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Tag: barking

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

Bold claim, eh? But almost 10 years later, I think I am safe making it. Clara learned other things, like how to be around people other myself, that were more important. But those things were either trained directly by or supervised by my phenomenal trainer. This one I thought up and executed myself, and it has paid off ever since.

I classically conditioned Summer’s barking to predict puppy Clara’s favorite treat, which was spray cheese. That stuff is still very high on the list, so high I learned to make a substitute when I could no longer get it.

I did this conditioning because I was worried that Clara would pick up my dog Summer’s reactive habits. Summer was anxious and startled easily. She was fearful of most men, people coming on the porch (e.g., deliveries), and most of all, delivery trucks. She hated those trucks. I had never been able to classically condition her to them because I was not home all day. So she had plenty of exposures that were not paired with great things. I did make some inroads later but could never mitigate it completely.

Feral Clara was very much at risk for picking up fears and fearful habits since she already had a bucketload of them. But they didn’t include delivery trucks. She was remarkably calm about vehicles and machinery. And being a puppy, she hadn’t learned yet to join into bark-fests automatically, as so many adolescent and adult dogs do.

I figured I had a chance to get a foot in the door.

The classical response grew operant components of reorientation to me, followed by a recall. Pretty cool to have a dog come running to you when another dog barks, rather than joining into the mayhem!

How It Started

Here is Clara at less than one year old. The conditioned response was already strong.

How It Is Now: Nine Years Later

I have maintained the classical pairing. This is a response of Clara’s I highly value for her mental health. Of course, I don’t always have ultra-high-value stuff on my person. Over the years, I have tended to scale the value of the treat. When Zani was alive, Clara got some kibble when she barked. Ditto with my friend’s Chihuahua mix, who barks a lot. Neither of those was particularly alarming to Clara, but they fit in the barking category, so she got a little something for those.

But any other dog barking means great stuff for Clara. When she and I are outdoors these days, I am ready with it. We have dogs next door in both directions and two more who are often visible from the yard. In the winter, I generally have a tube of my faux spray cheese mix out on the porch. It’s safe from going bad for a few days when the weather is cold. Now, in the heat, I have a plastic container of soft cat food treats.

Clara does fine with the dogs on one side, a sweet border collie mix and a Dane mix. She doesn’t like it when they get noisy, but still generally ignores them. But on the other side, we have new dogs. Two goldendoodles, plus more doodles and retriever types that come with visiting family members quite often. And though they are dog-friendly, the doodles in particular tend to stand erect and stare, which bothers Clara no end.

These dogs are friendly and curious, but can you imagine how this appears to dog-selective Clara?

However, her conditioned response still holds. I’ve taken lots of videos of her “barking recall” over the years, but the following video is one of my favorites. It happened last fall. Clara and I were in the backyard doing our version of nose work. She was searching for a toilet paper tube with some treats in it. She knew the neighbor dogs were out there at the fence and had seen them staring but was still happy to search. And I had hidden the tube in the part of the yard away from the dogs.

Check out the video for Clara’s operant and classical responses when a dog barks at her.

The Ethics

Little extrovert Zani apparently barked to see who was around in the neighborhood

Dogs bark for all sorts of reasons; I’m not going to try to list them. But converting the sound of a dog bark to predict food rather than to function as a prompt for a social interaction, whether affiliative or aggressive, was not an easy thing. I was pushing back against some very strong, natural dog behaviors. Was this OK for me to do?

Classical conditioning is a paradox. On one hand, when you are doing it well, it is so non-intrusive that the dog doesn’t even “know” training is happening, not in the way they seem to know about operant-leaning training sessions. And although operant behaviors will be there immediately in classical conditioning, the dog never has to “work” for the food when we are following a classical protocol. They can’t get it wrong. Once they experience the trigger, the food is going to appear, whatever they do.

On the other hand, in this case, I was interfering with a basic and natural dog response. Barking certainly seems to be a social behavior, one that triggers predictable types of responses from other dogs. One could call it intrusive on my part to step in.

But you know what? I am fine with this decision. When we take a dog into our lives, the training we do is not just for us. The training benefits the dog in helping them thrive in this weird human world and develop behaviors that pay off for them and don’t drive us nuts or endanger anybody. This training was beneficial to her. I wasn’t even thinking about my own convenience when I trained it. I wanted to protect her from catching a particular fear.

Summer barked from fear

Clara is easily aroused. Since we worked so hard and exclusively on getting her OK with humans in her early years, some reactivity to dogs has crept in. Without the early bark-conditioning, she would likely have a lot more unpleasant experiences in her life. And her life would be much more limited. Just today, I took her for a walk around the neighborhood. (By the way, this is a Big Deal that Clara can do this.) Whenever we go out, without fail, we get barked at by dogs behind fences and dogs looking out windows and glass doors. A few of them pound on the windows with their paws as they bark. Clara either looks to me for a treat, or ignores them as she chooses another reinforcing activity, such as exploring sniffing. The classical pairing gave us a head start against likely leash reactivity. And indeed, the potential for reactive behavior is not completely erased. Back home, when the neighbor dogs catch us unawares, Clara will indeed run to the fence for the beginning of a fearsome “let’s bark in each other’s faces” session. But she interrupts herself almost immediately, or if she doesn’t, I do. So yes, there are big seeds for reactive behavior there. But the classical pairing, the reinforcement of operant behaviors, and the maintenance have prevented them from growing into a big extended aggressive response.

Yes, I have interfered with her natural dog reaction. I interfered, just as we do when we house train dogs, train them not to chew indiscriminately, and take steps to mitigate the natural behavior of resource guarding. And in this case, I did it entirely for her.

Other Types of Classical Conditioning for Puppies

Marge Rogers and I are currently discussing our new book, Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It on the Facebook group Books, Barks, and Banter. (Come join us! We are there until the end of June.) A discussion we had in the group made me think of juxtaposing these “then” and “now” videos of Clara. It’s also made me realize that one of the things I love about the topic of puppy socialization is that so much of it is based on classical conditioning: building positive, happy associations with new stuff. It’s a gift you can give to a puppy, or a grown dog if you are playing catch-up. Sometimes you don’t have to keep up the pairing religiously. Once a puppy (especially in their sensitive period for socialization) recovers from having a mild fear response to something in the environment, other reinforcers can come into play. I watched that happen with Clara with many things. But for a dog with fearful tendencies who didn’t get the best start in life, it really pays off if you do keep up the 1:1 pairing. I think I made the right decision with the dog barks.

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Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

Summer mid bark keepWhen I filmed Summer barking using the slow motion function of my video camera, I was mostly curious in an analytical sort of way. What could I see when I slowed everything down?

I didn’t realize that I would find the footage so touching.

Slow motion filming is helpful because dog body language is so very fast. A dozen things can happen while we are just trying to process one. Much of it is so fleeting that we never see it at all.

Summer has a very expressive face, and she’s a worrywart. When you see her two little barks in slow motion, the extent of her anxiety is clear.

In day-to-day life with dogs, this is the kind of behavior that can be annoying. You are trying to read, watch TV, or go to bed, and the dog starts fussing because, for instance, the neighbor dropped a board on his back porch. You almost feel like the dog is doing it to annoy you.

But seeing something like this makes things very clear. No, she’s not a princess. No, she isn’t attention mongering. She’s just worried.

I’m glad I have been able to start working with Summer again. I’m afraid her anxiety took a back seat during Clara’s first couple of years in the household, since Summer could function in the world and had people and dog friends, and Clara had only me. Now that Clara is doing so well, the pendulum can swing back. I have been working on some of Summer’s triggers at home and already seeing progress. I’ll be writing about that some more soon.

In the meantime, you can check out how expressive two little barks can be.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

What do you see when your dog barks? Does it vary?

Related page

Dog body language posts and videos

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking

Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking

Tan dog sucking spray cheese out of the can
Thrilling photo of classical conditioning in action

Classical conditioning examples of dogs and other animals on YouTube are rare. And there’s a reason. It’s because the process is generally comparable to watching grass grow. The creature being conditioned isn’t necessarily doing anything. The action is often off camera. And you have to do many repetitions to see any results.

You could make a 2 minute video of shaping your dog to blow bubbles in a bowl of water and that is fun and impressive. Lots of action, and look how fast the dog learns! It might go viral. Or you could show your dog doing nothing at all while you feed her because the doorbell is ringing. I’m betting it won’t go viral, but one can always hope. Here’s an exciting picture of classical conditioning in action.

I seem to have a knack for stumbling into these weird little holes in the Internet video world. I like filling them with videos. After I published The Barking Recall, several people asked me to show how I taught Clara to lick her chops, wag her tail, and look for treats instead of joining in when Summer barked. I figured I’d give it a try, boring or not.

Small tan puppy with black muzzle and tail looking up at camera
Clara on the day she arrived (about 10 weeks old)

The process can be summed up in one sentence. Starting when Clara was a puppy, every time Summer barked, no matter what Clara was doing, I gave her her favorite treat:  canned cheese.

The process is pretty straightforward. There are two important factors though: timing and consistency.

The timing is that the treat has to come after the event. That sounds easy, but in the real world it can get tricky. If you are conditioning your dog to some visual event, say the appearance of a silent scary monster, if you see it first and start scrabbling for the food, your dog’s experience can be seriously messed up. To her the food starts coming, then the scary monster appears, instead of the other way around. Food predicts monster.  If you do that enough times your dog could end up getting worried whenever you reach for a treat and still be scared of the monster. Not good. But in our case, since I wasn’t likely to know before Clara that Summer was barking, I didn’t have any problems like that.

The other factor, consistency, can be hard if you work outside of the home. To convert a neutral or scary thing to a good thing by associating it with other good things, you have to provide them virtually every time the event happens, at least at first. That’s why I have never tried to condition Summer out of her fear of delivery trucks. For her to learn that the sound of delivery trucks on the street predicts wonderful things, I would have to be there to provide the wonderful things a large majority of the time. Poor Summer; I just can’t prevent the trucks from coming when I am at work, or take enough weeks off to be there every time.

Again, I was lucky with Clara, in that I was home a lot when she was a puppy, and that I could separate her from Summer when I was not home.

A few other things bear mentioning.

First, note that I am referring to classical conditioning, not counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is when you perform this same process on an animal who already has a negative emotional reaction to the event (like Summer and loud trucks, or Zani and the elliptical exercise machine).  The process is the same, but even more attention must be seminar about counterconditioning aggression in dogs, there is Kathy Sdao’s Cujo Meets Pavlov: Classical Conditioning for On-Leash Aggression DVD set.

I had the great fortune to start conditioning Clara when she was a puppy, so I had a blank slate. She was certainly attentive when another dog barked, but she was too little to join in a barking frenzy, which was the otherwise inevitable behavior I was aiming to prevent.

Another issue that commonly pops up in discussions of classical conditioning is concerns about accidentally performing operant conditioning instead. Once we humans learn about operant conditioning, it’s hard to understand why classical can trump it. Case in point: what if Clara was chewing on Zani or peeing on the carpet right when Summer was barking and I gave her her canned cheese? Cringe. Who wants to do that? Aren’t we reinforcing the biting or peeing? In general, no. Here’s why. Let’s say Summer barked 50 times during a week and I gave Clara canned cheese each time. During each one of those times she was doing something, even if it was just sleeping. But it was a variety of things. During one of those times she was biting Zani. During another she was peeing on the carpet. So she got 50 pairings of Summer barking and cheese, but only one of biting and cheese and one of peeing and cheese. And the barking/cheese relationship still existed even when she herself was biting or peeing. So she is well on her way to learning that Summer barking predicts cheese, no matter what she herself is doing. That will trump the individual behaviors she is performing.

For fun, here is a link to an entertaining video of a Psych project where a man transforms a neutral event, the sound of a cow mooing, into a predictor that he will turn off the TV that his children are watching. He is conditioning a negative emotional response to the mooing sound. You can watch the short video and realize that what the children are doing when the moo sound happens is irrelevant. Even though something bad happens, what they are doing at the time does not get punished. The consistency of the TV going off after the mooing sound makes that the relevant pairing, and it doesn’t involve the children’s behavior.

Finally, here’s some clarification about what the classical response actually is. Classical conditioning is also called respondent conditioning. The internal changes we are seeking have to do with involuntary, respondent behaviors. Sneezing, startling, drooling, or experiencing an emotion are all things that happen without our volition. So if we are conditioning with food, we are aiming for a gustatory response. That means the body is preparing to eat, which causes hormonal chain reactions and preparation of the relevant organs and body systems. This response is mostly internal and invisible.

So how do we know if it is happening? Pavlov was lucky he had dogs, because many of them visibly drool in anticipation of food. If he had been using, say, lizards, would we know about respondent conditioning today?

What if you have a dog who doesn’t drool? Or perhaps the dog is having the gustatory response but not quite to the level that would cause drool. We can extrapolate that the invisible internal response is occurring from the operant responses that we do see. Clara now runs to me, wagging her tail, when Summer barks. Those are operant behaviors that are extremely unlikely to occur consistently without there having been some trigger other than the barking. They are not a common response to a barking dog. But they are likely caused by the conditioning, and pretty reliable indicators of it. In Clara’s case, even licking her chops is operant, but it is a direct result of the commencement of salivation.

So here’s my video on the method of pairing barking and wonderful treats. I hope it is more interesting than watching grass grow.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the video I test Clara’s response on camera when I am not home and someone impersonates the mailman. Both dogs hear the person on the porch. Summer immediately barks and continues to do so. Clara jumps to her feet in her crate and stands there, listening. She does not bark. Neither does she drool and wag her tail. But I am pleased with her response. Someone coming up on the front porch is a event a dog would normally pay attention to and I’m glad she did. She was extremely attentive, but she did not get into a frenzied state or “catch” Summer’s barking. I think this is likely due to the conditioning and its result that she never practices that behavior when I am home. Without the automatic barking and arousal, she was able to make an assessment (anthropomorphically speaking) that the sound of the mailman was the same as it is every day, and it has never predicted anything bad.

And in case you’re wondering: this conditioning did not inhibit Clara’s barking in response to various events that she herself finds alarming or exciting. There are plenty of those episodes. The conditioning just inhibits her from joining in contagious, group barking.

If you didn’t see my post The Barking Recall, you might want to check it out now. It features a video that shows how barking eventually became a trigger for Clara to check in with me, even when I am out of sight, and how it helped create Clara’s strong recall.

Thanks for reading!

Upcoming topics:

The Barking Recall

The Barking Recall

Clara Running

Here is an “almost Wordless Wednesday” (except my videos tend to have a lot of words in them!).

I have been working with Clara since she was tiny to make sure she didn’t “catch” some of Summer’s reactive behaviors, and to help her cope well with distractions by reorienting to me.

In the future I will write a real post about what we did, but today you just get to see a movie.

You can also skip forward in time to see how the behavior helped develop her habitual self-interruption and reorientation to me when in intense situations as an adult dog.

As usual, comments are welcome, and feel free to ask questions.  Enjoy!

Sorry for all the vertical videos in there. They are from before I saw the light about that.

Discussions coming up:

  • Is It Really Just a Tap? (shock collar content)
  • Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Thanks for reading!

Addendum

I wrote a post and made a video about the training process that gave us this result. See it here: Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking.

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