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Category: Differential Reinforcement

Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Summer with HammerLife intervenes in our most careful, gradual training programs sometimes. I’ve got a dog that was born feral and a recovering reactive dog, both of whom I work with on their issues, including that I take regular lessons from a very talented trainer. Clara, the formerly feral dog, has made great strides in her ability to be comfortable around humans other than those on her very short list. She was still a wild puppy through almost all of her socialization window. I have done lots of DS/CC as well as positive reinforcement-based training with her over the last three years, and she now does well in many environments that would be challenging for almost any dog. And my mildly reactive dog Summer has been making great progress lately, mostly with an operant approach. But Clara in particular has very little experience with strangers in the house.

Ready or not, though, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed some work done on my house that would necessitate the long-term presence of workmen.

Usually when I have someone working in the house for an hour or two, I stash all the dogs in the bedroom with stuffed food toys in their crates. I turn up some loud music to mask some of the sound and we get through it. They do fine for a few hours.

However, this time the workers needed access to almost the whole house, including our major hangouts. And the project was days, not hours.

How We Coped

First, Summer and Zani got to go on a field trip every day. They went to work with our dear friend. They thought it was great. They got in the swing of things by the second or third day and were very cute when I would take them out front to wait for their “ride.” They were so excited when our friend pulled up.

Clara and I took up residence in the study, a small bedroom that was one of the few places the workmen didn’t need access to. This room was completely familiar to her, and a place where she would typically snooze while I worked at the computer.1)It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit. We had a door we could close, but the room was right on the hall that the men had to walk up and down all day. I left it open the first few times so Clara could see what was going on (not sure whether that was a good idea, but she did great), then closed it for the rest of the time. I kept Clara on a harness, dragging a leash, because I am a worrywart about the possibility of doors and gates being left open when there are people coming and going.

I made a couple of really good frozen Kongs for Clara every day. I included high value stuff like some bits of chicken in each one. The men were there way too long each day for Clara to be able to eat the whole time, but I would give her a Kong when they first got here, and then another sometime in the afternoon when things were busiest. I used dog food roll for treats in the interim, and some spray cheese when things got tough. I cut down her other meals accordingly, but she always got a decent breakfast. No point in facing a stressful situation on an empty stomach!

Luckily, Clara is not sound phobic. Nobody likes booms, sawing, or machinery noises, but beyond the startle/annoyance factor, she doesn’t mind them much. It is all about the strange people for her. So her main triggers were the human noises: hearing the guys talk to each other or to me, or hearing them come in the door or walk around, especially right by us down the hall.

Oh yeah, and she wasn’t really fond of it when an electrician had to go in the attic and was obviously walking on the beams right above us. She looked at me like, “You have got to be kidding me!!”

Here is a printable list of our coping strategies: Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Clara asleep during construction
Clara asleep during construction

The Order of Events

Even though it meant that I might get a small barking outburst from her, every day I made sure Clara saw and/or heard the guys coming in before we went into our room and she got her Kong. I wanted to make sure that the prediction went the right direction. Guys coming in the house should predict a great treat. I didn’t want being given a Kong to predict that something scary was about to happen.

After a couple of days Clara learned the sound of one guy’s truck, and would run to the door, ready to bark, when he got there. Instead I would lead her straight into our hideout, and once inside she would turn to me for her Kong.

Throughout the day, whenever there was a triggering event, be it a man’s shout, a door slam, or a startling noise, I generally gave her a treat. I say generally because I had to limit it somewhat. It was just too long a time to be completely consistent, or even Clara would have gotten sick from all the food. So even as she was generalizing, looking to me for treats with every sound, I had to deliver them less frequently. I did my best to save the good stuff for the more dramatic moments, like the predictable time at the end of the day when the last workman would come knock on the study door and give me an update.

One other thing I was careful about–I tend to get hypervigilant when I am expecting visitors. I look out the window at every little sound; I go look out the door, etc. I do this whether I am expecting my favorite people in the world or someone I would rather not see. I just get very anticipatory. I actively fought this behavior on my part this week because I did not want my peering out the window and door to become a predictor for the dogs of invasion by workmen. So I was purposely less vigilant and more discreet when I did take a peek.  I’m pretty sure I prevented that particular connection from being made.

Counterconditioning without Desensitization–                                 No Wait, it’s Management

Following triggers with treats is classical conditioning or counterconditioning–if one can be consistent, if one’s timing is good, and if the dog is in shape to take the treats. But I have to say that because of the long periods of time involved and my lack of control of the process, this wasn’t a training situation, it was management. There were simply too many events every day. My goal was to keep from hold our own and prevent backsliding, and I achieved that.

And there was zero desensitization involved. When we have control over triggers, we can start them at a non-aversive level and gradually increase the proximity or amplitude of the trigger when the animal is ready. (If you add a goodie after each exposure you get the magic combination of desensitization and counterconditioning.) But most real-life situations don’t work like that. I don’t have the means or the time to hire a guy to come impersonate a workman for a month, first just driving up to my house, then walking to my front door, then coming in, then talking to me, then making gradually more noise, etc. All of that would have to be carefully coordinated so as not to be an aversive exposure, include only a limited number of reps per day, and require exquisite timing on my part. Ain’t happening.

So at best, we had management and a bit of counterconditioning. Clara did learn that having workmen in the house predicted Kongs and spray cheese, so I guess I can say that we did build a classical association!

Summer

Summer offering eye contact again

Summer continues to do really well with her triggers and did fantastic the couple of times she had to be around the construction. One day the workmen stayed late and she “came home from work” about an hour before they left. All three dogs came in the study with me, and Summer did phenomenally well, not reacting to the workman talking on his cell phone, whistling, or walking up and down the hall. You’ll see in the video–she looks quite relaxed. (As opposed to Clara, who is looking pretty worn out–it was her seventh hour of commotion, as opposed to Summer’s first!)

Getting the Connection

You can see in the video at least one Positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+), where Clara’s tail starts to wag after the man walks by us. You can also see a good handful of “expectant” responses from both Clara and Summer when they hear something. No tail wags or obvious drooling, but the “where’s my treat?” look. This is not all the way to a complete CER+, but think how much nicer it is for the dog than barking, lunging, and panicking.

Link to the video for email subscribers

Did I miss any tips? I can always add to my list. Here’s the link one more time:

Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Other Posts on Helping Dogs Cope with Hard Stuff

 Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes   [ + ]

1. It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit.
Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

How Did We Get There?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Around Full Circle

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

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

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

Related Posts

 Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes   [ + ]

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