perfect Solution

With some dogs and some sounds, it will not be possible to play recordings that are similar enough to the natural sounds to be able to carry over a conditioned response. Thunder and fireworks will always present significant problems.

We want to believe there is always a training solution. But sometimes physics foils our plans and the gap between an artificially generated sound and the natural sound will be too high. In that case, masking, management, and medications will be the best help.

References

Desiderato, O. (1964). Generalization of conditioned suppression. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 57(3), 434–437.

Dreschel, N. A., & Granger, D. A. (2005). Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95(3-4), 153-168.

Fay, R. R., & Wilber, L. A. (1989). Hearing in vertebrates: a psychophysics databook. Hill-Fay Associates.

Gelfand, S. (2010). Hearing: An introduction to psychological and physiological acoustics. Informa Healthcare.

Heffner, H. E. (1983). Hearing in large and small dogs: Absolute thresholds and size of the tympanic membrane. Behavioral Neuroscience97(2), 310.

Holmes, C. R., Brook, M., Krehbiel, P., & McCrory, R. (1971). On the power spectrum and mechanism of thunder. Journal of Geophysical Research, 76(9), 2106-2115.

Lipman, E. A., & Grassi, J. R. (1942). Comparative auditory sensitivity of man and dog. The American Journal of Psychology55(1), 84-89.

Mills, A. W. (1958). On the minimum audible angle. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America30(4), 237-246.

Poppen, R. (1970). Counterconditioning of Conditioned Suppression in Rats. Psychological Reports, 27(2), 659–671.

Schwartz, B. (1989). Psychology of learning and behavior. WW Norton & Co.

Photo Credits

  • Jo the black pug copyright Blanche Axton
  • All other photos copyright Eileen Anderson

Thank you to Whole Dog Journal, who originally published this article in 2020.

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Desensitization of Disgust

Desensitization of Disgust

two images of a bearded man in 19th or early 20th century clothing looking disgusted
Two versions of a “disgust” response. See note in the photo credits about the non-universality of emotions and how they are portrayed.

Disgust can save your life. But sometimes it gets attached to weird stuff, just as fear does.

I’m interrupting this dog blog to talk about human beings for a little while. I have to share something fascinating I learned back while researching a previous post.

I have written a fair amount about desensitization and counterconditioning. One of my more extensive posts was “You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies At Me!” In that post, I designed a hypothetical DS/CC protocol for my phobia of crawdads. While reading studies for that post, I ran across a pocket of research about desensitizing the emotion of disgust.

Continue reading “Desensitization of Disgust”
Teaching Your Dog to Self-Interrupt

Teaching Your Dog to Self-Interrupt

What are the neighbors doing?

Here is something I taught with positive reinforcement that enhances Clara’s life and mine. I’ve taught her to respond positively to being interrupted, and even to interrupt herself. This trained behavior helps us get along smoothly from day to day, and also helps keep her safe in the world.

Continue reading “Teaching Your Dog to Self-Interrupt”
The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

Alex in the foreground, with Rusty and Andrew behind him—photo from 1993. Yes, they are in a bathtub.

Many years ago I lost Alexander, my dear, dear cat to stomach cancer. This was before veterinary medicine had the technology that’s available today. It was also before I took as proactive an approach to my animals’ health and welfare needs as I do now. I knew nothing about training or socialization. My cats were not crate- or carrier-trained. I didn’t know to use counterconditioning, desensitization, and habituation to teach them that the vet’s office could be a great place (or at least not an awful one). As a result, it was a struggle to take my cats to the vet and most were terrified there.

Continue reading “The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?”
Clara’s Progress at the Vet’s Office

Clara’s Progress at the Vet’s Office

sandy brown dog with black muzzle waiting on floor at vet office
Not calm, but no longer panicked

Here is a little bright spot a few weeks after the sudden loss of my beloved dog Summer.

In February 2013, I posted a set of photos of Clara that I took at the vet’s office. (They were actually video stills.) That post, Dog Facial Expressions: Stress,  was one of my most popular ever. Trainers all over the world have used the photos, with my permission, for educational presentations of all sorts. (The offer of the photos remains open. Anyone who wants sets of labeled and unlabeled photos can drop me a line through my contact page.)

Ever since Clara came to me as a feral pup in 2011, I have worked with her twice a week Continue reading “Clara’s Progress at the Vet’s Office”

How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

small black dog Zani gazes at a Lotus Ball toy with Velcro enclosures

Velcro, a type of fastener with two different fabric surfaces that adhere to each other, typically makes a loud ripping noise when pulled apart. Some dog harnesses, coats, medical supplies, and other gear use Velcro closures.

This ripping sound can be aversive. Some sound phobic dogs are triggered the first time they hear it. And some dogs who are OK with most sounds may find it unpleasant when Velcro is unfastened close to their ears.

I recently “inoculated” my dog Zani against fear of the Velcro ripping sound. Zani has a Continue reading “How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro”

Are You Really Performing Classical Counterconditioning?

Are You Really Performing Classical Counterconditioning?

What do the following training descriptions have in common?

  • “My dog’s afraid of strangers. But when she stops barking and makes eye contact with me, I give her a treat.”
  • “I hold her foot. Then I give her a treat after I clip each toenail, as long as she stays in place and doesn’t pull her foot away.”
  • “When we have guests, I wait for him to show some calm behavior like stretching, breathing more deeply, or lying down. Then I give him a treat.”
  • “We play LAT (Look At That). I say ‘Look at the dog’ and she does. I mark, then give her a treat.”[1]Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar … Continue reading
  • “When the cyclists go by, I cue my dog to sit, then I treat.”

These are all training methods designed to help a dog cope with something uncomfortable, undesired, or scary. But they are not classical conditioning.

These five descriptions are all operant methods. How can we tell? It’s because the food is given as a consequence of a behavior.  In each case, a certain behavior is required before the dog is given the food morsel. There is a contingency. If the training is successful, the trainer reinforces the behaviors of making eye contact, staying still, stretching, breathing deeply, lying down, looking at a trigger, or sitting.

Each of these follows the operant model:

  • an antecedent (usually the trigger appearing);
  • a behavior as specified above;
  • and a consequence (food).

The goal is for the dog to learn to perform these specified behaviors instead of being reactive or tense. Any of these could be a successful method, especially if the dog’s unease is not extreme.

Classical conditioning involves a different type of learning.

The Real Thing: Classical Conditioning

First, a little about respondent behaviors. Respondent (involuntary) behaviors include reflexes like the following:

  • blinking when a puff of air is directed at the eye;
  • sneezing because of a bright light or an irritant in the sinuses; or
  • salivating at the sight or smell of food.

Respondent behaviors follow a two-part model: Stimulus/response. In general, respondent behaviors can’t be reinforced or punished. Most of them aren’t under our control. (There are some exceptions.) Think about it this way: if you got praised or got a chocolate chip every time you got goose bumps (cutis anserina), would that happen more? Nope. Goose bumps are a response to a specific stimulus, usually cold or something that causes a strong emotion. Every respondent behavior likewise has a stimulus or stimuli that will cause it to occur.

Classical conditioning is a name for a procedure where we “attach” the respondent behavior to a new stimulus.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it thusly:

A learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired; a response that is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.

We can cause respondent behaviors to occur in response to a new stimulus by pairing them as described above. Pavlov’s dogs are the standard example. They were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a buzzer that meant the food was coming. The buzzer (first stimulus) reliably predicted the appearance of the food (second stimulus).

Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file
Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file

In dog training, we use classical conditioning to change the dog’s physiological and emotional response to a stimulus. For example, if a dog is afraid of the sound of delivery trucks we can consistently feed the dog roast chicken after the sound. The dog’s attitude towards delivery trucks will likely change. It will go from fear to, “Yay, chicken is coming!” The truck sound itself will come to trigger the body’s preparation to ingest food and the happy feelings that can accompany that. The happy feelings and behaviors are why we do this. We aren’t trying to teach the dog to want to eat delivery trucks. We are attaching a positive conditioned emotional response (CER+) to something that was formerly scary.

So how is it different from the five examples at the beginning of the post? Here are two examples that outline the basic process of classical conditioning done correctly.

Classical Conditioning: Two Examples

  • “After my dog sees the bicyclist, I wait just a moment, then start feeding her. As long as the bicycle is passing by, I keep feeding. Then I stop feeding a moment after the bicycle disappears from sight.”
  • “My washing machine makes a certain beep if the load get unbalanced. Whenever it beeps and my dog hears it, I give her a treat right afterward.”

Notice that nowhere in those two descriptions is there any mention of a required behavior. Trigger happens; dog gets food. We are so accustomed to asking for a behavior that this can seem quite foreign at first. There are other requirements for performing classical conditioning correctly that I didn’t mention above. Someone who described their training with the phrases above could still be making mistakes in the training. But those are the bare bones descriptions that generally mean that the method is classical, not operant.

Three dogs group around a woman with a vacuum. The dogs have learned to associate the vacuum with good things through classical counterconditioning.
My dogs associate the vacuum cleaner with great stuff

Operant behaviors can change as a result of classical counterconditioning. Former behaviors that were prompted by the fear can extinguish when the dog is happily anticipating food. The dog will likely stop panting, pacing, and barking at the delivery truck if we condition him that truck noises predict chicken. Instead, he’ll be salivating, wagging his tail, and looking for the chicken source.

Classical Conditioning vs. Classical Counterconditioning

“Classical conditioning” is a general term. But we generally use the term “counterconditioning” when we know that the dog already has a fear response to the trigger. We aren’t starting from neutrality; we are attempting to “counter” a negative emotional response. In that case, we usually include desensitization as part of our method as well. That’s beyond the scope of this post.

But I do have other posts and videos with examples of both classical conditioning and counterconditioning/desensitization.  Check out the following. The first two entries are about classical conditioning and the third and four entries are about counterconditioning/desensitization.

“Pavlov On Your Shoulder”

Bob Bailey says that whenever we are training, Pavlov is sitting on one shoulder and Skinner is on the other. As one grows in importance, the other shrinks. What this means is that even while we are teaching a dog with operant conditioning (Skinner), classical conditioning (Pavlov) is going on. If you train with food and toys and other fun, the dog usually gains a positive emotional response to you, the activities you do together, and even the place where you typically train.

The converse is also true. When we do classical conditioning and pair food with a stimulus, we can quickly start to reinforce related operant behaviors. For example, when the dog comes to expect the food after a stimulus, he will start to turn to or approach the source of the food, usually the trainer. Those orienting behaviors occur in between the stimulus and the food, so they get reinforced.

I’m including this section about the interplay of two learning modes because some people use the “Pavlov on the shoulder” comment to claim that the operant training I described in the five comments is classical after all. They will say that all training has elements of classical conditioning, since associations are being made. This part is true. But while both processes are usually going on at the same time, our methodology targets one or the other. The methods are different. Understanding the differences can help us be more effective trainers.

Operant Counterconditioning

I hate to tell you this. Just to make things a bit fuzzier, there is a term called “operant counterconditioning.” It’s not used that often. But it’s the reason I have been specifying “classical” conditioning and counterconditioning all through this post. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin defined operant counterconditioning as follows:

Operant counterconditioning is when you train an alternate, incompatible behavior. For instance, if a dog lunges and barks every time he sees other dogs across the street, you can train the aggressive dog to watch you and go through other obedience exercises when he sees dogs. —Rapid Reversal of Fear and Aggression in Dogs and Cats, Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

Some of my five “not classical conditioning” examples above could qualify as operant counterconditioning.

Why Does It Matter?

I realize that not everybody is a nomenclature nut like I am. But if we want to learn about different techniques, know their strengths and weaknesses, practice them, and discuss them, we need to know the correct concepts and terminology. I have seen dozens of people say that they were performing classical counterconditioning when they were using an operant method. I’ve mixed up the two myself. That usually indicates more than an accidental terminology problem. It usually means that the person really doesn’t understand what classical counterconditioning is.

Movies

These short movies show fun examples of conditioned responses. When we perform classical conditioning, we look for the moment where the dog starts anticipating the food after the new stimulus. In the first movie below, Zani gives a clear, “Where’s my food??” look when I pause with the food delivery after touching her back with a plastic syringe. (Note that this is an operant response that has already gotten tacked on. We assume that her body is internally preparing for food, which is the respondent behavior that would be expected from the pairing.)

In the second movie, Hazel shows us the real deal. She’s wagging her tail (operant) but you can also see pretty direct evidence of the internal respondent behavior. She licks her chops (a sign of salivation) repeatedly when she notices the nail file.

Has anybody else’s dog gotten as far as actually salivating as a result of classical conditioning?

Link to Zani’s counterconditioning movie for email subscribers.

Link to Hazel’s classical conditioning movie for email subscribers.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Thank you to Lori Nanan and the wonderful Hazel for allowing me to use the cool movie and photo.

Notes

1 Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar in the book.
Spray With Caution!

Spray With Caution!

When Kate LaSala told me about her dog’s experience with spray cheese, I knew I needed to share it. I mention spray cheese a lot, as a high value and easy-to-use food reinforcer for my dogs.  So it’s only right that I share this caution as well. I have had a few mishaps with cans of cheese with my two more sensitive dogs, but nothing like what Kate and BooBoo went through. No one can predict when something like that might happen, though, and the effects can be far-reaching. Kate and I both advise caution.–Eileen

Guest post by Kate LaSala, CTC

bookatesmile
Kate and BooBoo

I see a lot of people using spray cheese in a can, or even whipped cream, as a quick, easy-to-dispense treat. It’s convenient, no mess and no smell until you spray it (so no tipping off your dog with stinky food that she’s about to get something good–so important when you’re training!)

I, like many of you, thought spray cheese was the perfect treat for training. When I was training BooBoo to stay on her kitchen mat (to keep from being under my feet when I’m cooking), I decided spray cheese was going to be my go-to reward. I could keep it in the cabinet by the mat and she loved cheese. So we set out on our training plan and for months we were moving along splendidly. She was happily going to her mat, then I’d open the cabinet where the spray cheese was and bend down to squirt some for her to lick. Everything was perfect, until about 1000 trials in when I went to reward her and “POP…POOF”–an air bubble in the can popped right in her face. She immediately recoiled and ran off to hide upstairs, as far away from the kitchen as possible. I was horrified and instinctively grabbed my treat bag filled with chicken and went to comfort and feed her. I needed to undo this. I managed to coax her out of hiding and we sat and cuddled for a while as I fed her. I thought to myself, “It’s OK. She’ll recover. She was just spooked because it surprised her. She’s got lots of padding after months of working on the mat and with the cheese. It will be OK.”

After a while of sitting, I happy-talked her downstairs and she stopped dead in her tracks at the edge of the kitchen, staring at the mat. So I tossed some yummy treats for her on it. She wanted nothing to do with it. She was clearly still afraid. My heart sank.

I tossed her some treats where she was and she gobbled them up. I decided to just let things be for the time being and hoped that overnight she’d sleep it off and by morning she’d be all recovered.

But the next morning, she still refused to come into the kitchen. She sat on the threshold but wouldn’t enter. I let her be, occasionally tossing her treats. At one point, not really thinking, I went to the cabinet–the same cabinet that housed the spray cheese–and as soon as I reached for it, Boo took off again to hide. It was very clear to me now that she had developed a very strong fear (negative conditioned emotional response or -CER) to the kitchen and the cabinet, all because of ONE spray cheese air bubble. My heart sank again. Suddenly the gravity of it hit me, and the concept that neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux had surmised was in my brain: fear is the easiest thing to condition in animals and the hardest thing to resolve. Months of positive reinforcement training had just been completely undone by one bad experience.

Now we weren’t even just back to square one–we were back farther than that, because now BooBoo had a fear response. I wasn’t training something she was neutral to and that was going to take a lot more work.

So, for the next several months I worked on a DS/CC plan to get BooBoo to be happy on her kitchen mat and not show any fear of the kitchen, the mat, or the cabinet where the spray cheese USED to live. (Needless to say, that was tossed immediately and I’m never buying it again!)

I’m happy to report that after a few months of working at her pace, building positive associations and keeping her under threshold at all times, that I was able to get her peacefully relaxing back on her kitchen mat.

Spray cheese presented on a finger
The safer way to present spray cheese

So I’ve got two important takeaways. Always remember how easy fear is to install and how hard it is to untrain. One bad experience can set you back months of work, even if the dog had nothing but positive experiences in that time. And, if you still want to use spray cheese (or anything in a pressurized can), I would recommend squirting it onto your finger or letting it dangle from the can before presenting it into your dog’s face/mouth. Food squeeze tubes like these are a great alternative without the pressurized, potentially scary part.

And, just so you can see, here’s a picture of BooBoo happily on her kitchen mat. I love happy endings.

Lovely black dog BooBoo is on her mat and no longer scared of the kitchen area
BooBoo, happy on her mat in the kitchen again

Addendum from Eileen: Spray cheese has gotten hard to obtain in local stores and mail order, so this is what I came up with as a passable substitute. I use a food tube, which doesn’t tend to pop and sputter in dogs’ faces!

Kate LaSala, CTC is an honors graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers and owns Rescued By Training in Central NJ. She is also a certified AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator and trainer for the NJ Chapter of Pets for Vets. She shares her home with her husband, John and their two rescue dogs, Mr. Barbo and BooBoo. Kate and BooBoo are a certified therapy dog team, visiting nursing and rehabilitation homes locally. Follow her on Facebook for training tips and helpful information. Also, see Kate’s other post on this blog: “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? But We Live in NJ!” 

Copyright Kate LaSala 2016

Dogs Get Classical Conditioning to the Vacuum

Dogs Get Classical Conditioning to the Vacuum

Dogs and vacuum

Here’s a little video I made of my dogs’ response to the vacuum cleaner. Hurray for classical conditioning! As soon as any dog comes into my home, I start pairing any potentially scary sounds of human life with great stuff. Two of my dogs weren’t scared of the vacuum in the first place, and taking this action greatly decreased the chance that they ever will be. (Sound sensitivity can appear as dogs mature.)

Zani, my smallest dog, is potentially sensitive to quite a few noises, but we have turned her attitude around on most of them with desensitization and counterconditioning. It worked great with the vacuum.

Vacuums can be a double whammy for some dogs, who are also sensitive to the motion. You can work on that separately if that is the case.

I joke about my dogs getting underfoot in the video. If that were a problem, I could convert the sound of the vacuum cleaner (since they all think it’s a good thing already) to being a cue to go on their mats, or I could just verbally cue them to do so when necessary.

For a more extensive coverage of the process of desensitization and counterconditioning you can look at Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment. You can also check out my page on desensitization/counterconditioning resources, and also my Pinterest board that has carefully vetted videos of the processes and results of DS/CC.

Copyright 2015 Eileen Anderson

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 newbie trainer. Last week I posted an update on the smashing success of my feral dog Clara (which I can’t really take credit for; most credit goes to my teacher).

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

Continue reading “See My Successes; See My Failures”
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