Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Distance - your first and best tool in reactive behaviour modification

By its very definition, reactive behaviour is an issue with proximity. For whatever reason, the dog at the end of the lead feels that the thing they are reacting to is WAY too close for comfort. This means that the best thing you can do for your dog is to keep safe distance between them and their triggers.

Obviously, this can be easier said than done - we don't refer to the process many of us have to undergo when walking our complicated canines as 'ninjaing' for nothing! There will be times when a trigger emerges upon you and your dog unexpectedly, It happens, and is not something you should ever feel the need to beat yourself up over.

The longer we spend sharing our lives with one of these complex dogs, the more we seem to develop the ability to constantly scan our surroundings and analyse potential issues at an ever-increasing distance. This comes in very useful when we begin to think about using behaviour modification methods, as it means we can start exposing dogs to their triggers at a safe enough distance (although it may be a HUGE distance in the beginning) to keep them under threshold and work on their acceptance of those things.

You can see the backward body language showing this dog is not comfortable

Being able to find a safe distance, one at which your dog does not react and stays under the threshold of what they can tolerate comfortably gives us a platform to start working on changing how they react to that trigger. There are a few options of methods to work with, and they can all work together in combination for full effect.

Descriptions of the first two are taken from the text of my book ‘Fight or Fright? A Reactive Dog Guardian’s Handbook’:

Counter conditioning
Conditioning is a process that dogs go through all of the time. Classical conditioning is learning by association, famously detailed in the story of Pavlov’s dogs who began to salivate at the sound of a bell. We use operant conditioning in dog training all of the time, by applying consequences to behaviours that our dogs offer. In the case of positive, force free coaching, we use the positive reinforcement quadrant to encourage the behaviours that we want repeated.

Conditioning can happen without a conscious effort on our part. One simple to understand example is the dog attacked out on a walk by another, unknown dog. That one traumatic event can cause a long-standing issue, known as single event learning. That one event of being attacked causes the poor victim to associate dogs he does not know with being attacked and so react to their approach with fear and overt defensive displays: reactivity.

The aim of counter conditioning is to change this negative association to a positive one. This is done with the aid of positive reinforcement, to change the dog’s emotional response to the trigger. To do this, find the highest value treat to your dog. The dog decides what constitutes a high value treat, just as the dog decides what is aversive and that he does not like. To some, slivers of ham or cheese are something they will do anything to gain. For others it may be a particular toy. Whatever your dog finds the most rewarding thing ever must be reserved and only used for the counter conditioning exercise. For most dogs, this is usually food, and so food will be the reward in describing the technique.

As soon as the trigger comes into sight, but before the dog has a chance to react, start feeding the high value treats. If the dog fixates and stares at the trigger, or is not able to take the treats then the trigger is too close and you must increase the distance. Always start with as much distance as you can manage and work closer gradually. Keeping feeding constantly the entire time the trigger is in sight. To make this easier, some people choose to use ‘squeezy cheese’ that comes in a tube. There are a variety of flavours to pick which one your dog likes best (ham is a favourite with my reactive dog) and it is easy to dispense with one hand while the other is holding the lead. This form of cheese also has the advantage that a small squeeze will have them licking the nozzle for a long time, so the calorie content is not too high. As soon as the trigger goes out of sight, the high value treat immediately goes away. It is only available when the scary thing is near. Over time, the fearful dog will start to look for the goodies when the trigger comes into view rather than reacting. As this happens, the distance can decrease bringing the trigger slowly closer. If at any time, the fearful dog reacts, increase the distance and slow the progress down.

This is not a quick process but, done correctly, can be very effective. You can perform the technique whenever you encounter a trigger out on a walk; provided you can get enough distance for your dog to take treats comfortably. A useful cue to coach during those at home training sessions is a bright, breezy ‘This way!’ with lots of enthusiasm and reward, so that if you suddenly come across a trigger, you can ask your dog to turn and head the other way rapidly, and hopefully avoiding too much stress.

This technique works well with dogs that are scared of noises, such as fireworks or thunderstorms. CDs or mp3s are available of the types of noise that dogs may typically find frightening. These can then be played at a very low volume in the dog’s home. Start on an extremely low setting, and pair the time that the sound is playing with something the dog finds very rewarding, whether that is a high value food, a game with a favourite toy or fuss and attention from his guardian. If at any point the dog seems distracted by the noise and is unwilling to take the treats or engage with the game then the volume is too loud, and you need to go back a few steps to a quieter volume. Only when the dog seems entirely comfortable with the current volume should it be increased. Any signs of hesitation or discomfort mean going back a couple of volume levels and allow the comfort to return before again attempting to increase the volume further.

It is important to note that although this technique can help the dog greatly in becoming accustomed to noises, there might be other factors surrounding the issue. Fireworks come with bright lights suddenly appearing in the sky. With thunderstorms, there may be pressure changes of which humans might only be dimly aware. It may not be possible to completely tackle the fear surrounding these, but by lessening the association between the noise and the frightening situation, we can hopefully give our dogs an easier time.

Another technique, which may help with these factors we cannot control, is the anxiety wrap. This applies gentle, consistent compression, which can aid many dogs in remaining calm in stressful situations. They are available to purchase commercially, and the website of the Thundershirt claims an eighty per cent success rate with a large number of positive reviews. A DIY version can be made at home using an elasticated compression bandage. Take a bandage suitable for your size of dog – narrow for a small dog, wide for a large one. Place the centre of the bandage across the dog’s chest. Cross the sides of the bandage over the dog’s shoulders, then again under his stomach and bring the ends up to his back again, tying them facing away from his spine. If you do not have a bandage but have a long scarf, you can also use this to create the makeshift anxiety wrap. One word of warning – never leave a dog unattended when wearing a wrap due to the danger of becoming entangled. Although, hopefully, a scared dog is never knowingly being left alone anyway. This technique is definitely worth trying as a drug free option. If it does not work for your dog, then it may be time to have a chat with your vet about medication to help keep your dog calm during the stressful occasions.”

"I'm not sure I'm happy with this..."

Look At That
This is a third technique that ties in very nicely with the above two. Once the dog’s emotional reaction to the trigger occurs at less distance, you can begin to ask your dog to look at the scary thing and then back to you for a reward. This can then be used to continue the desensitisation process, moving a little closer and asking the dog to look again. Care is needed to ensure the dog is not becoming tense again as this could lead to a reaction which would mean having to go back several steps in the process. If your dog’s reaction to seeing something is to look at you for some variety of tasty goodness to be handed over, they are not heading for a fear reaction but instead are anticipating something good, which is far more relaxing and enjoyable for you both!

If you want to learn more about canine reactive behaviour, the potential reasons behind it and more about ways in which you can help improve your dog's view of the world, my book is linked above, and there are a few courses that I would recommend from the excellent, kind and ethical Canine Principles:

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In other news, I am very happy to reveal a large part of why I have been quiet on here of late is now finished and released into the world. This new book is a slight departure from previous offerings as this is not about the dogs, this is about the dog people!

Impostor syndrome is a nasty and pervasive condition that steals your self-confidence and self-esteem. My new book 'Conquering Confidence' is written with a canine professional leaning, but the information and techniques contained within are applicable to any professional in any industry. Inside, the definitions and signs of impostor syndrome are discussed, together with a range of methods and techniques designed to reduce its impact and influence on your mind and your career.

It's pretty, too!

It is available in a range of stores in ebook form HERE and in paperback at Amazon HERE.

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