Let's dig into the theory so that you have a great understanding of this behaviour challenge. Click on the links in the list below or scroll down the page. Watch the video and expand each toggle for more information.
- Asking for alternate behaviours in the face of triggers
- Considering alternate reinforcers
- Setbacks, regressions, and plateaus...oh my!
Once your dog has a pretty reliable conditioned response or CER, you can start playing with things a little. What does that mean?
You can consider some behaviours that your dog is REALLY good at. Hand targeting, eye contact, shake a paw, etc. These are all fun behaviours that can replace reactive behaviour and even counter conditioning.
If you can bet me $1000 that your dog is going to be able to do it, you can ask for it.
That means your dog will need to be able to do this behaviour reliably in a safe environment AND on a walk (without a trigger present). Practice in a safe environment until it's reliable, re-train it outside in a safe environment, and when your dog is reliable out there, try it instead of a "Look at That" and let's see how it goes! Pay it well!!
Avoid triggering the fight/flight response with a sit, down, rollover
Keep cueing and reinforcing this behaviour in safe environments so that it doesn't only predict encounters with triggers.
Will I have to use treats forever??"
This is such a common question that we get asked as trainers.
The answer is "yes and no". Yes because it is the fastest, most efficient, and most effective way of training any animal, but once you've taught the behaviour, you can phase out the food and replace it with alternate reinforcers.
What are those? Well, I'm glad you asked. Reinforcers are anything the animal will work to obtain. How simple is that?!
Think about it in your terms. What do you work for? Yes, you work for your paycheque (let's call that "treats"), but what else do you work to obtain? These can be small things or big things - they don't have to be the same for everyone as we're all motivated differently.
For me, if I'm teaching a seminar, I'm not actually working for the money; that isn't critical to me in that scenario. I'm working to obtain connection - I love looking at the faces in an audience and seeing the lightbulbs go on above people's heads. I love making people laugh as they learn something new or at least learn to look at something a different way. If I've done that, I've been reinforced. And if I've been reinforced, I will do it again and again!
With Salinger, he has so many reinforcers that it's hard to keep track! Food is a big one for him for sure, and I'm happy to use it. If he's really jazzed up about something outside, I can also use the leash or a tug toy to reinforce him for something like eye contact - a few tugs and a "drop it" is enough to convince him that eye contact is worth giving me. If there's a great smelling fire hydrant coming up, he might pull towards it, I slow to a stop and ask him for a "touch" - when he bumps my hand, I say "okay!" and together we jog to the hydrant so he can have a good sniff. He might pick up a wood chip and I ask him for a "drop it" and when he does, instead of feeding him a piece of food, I tell him "get it!" and he can actually HAVE the wood chip to crunch and spit out (or sometimes he eats it).
See? There are so many things your dog will work to obtain - we just have to pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few questions:
- what is it that my dog wants right now?
- is it safe for me to provide access to that?
- if yes, then what is the most likely behaviour that s/he can perform in this moment?
- if no, then how can I make it up to him/her so s/he doesn't feel ripped off?
Alternate reinforcers are incredibly powerful. So powerful that food often won't work if you try to use it once you've started using an alternate reinforcer.
Your dog decides what is reinforcing. You do not.
That's why the questions above are so paramount!
Let's give this a try and see what your dog finds most reinforcing! Start by practicing "say please" just so you can get the hang of it in an easier environment.
By now, I'm certain that you've likely had a setback. (If you haven't, brace yourself: you will!) A setback is an outburst - a moment where you couldn't catch your dog before they spotted the trigger and they burst into flames, so to speak. You probably had some quick automatic thoughts like "I thought we were past this!" or "this isn't working." or "I don't know what to do anymore!"
These are all normal reactions. You, yourself, are having a setback too! It's not just your dog. You feel overwhelmed, emotional, frustrated, angry, embarrassed, and even hopeless. You've put all this work into this problem and STILL this keeps happening.
What are we to do?
Keep on keeping on.
That's what you need to do.
Recognise that you've had a momentary setback but it's temporary and it will pass along with all the messy emotions you're feeling right now. You know what to do, but the environment didn't line up for you today. It's going to happen again, so once you've recovered, look back at the strategies we've learned and come up with a plan for how best to handle this the next time it happens.
What will that look like? Well, you can't avoid all corners and hedges and you can't get away from triggers forever, so you have to focus on recovery.
What if setbacks keep recurring in a short period of time? You might be having a regression.
Regressions. The dirty word!
It's quite common to see dogs have regressions if anything in their world changes in a way that they perceive as "upsetting".
This can be anything from illness, injury, trauma (including events we might not perceive as traumatic, such as a smoke or fire alarm, or a dog snarking at them at the park), all the up to something more obvious such as a move, a birth or death in the family, a change in a dog walker, a thunderstorm, a vet visit, etc.
A regression can be traumatic for US! When we build our dog up to a certain point where they can handle a trigger, say, 10 feet away, and then suddenly, at the drop of a hat, they are losing it at 50 feet. That is terribly upsetting.
Sometimes it is contextual - they're not feeling well that day, the weather is off, something has changed in the environment temporarily. We give them the day off and we try it again the next day. Not to worry. Sometimes they bounce back, and other times, they struggle.
When they struggle, we have to take note and ensure we're keeping a close eye on the data tracking sheet. What changed? Anything?
How do we patch up this weakness in the foundation? How do we go back in time?
Until we figure out time-travel, the best we can do is to take a step back and give them some breathing room. Reduce walks to potty breaks if that's where the triggers occur. Stick the backyard if you can (and if that's a low-stress zone). Make a list of things you know make your dog feel better. Here is a list of Salinger's favourite things that I know help him relax:
- Visit with Nana & Grandpa
- Have his best friend Skye over for a day-visit
- Chewing on cod skins
- A stuffed, frozen Kong with Honest Kitchen
- Practicing his nosework skills or learning a new trick
- Running in the big empty hydro field near home
- Massages from yours truly
You might find that one day of rest and avoiding triggers is enough to get them back on track, or you might find yourself at this new starting point and working your way up again as you have in the past...but much faster because you know what you're doing!
Don't be discouraged.
Easier said than done...but these things happen, and the truth of the matter is that this is life. Your dog needs to have at least ONE regression in order to learn how to handle it as it's going to happen in life anyway! Regressions are normal. They help us learn.
What's a Plateau?
Plateaus occur when our dog hits a point in their training and can't seem to get past that speed bump. We keep doing the same thing and they continue struggling at the same point.
How can we make that point easier? Can we take the thing that's the hardest and find a way to shrink it in your dog's mind? Can you do a setup from a greater distance? Can you play the sound on your phone on the lowest volume while safe at home? Can you use something like a Calming Cap to reduce the visual stimulus temporarily while you make a little progress? Take smaller steps towards the terminal goal.
This can happen. Not to worry - it's just a sticking point and you can make it through! You might want to alternate days; on Monday you push, on Tuesday you make life easy, on Wednesday you push, on Thursday you make life easy, on Friday you push. Alternating days can help reduce the overall (general) stress sometimes and build things up more gradually. If your dog needs more time (3 days for cortisol!) then take what they need.
If you're spending a week or more in the same zone, reach out to us in the Community and let's talk about it! There are so many ways we can help.