Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes

I have written before about Summer’s tendency to be the “fun police” and aggress when my other two dogs are playing rowdily. I taught her to come to me instead and get reinforced for sitting quietly.

This has become a strong behavior, and I don’t have to cue it. The cue is the other dogs’ playing. She responds consistently by coming to me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently, but I was.

This week my neighbors have a visiting dog who spends a lot of time on their back porch. Harley is a large, apparently good-natured golden doodle with a very deep bark. He doesn’t like being in the back yard by himself and barks to be let in and also alarm barks when he hears things in the neighborhood.

This is very exciting for my dogs: a big, noisy dog next door. Luckily for us, Harley is not too interested in coming over by our fence, so there are few actual fence fights. But even so, my dogs can get over aroused and are quite interested in running up and down the back porch steps to alternately get a glimpse or a sniff of him, sniffing along the fence, and generally marching around with their hackles up.

Except Summer.

That’s right. Summer, my reactive dog, has decided she would rather come and sit in front of me and get treats.

Summer on porch

Brava, Summer! But what made you think of it?

What’s the Cue?

I’ve written quite a bit about how dogs tend to discriminate rather than generalize. They notice things that are out of the ordinary and don’t generalize the same way humans do. So, for example, even a dog who is very friendly to women and most men might bark at the first man she sees with a beard or a hat.

So I was curious: What was the prompt for Summer’s nice response when Harley came around? What was this situation similar to?

Here are some possibilities. I have done the following things with Summer over the years:

  1. Treated her in many situations for orientation to me in challenging situations: eye contact, checking in, and the like (positive reinforcement);
  2. Treated her for “sudden environmental changes” like scary noises, including strange dogs barking (classical conditioning);
  3. Treated her for coming to me when the other two dogs were being rowdy (positive reinforcement with an initial element of classical conditioning: dogs playing means food rains down); and
  4. Treated her in the house for coming to me when one of the other two dogs was barking (positive reinforcement). This is a new one. She started coming to me on her own for that, so it was probably a generalization of one of the others.

Wow, after looking at that list I’ve decided it’s not all the surprising that she decided to come to me when the neighbor dog was out there riling everybody else up. But I’ll continue with my speculation.

The most obvious candidate is the noisy, aroused behavior of the other dogs. When Harley was there, they ran around and barked, which was moderately similar to what they do when the play. But any of the other things on the list could have helped, too. (That’s one of the magical things about doing lots of behavioral interventions with your dog. Synergy.)

So I did what any curious person would do. I took Summer outside by herself when Harley was out in the next-door yard to see what would happen without the other dogs there.

Link to the movie for email subscribers

Spoilers

In case you are unable to watch the movie for any reason, I have put a description in a footnote below. [1]In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are … Continue reading

What’s the Bottom Line?

I think the “main” cue for Summer’s coming to me was my other dogs running around excitedly. Summer did need a little help when she was outside by herself. She got a little “stuck” down in the yard when on her own. However, she instantly responded when I encouraged her to come back up. That part shows the effect of all the practice she has had in interrupting herself from potentially sticky situations. That practice played a big part in her ability to “shake it off.”

This is Not Counterconditioning

Just a word here about desensitization/counterconditioning. Regular readers will probably know that DS/CC is my go-to method for situations that are scary for my dogs.  But what you see in that movie is neither DS/CC nor the results of it. Instead I am reinforcing Summer for performing behaviors other than reactive or aggressive ones. It is an operant protocol. It is not aimed at changing her emotional response to a difficult situation, although over time that may happen as a side effect.

The reason I am not doing DS/CC is that Harley is a visitor and not often around, so this situation is pretty rare. And when he is here, I have no control over his activities and thus no control over Summer’s exposure to him. It would be difficult to impossible to do the true graduated exposures of desensitization.  If he were around a lot I would probably do some straight-up counterconditioning without desensitization, starting out by passing out treats whenever he barked like I did for Clara with Summer’s barking.

Summer nervous
Summer looking worried about something behind her

One clue that this is not DS/CC is Summer’s demeanor, which is anxious at times. This is still much better than running around in a panic, and is not uncommon to see in an operant protocol. But to have a dog looking like this in a DS/CC session for more than a fleeting moment would indicate a failure, as she is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Other Good Behavior

I hope it goes without saying that I keep this excited, over aroused behavior of my dogs to a minimum. It can’t be completely avoided, since they do have to go into the yard to potty, but I can generally go with them and encourage the right things. My presence alone puts a damper on the over-the-top behavior, and I reinforce things like coming away from the fence, doing anything other than reacting to the other dog, and of course eliminating.

The cumulative result is that all three of my dogs will come away from the presence of Harley with just a casual word from me. Under normal conditions, when I am ready to go into the house, I call them in conversationally. I say something like, “Let’s go in, girls.”  (I don’t use their individual recall cues for this.) I reinforce my “suggestion” with kibble when they come, and they almost always come running instantly. It was great to learn that they would come even with Harley around.

Their reinforcement history also has the effect of lowering their arousal and engagement in general. They are easily interrupted, and they frequently interrupt themselves to check in with me. They just don’t get as stuck in arousal mode as they would without this intervention. This is a wonderful trait in general, and it all came about because I first generously reinforced attention to me in exciting situations with high value treats, then maintained the habit by carrying kibble in my pocket in the back yard, and passing it around generously for behaviors I liked.

I would love to hear other stories of good behavior generalizing. Got any?

Related Posts

 Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes

Notes
1 In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.)  After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!)  Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.