A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

Posts tagged ‘classical conditioning’

Desensitizing an Adult Dog to Strangers

It’s been a really long time since I’ve done any serious training, or trialling with my dogs, and I miss these activities.  The combination of my job, business, and graduate school keeps me very busy, and prevents me from doing what I’m most passionate about:  training dogs.

This weekend I returned to the show circuit by entering Tuvok, my 15-month-old white German Shepherd,  in a fun dog show sponsored by the Portmore Dog Owners Association, which was held in the Portmore Town Centre.  While the show primarily caters to owners of pitbulls and dogs trained in aggression, the advertisements announced classes for toy breeds, rottweilers, and working breeds.   Rottweilers, by the way, belong to the working breeds.  I entered Tuvok in the working class.  There was even a fashion show where dogs vied for the title of “best dressed.”

We arrived at the show VERY early.  The flyer announced show time starting at 9:00am; however, at 10:00am sponsors were still arriving to set up their booths.   Turns out the show didn’t start till 3:00 that afternoon.

Tuvok and I used the opportunity to do a bit of training.  This pup received consistent, focused training at 5 weeks old, along with his littermates, but once my work load got heavy, his training fell to the wayside.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, that Tuvok responded to simple cues, such as sit and down very quickly and enthusiastically, even among distractions.

It was the presence of strangers that made Tuvok very uncomfortable. Fortunately Classical Conditioning can be used to desensitize a dog to fearful situations, if done correctly.

Here’s how it worked.  I first clicked and treated (C&T) Tuvok each time we walked past someone and he didn’t show any signs of fear or alarm.  Next I sat in a chair in a shady spot and C&T Tuvok for relaxing beside.  Then came the crucial bit.  I C&T the dog each time someone walked towards him and he didn’t show any fear.  I kept rapid-fire C&T until the person passed us, as long as Tuvok didn’t get distracted and started growling or tried to get up.  The trick here was to start C&T before the dog reached over threshold, the point where the dog finds it necessary to react.

It’s also vital when desensitizing a dog that you carefully read the dog’s body language.  Fear does not always manifest itself by whinning, backing away, or trying to tie up the handler with the leash in an effort to flee the situation.  There are subtle signs, such as the look of the dog’s pupils, placement of the ears, and even lifting a paw.

Anyway, Tuvok did splendidly, and in no time he could remain lying down, relaxed as the world and its children passed him by.  He did not get C&T when people walked away from him, though.  I wanted him to have positive associations with people approaching him, and that’s where the clicker came in most useful.  Fearful dogs snap and lunge at people to get them to go away.  I didn’t wan’t to inadvertently strengthen this behavior by rewarding the dog when people walked away from him.

We remained at the show until dusk.  It was going on for 6:00pm, and by this time the working class hadn’t yet been called.  They were still judging the toy breeds “Rising Star” style where the audience voted for the dog they felt should get first place!  by this time Tuvok had become very tired; he’d lost his pep.  Furthermore, I noticed that he hadn’t peed since we left the house at 9:00am that morning.  We were both hungry, having not eaten anything all day.

We left the show grounds that evening without ever making it to the ring, and after paying the $500 entry fee (although the flyer stated that entries were $400 per dog).  I don’t know if they ever got around to judging the working breeds, and if they did, I’m not sure how they could have judged in the dark.

A few good things came out of the day, however.  I purchased a beautiful show lead from one of the booths, practiced obedience skills with my dog, desensitized him to strangers, and spent quality time with my big beautiful boy, which was priceless.

How a Reactive Dog Improves with Classical Conditioning

Gretchen, my 14 week old puppy who reacts to humans by barking, had a great socialization session today.  In my previous posts (found in the dog training section of this blog), I shared my concerns for this dog and some of the things that I was doing to help her adjust.

We went to a new shopping center during daylight hours and there were people going in every direction, but not too many, and there were bikers and children.  Everytime Gretchen looked at someone, I clicked and treated her first, then moved her away.  After a while I simply clicked and treated her for looking at people, but didn’t move away.  Eventually she was giving people “soft” looks, or totally ignoring them, and started refusing treats (I think she was full).

What I did here was to  follow the experiment that Pavlov did with his dogs.  He would present a plate of food for the dogs at the same time that he rang a bell.  Everytime he did this the dogs would salivate in anticipation of the food.  He found that even when food wasn’t present and he rang the bell, the dogs still salivated.  They had come to associated the sound of the bell with something pleasant, in this case food.

I wanted to reproduce a similar effect with Gretchen.  I wanted her to associate people and other scary things with food, something she likes.  So everytime she looked at a human, I clicked and treated her.  I didn’t wait for her to look away, or to offer me a calming signal like sniffing the ground or licking her lips.  I had to click her quickly and stuff the food in her mouth so that she wouldn’t bark.

Why didn’t I just pop her choke collar and yell “no” when she barked at people, some of my readers may be wondering.  First of all, I do not train with choke or pinch collars.  I do not use them on my shepherds, my rottweiler (who weighs close to 100lbs), or my pomeranians.  Furthermore if I were to yank her collar or do anything that would cause her pain in the name of training, she would very soon associate strangers, or other scary things with pain.  That in turn, would exacerbate the problem and lead to outright aggression, aggression of the sort where she would become a liability to me.

With the classical conditioning approach, within ten minutes of being at the plaza, I could walk her with people walking very close to us, and Gretchen wouldn’t bark.  At one point I took her to a low wall to watch the traffic that was passing on the nearby mainroad.  Her mother was afraid of traffic noises when she was a puppy, but got over it eventually.  I didn’t want Gretchen to develop this fear of cars or be bothered by horns.

So, we stood by the wall, and I continued clicking and treating her and she visably relaxed.  While I was putting a treat in her mouth, a child came up to the other side of the wall from the main road to say hi to the us.  To my surprise Gretchen looked at the little girl and wagged her tail and didn’t bark!  Now this child was close enough to reach out and pet the Gretchen (which I’m glad she didn’t).

Next we watched a big tanker back up out of the nearby gas station.  It had just delived gas, and was backing up to get out of the plaza.  Gretchen and I watched the proceedings, and she was not bothered by the size of this massive beast, or the noise that it was making.  We went up very close to it, but remained safely behind a wire fence.  Again, she didn’t bark or try to run away.

Words do not adequately express the relieve and joy of this breakthrough. 

These puppies are at a disadvantage where going into strange environments is concerned.  I just could not take them out before they had all of their vaccines.  There are no leash laws in Jamaica, and we have a lot of unvaccinated strays.  Parvo is a very common disease here, too.  I was not prepared to expose my puppies to this very high risk.

While I was at the plaza with Gretchen I saw an extremely dirty (and perhaps mangy) dog running loose.  It didn’t come up to us; in fact, after I parked my car and got Gretchen out, I didn’t see the dog again.  I can only imagine what sort of diseases the animal was tracking around.

We have a lot of catching up to do, and maybe in delaying this important aspect of the puppies’ training I have made life harder for myself.  So be it.  In the meantime, training and socializing continues.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: