A lot of Spencer’s training over the past 18 months (since we started working with Irène) has concentrated on counter-conditioning, classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Counter-conditioning basically consists in changing the dog’s emotional associations with various stimuli. For example, we’ll often pop the vet’s office just to go in and eat treats in the waiting room. This helps him associate other feelings besides stress with the location. Since reactivity is triggered by stress, counter-conditioning helps to reduce the number of triggers in a dog’s world. Counter-conditioning does not depend on the dog’s behavior.
Classical conditioning is closely related to counter-conditioning, but adds the notion of sequencing. We used classical conditioning to teach Spencer to stay calm in the car when a Scary Person walked by. 1) Scary Person appears. 2) Treat appears. 3) Scary Person starts predicting treat. 4) Scary Person is much less of a source of concern.
Operant conditioning teaches the dog that he can influence his world. It often starts by explicitly requesting the dog to do a behavior and then reinforcing the behavior through a reward. However, it can also start by “capturing” a behavior that the dog does naturally. We wanted to teach Spencer to do his play bow on request, but we weren’t success at making him understand what we wanted, and we couldn’t predict when he would use one to ask us to play. Then we noticed that he used play bows to stretch in the morning and right before going outside on leash. So we made sure we had a clicker in our hand at those times and clicked as soon as he spontaneously bowed. Then we joyfully danced off to the treat jar together. Once he had made the connection between the behavior and the click, we added the command, trying to precede the bow with the word, so that now when we used that word, he offers a play bow on command.
We’re now moving into a new phase of Spencer’s learning that builds on this foundation. Called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), it incorporates elements of the previous three techniques, but frames them in a new way. Basically, you put the dog in a situation where it is challenged by a trigger without being overwhelmed and facilitate a decision-making process where the dog gradually learns he has other options for dealing with the stress besides charging.
There a different ways to design the set-ups, but you can imagine it this way in order to understand how the principle works:
- A trigger (a person or a dog, depending on what sets the student dog off) remains stationary.
- The handler guides the student dog close enough that he pays attention to the trigger, but in a fairly relaxed way (i.e. don’t bring the dog close enough that it tenses or, worse, barks or lunges). As long as the dog stays relaxed, he can engage with the trigger through looking, sniffing, etc. as long as he wants.
- When the dog disengages from the trigger (looking away, ignoring the trigger and sniffing the ground or a number of other predefined behaviors), the dog is congratulated and invited to move away from the trigger in a happy, playful way.
- It’s optional whether the dog receives a bonus reward (food, a toy or a game) once it has moved away.
- Gradually, the dog is able to move closer and closer to the trigger during the exercises until it learns that the trigger is “safe”.
- Additional rounds then include making it harder by having the trigger move, using a new trigger, etc. The dog’s decision-making and coping skills gradually improve and its likelihood of a panicked reaction decreases.