Making school less scary

One of the principles of managing reactive dogs is to help them learn to make positive associations with Scary Things. For any dog — and especially fearful dogs — it’s important to try to introduce new things and people in ways that the dogs can find the experience pleasant and even enjoyable. This means to not push the dog out of it comfort zone and to pair the new thing/person with something nice like a treat.

One error that people make is to ignore the first part of that sentence. The treat alone is not enough to make the experience pleasant for a dog that is feeling highly stressed. In fact, it is often counterproductive. The classic example is a dog lured towards a strange person with a treat. There may now be an incident or the dog may suddenly realize it is too close to a Scary Person and react.

One of our challenges has been to teach Spencer that people at the school next door are not a threat. (He can’t see the playground and, in any case, doesn’t seem to feel threatened by children, which is a relief.) But he does get upset about the staff members and the principal’s family who live in the apartment above the school, and the closer they get to our fence line, the more upset he is.

Unfortunately, when we first got him, we didn’t realize the importance of proactively teaching him not to be worried about these movements. We figured that he would get used to them as he realized they didn’t worry us. This has not been true. We’ve made some progress on getting him to come when called if he’s barking at someone next door (unless they’re too close to the fence), but not in getting him to ignore them altogether. To make matters worse, the garage door squeaks, so he can be anywhere in the house or yard and be alerted to someone being at the school next door.

The usual prescription for this problem would be desensitization where every appearance of the trigger is coupled with a treat. The problem is that you have to be able to predict when the trigger is going to happen, which we can’t do.

We started to make some progress last summer when work was done on the roof. We could predict and desensitize him to presence of the workmen (see Up on the rooftop).

Some of the activities at the school have become more predictable this summer, so we’ve been making the most of it for training purposes. After our morning walk, I often leave Spencer’s harness on. This way, we can mobilize more quickly if someone shows up next door. I just have to snap his leash on and grab some treats. My coming with his leash and treats is already starting to be  trigger that we’re going to go hang out near the fence and have a good time, so instead of frantically trying to get out because he wants to chase away whoever is next door, he’s starting to paw excitedly at the door and then to walk nicely by my side to go to the fence.

Because Spencer is muzzled when we’re out, I have a habit of directly putting his treats in front of his mouth. But he’s not muzzled in the yard, so I decided to see what effect it would have if I tossed them on the ground instead. It seems to be accelerating progress, and this is why I think that is:

  • When I feed him directly, it’s much easier for Spencer to remain focused on the trigger. In order to sniff out treats on the ground, he has to break that focus, this automatically relaxes him.
  • Sniffing is a self-soothing mechanism, so this is teaching him that he can relax while the trigger is nearby, and everything will be OK. It actually transforms the situation into a game.

Whatever the reasons, it’s working. He ignores more of what happens at the school and reacts more calmly to the rest of it.

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