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Category: Desensitization and Counterconditioning

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

It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

U.S. folks and Canadians, get ready for the fireworks!

Summer, a sable colored dog, is photographed in profile looking scared and worried
Summer back when she was more afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises

People in the U.S. and Canada are getting ready for national holidays that often include all sorts of loud pops and booms from fireworks and firecrackers, even cannons and guns.

These kinds of noises scare some dogs very badly, and during these holidays the noises are unpredictable and can go on for a long time period.

A lot of folks worry about comforting their dogs when they are afraid, and are concerned that they will reinforce their dogs’ fears.

That is incorrect.

  1. Behaviors can be reinforced.
  2. Emotions can’t.
  3. Fear is an emotion.
  4. If you comfort your fearful dog, it doesn’t somehow “reinforce” the fear and make them more scared next time.

But don’t take my word for it.

Take Dr. Patricia McConnell’s: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Or Suzanne Clothier’s: Calming the Fearful Dog

A sable colored dog (fur is brown with black on the tips) is sitting under a kitchen table. She looks (and is) frightened.
Summer hiding under the table during a thunderstorm

Everybody’s dog is different. Maybe your dog profits from just hanging out with you. Or maybe you make her more nervous and she’d rather get in a crate. If she isn’t too scared to eat, maybe she would like a food toy. You can judge what helps the most.

At my house, whenever possible during fireworks or thunder, we all troop to the bedroom. Summer gets on the bed with me and cuddles. I give everybody spray cheese every time it booms. Clara and Zani consequently LOVE thunderstorms. And Summer feels better being near me and profits from the routine.

If you want to get really nitpicky, it is possible to reinforce fearful behaviors. But during a noisy holiday is not the time to worry about that!

Other Resources for Getting Through the Fireworks

Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Here are some very practical tips for getting your dog through events with loud noises. Some are short term helps, and some are long term solutions. I hope you find something that will help in your own situation.

Keep your gates locked and your dogs’ identification items on.

Thanks for reading! You can go cuddle your dog, if she likes it!

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

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

 

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

I am mystified by one particular argument of those who use protocols for fearful or reactive dogs other than desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC). These other protocols often use negative reinforcement; if not that, then sometimes desensitization without counterconditioning; sometimes extinction; sometimes habituation.

People who practice these protocols intentionally expose their dogs to their triggers at an aversive level at times, as opposed to people who practice pure DS/CC, which is ideally practiced at a distance or intensity such that the trigger is not aversive to the animal.

The argument that bothers me is this:

It’s OK to expose the animal to a trigger at a potentially aversive level as long as we are not the ones who put the aversive there for them to be exposed to. We’re not adding an aversive; it’s already there.

I wrote a post a while back addressing this idea in part. I pointed out that for negative reinforcement protocols, the ethical and definitional difference is not about how the aversive got there. To say so is to invoke the naturalistic fallacy.  The ethical difference rides on whether the trainer chooses to put a contingency on the animal getting away from it, not whether the aversive is “natural.” Do they ask for or wait for a certain behavior before retreating? Because that is a choice. If the dog gets close enough to the trigger that she starts showing stress, there is always the option of getting her humanely out of there, with no requirements on her behavior from the handler.

Where the aversive came from is ethically irrelevant, since the trainer makes a choice whether or not to use it, however it got there. Most would agree that such a use is an ethical choice, to be carefully considered.

So the fact that people are still mentioning this irrelevancy about “who put it there” seems like a lot of hand waving to shoo away the real issue: choosing to use an aversive.

But wait–in case it matters–how did it get there?

How It Really Got There

My hand, my voice, my phone.
My hand, my voice, my phone.

I have a formerly feral dog with whom I have been working for a few years, gradually getting her socialized to people, and making lovely progress with DS/CC.

Even though my goal is to keep the triggers (people, in her case) under the threshold of aversiveness, I realize that I am dealing with potentially aversive situations when we go out into the world. And I arrange for and seek out those situations for her sessions. For instance, I make phone calls at times to arrange for a controlled session with a person unknown or partially known to her.

If I do this and blow it and let her get too close or stay too long, I have exposed her to an aversive. How’d it get there? Me! Entirely through my choices! I arranged it. I deliberately sought it out with her. I made the phone call, drove my dog to the meeting place, and exposed her to the trigger. I added it to her environment, or added her to an environment where I knew it to be.*

People following any protocol generally arrange for triggers to be present in this way, including people, dogs, specific things like people on bikes or scooters, or other animals. So if someone is doing any type of exposure treatment, how can they claim that they are not responsible for the aversive being there? Did the Tooth Fairy bring it? Can their dog pick up the phone and drive the car?

It is not logical to claim to have nothing to do with the aversive being in the environment if you planned it, arranged for it, or sought it out in the first place. And that includes stealth sessions. If you are out there looking for triggers to use without their knowledge, you are still the one choosing to expose your dog to them. Finding = adding.

Empathy

You can probably detect that I find this irritating, but I seek to look at it in an empathetic way.

I have been reading some posts by Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) practitioners in particular who express that they feel attacked and beleaguered by questions about negative reinforcement and humane training attached to their protocol. I get that they feel pushed into a corner.

I can empathize with that. Here is something you believe in, and people are asking difficult, pointed questions about it. Sure, anybody would be defensive. As a blogger, I have to deal with all levels of criticism. Even the most reasonable of criticism hurts.

There are people who react to these questions with dignity, though. They say yes, they are using negative reinforcement at times if they use certain protocols. They have thought it out, see good results, usually use other protocols as well, and are ultra careful about side effects. They don’t play like the presence of the aversive has nothing to do with them. Although I may not agree about all methods these folks use, I can appreciate their transparency and honesty about the science.

But it really worries me that there are still people who claim not to be responsible for getting the aversive into the environment. If they are trying to elude responsibility for that, even though it’s completely a side issue, what else are they willing to overlook, justify, or push out of their minds?

Thank you to all the people who do their best not to adjust the science (or even basic logical thinking) to justify their own preferences.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* I am not confusing positive punishment and negative reinforcement, here. To use negative reinforcement, there has to be an aversive in the environment to be removed or escaped. We’re talking about how the aversive got there in the first place.

5/25/14 Addendum

This post is an urge to be honest about one aspect of the use of aversives.  I believe that all trainers, regardless of method, should be honest about their training choices and philosophy. You do it: own it. That’s the message in a nutshell. And I directed it to an argument that I believe does the opposite of “owning it.”

However, one of the common responses I have gotten over the past week  is comparisons of the ranges and setups of DS/CC protocols and those using negative reinforcement, often in an apparent attempt to minimize the differences.

I have previously provided a webinar and a movie on the differences and similarities of the major protocols for addressing fear in animals, with particular emphasis on their ranges and setups.

To review a few relevant points: Debating who starts further from the stimulus is a moot point.  No matter how far away you start, you are required to go into the aversive range for a negative reinforcement protocol to work.  In desensitization and counterconditioning you have no need to cross into the range of stimulus aversiveness in order to get effective results. In R-, aversive exposure is necessary. The protocol depends on it. In DS/CC, aversive exposure is by accident and hopefully rare. That is an important distinction between DS/CC and negative reinforcement-based protocols.

The other important distinction is that you can get a positive conditioned emotional response from DS/CC. With DS/CC and negative reinforcement there are two very different types of learning going on.

 

 

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.

Consider this an attempt to balance out all the posts I have read that say,  “I tried desensitization and counterconditioning and it didn’t work” or “Positive reinforcement didn’t work with my dog!” Despite many identifiable barriers to success with something I tried, I still got a moderate change for the better in one of my dogs’ quality of life. (The others thought it was pretty cool, too.)

The requirements to perform desensitization and counterconditioning successfully are very straightforward, but can be difficult to do properly in real life. Often, people who fail  blame the science. So let’s take a look at some of the situations in which the science itself says that the method might fail.

Challenges of Counter Conditioning

(you’ll see why I’m not even mentioning desensitization here in a minute)

To do counter conditioning successfully, you have to be ultra consistent and careful about pairing the stimulus (in this case, thunder) with the goodie that you hope will create a conditioned positive response (in this case, food). So if the stimulus happens a lot without your being there to provide the food, the dog’s physiology doesn’t get “convinced” that one will always predict the other. Likewise, if you run up to your dog and give her the same treat, in the same way, that you have been doing for thunder, but at random times, you will also dilute the predictive value of the thunder.

There are more nuanced problems. If your timing is off and you repeatedly give the goodie before the stimulus, you can get reverse conditioning. In this case, that would mean that food predicts thunder. Oh oh. And if you don’t switch up characteristics of the situation, the dog can attach the response to the wrong thing. For example, if you always wear a certain hat when counterconditioning, there is a good chance that the hat is the stimulus, or a necessary part of it.

And of course, the thunder needs at all times to be under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness for the dog. Yeah, right.

So what this means is that technically, counterconditioning to thunder may be well-nigh impossible. Do you get why? It’s something we have no control over. We can’t cause it, control it, or prevent it from happening.

What’s Hard About Treating Thunderstorm Phobia?

  • Unless you are home 24/7, you can’t always be there to pair the thunder with good stuff. That can shoot your efforts down before you even get started.
  • When you are home, the dog’s likely hear the thunder before you do.
  • The sound is hard to “fake” convincingly using recordings on an audio system. Most a speakers  aren’t capable of generating the very lowest frequencies. And I suspect most dogs can distinguish the source of the sound. (It’s still probably a good idea to try desensitizing puppies via recordings though.)
  • In a real thunderstorm, you can’t do true desensitization. The thunder may start quietly, but it gets loud too fast, and goes unpredictably from louder to softer during the duration of the storm. The thunder goes over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness way too fast, i.e., the phobic dog is already scared.
  • The rolls of thunder can have considerable duration and can overlap each other, making it difficult to know when to start and stop doling out the food.
  • Around here, thunder can be audible on and off for hours. There is a limit to the numbers of treats you can safely give!
  • There may be other physical effects of thunderstorms that the dog is reacting to, such as changes in barometric pressure. If so, those can’t be mimicked for practice, nor can humans sense them in a real storm in the way that dogs do.

So, given these limitations, I never figured I would get much of an improvement for Summer. But I’m a “tryer.” Even if we didn’t get a conditioned response, I figured the distraction might be helpful.

What I Did

I used spray cheese, my go-to easy, high-value treat. As soon as I heard the first thunder clap, or the dogs appeared to hear one, I got the spray cheese. I commenced giving everyone a little lick with each roll of thunder. I did this every time I was home. During very long storms or those days where it would thunder on and off all day, I would finally stop at some point, or stop treating all but the loudest rumbles or claps. This was not ideal, but real life came barging in and it wasn’t OK to make my dogs sick.

After a year or more, Summer started showing a preference for going into the bedroom when it thundered, so I incorporated that into the routine when possible.

In the movie, you can see the progress that she has made between late 2012 and early 2014.

Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

Note: my treat delivery in the movie is often slower than normal because I am trying to film at the same time.

John Visconti’s “Bunker” Method for Thunder Phobia

When I first started this piece, I had not read about John Visconti’s “Bunker” method for helping a dog with a thunderstorm phobia. If you are interested in starting a protocol for your dog, you should definitely read the article and study his well thought-out method. It’s much more complete than what I have done, and has much better odds of having a beneficial effect.

He acknowledges in his piece that he can’t “prove” that the actions he took are what helped his dog so much. (But his evidence seems very strong, especially given that his dog started prompting him for the protocol.)  I love that. I’m much more comfortable with his caution than with anyone who says, “Follow my patented, definitive, unique method and your dog will get 100% better! In only two short sessions!”

I was pleased upon reading Mr. Visconti’s piece that there are some aspects of his system that I have happened onto, mostly having to do with the routine. As I mentioned, at Summer’s suggestion we have started going to a certain room for the thunder routine.

But I did not take the care to condition a “whole package” response like Mr. Visconti did, including olfactory, tactile, and auditory cues. (What a great method, to pack in all those associations that he can control.) But I got the great food and location part. And as you can see from the movie, it probably helped.

Other Resources

Other Posts of Mine on Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Final Thoughts

In our situation, there is also habituation in play. I’ve mentioned that sometimes we have thunder rumbling for many hours on end. I just can’t keep passing out the treats every time. Generally after a bit of time has passed, I can stop and Summer manages to sack out for a nap. But habituation on its own is a fairly weak way of changing an emotional response, so I suspect that the overall change has been due to the counterconditioning.

But even if this is mostly habituation and the security of a routine, I am so happy that it has helped Summer. I think ameliorating fear is a huge quality of life issue, so I’m glad to do it wherever I can.

Coming Up:

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

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Threshold Webinar

Threshold Webinar

Guess what, folks? If you wondered why I’m not posting much right now: I am giving a webinar through the Pet Professional Guild and have been working my butt off on that for several weeks. The webinar is Over Threshold: The Changing Definition. Click on the image below to sign up. (There is a charge: $10 for PPG members and $20 for non-members. There is one CEU available for CPDTs.)

The webinar will take place on Wednesday, February 19th, at 12:00 – 1:30 PM Central Standard Time (6:00 – 7:30 PM UTC).

<<Note: The live webinar has taken place, but is still available as a recording.>>

This will be very different from any other discussion about threshold you have ever participated in.

Be ready to find out:

  • Why there are so many different definitions of “threshold” floating around out there;
  • Why the use of the term in psychology and the use of the term in animal training don’t quite “fit”;
  • What effect this confusion has on training, and discussions about it;
  • Where desensitization/counterconditioning; negative reinforcement protocols such as are included in BAT* and  CAT**; and flooding fall with regard to these different definitions of threshold; and
  • What we can do to clear up our discourse.

Yes, those are the waters I am daring to jump into. Hope you can come!

Click on the image or the URL below.

Eileen and three dogs threshold2

Over Threshold: The Changing Definition (Still available as a recording.)

Coming up:

  • All-Natural
  • Which Dog is Playing?
  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Is My Dog a Drama Queen?
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* Behavior Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart

**Constructional Aggression Treatment by Kellie Snider

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