Spencer is making great progress these days. And we’re not the only ones who think so. They boarding place that takes care of him has also noticed a change. When they come to get him for a walk, he now does his crazy dog pre-walk dance.
We have long had confidence in the care he receives at the boarding place, but s surprising development when I dropped him off the last time really made it clear that he feels safe and happy with them. Continue reading
Since the methods we’re using to train Spencer — mostly based on clicker training — are not that well known among the general public, I thought I’d give a few more details on how the car has been helping to shape his overall behavior.
- Whenever Spencer looked at someone outside of the car, we called his name and clicked when he looked at us instead of the person.
- The click tells him that the behavior he just did is something we want and is followed by a treat.
- We called his name to interrupt a potential reaction and teach him an alternate behavior. You want to reduce the number of times your dog rehearses an unwanted behavior. (Alternately, you can use this sort of technique to prevent such behaviors from occurring in the first place.)
- Whenever Spencer looked at someone, we clicked and gave him a treat, just for looking (again, before he had a chance to react).
- Whenever Spencer would look at someone, we would wait for him to look away (often at the treat bag that sits near the gearshift for easy access while driving). We would then click and treat.
- Over time, our criteria for rewarding him have gone up: whereas once we would have treated for someone across the street, they now have to be nearer. We have also gradually reduced the number of clicks even for nearby cases because he now knows what’s the right behavior. (But we still often treat to prevent slippage if he is startled by someone’s unexpected movement.)
- We’re currently working on a new stage in the parked car where he isn’t rewarded just for looking away: now he has to look away and put his head down on the arm rest or if his head is already down, not lift it. If he does either of these, he gets clicked and treated.
- The result is that he is starting to leaving his head down and just follow people with his eyes or even ignore them. He’s learning that even if he doesn’t react, the people will go away.
Another variation on this has been learning not to react to people loitering near our car. People walking by are less threatening, because they have a trajectory that he can extrapolate and realistically anticipate their departure. He doesn’t know what people loitering are going to do, and this is scary. A general principle of clicker training is that when one dimension gets harder, you make the other dimensions easier. So Spencer is on an earlier stage of clicking and treating for this. We’re somewhere around Stage 2. He did really well the other day by not reacting when a guy was practically sitting on the hood of our car smoking.
Yet another variation we’re dealing with is sensitivity to proximity to “his” door. Apparently he’s figured out that if we can get to him through the door he uses to get in and out of the car, so can Scary People. (Since parking is on the right-hand sidewalk of our street, he almost always gets in and out of the same door.) This only seems to come into to play when we are backing up or parking and there is someone near the rear right wheel. If we are parked and doing the passerby exercise, he is used to people arriving from behind and walking by. The challenge of this variation is that it is extremely difficult to parallel park and simultaneously click-and-treat if someone appears in this zone.
Something that is rather to surprising to me is how little I’ve read about the usefulness of the car in rehabilitating a fear aggressive dog. I would rate our car in the top two catalysts to the progress that Spencer has been making in recent months.
Greg looked at me like I was crazy the first time I told him that I was taking Spencer with me when I drove him (Greg) to the train station in the morning. Since then, it has become a family ritual and something that Spencer looks forward to immensely.
It all started with me thinking about one of the vicious cycles of having a fear aggressive dog: the dog is more stressed and reactive the less that it is exposed to novelty, but it’s stressful and worrisome to expose the dog to new people as long as he’s reactive. I decided to try an experiment where we use the car as a “mobile crate” to teach Spencer that he’s safe in there and let him be exposed to all kinds of new people and activity from the safety of that haven.
The basic principle is that whenever someone gets near the car and Spencer doesn’t bark or otherwise act aggressively, he gets a treat. As well as doing this drill when I take Greg to the station in the morning, we also use it when running errands on the days we are all home. Greg goes into the store while Spencer and I watch people go by and have treats.
In this video, you can see how after a person walks by, Spencer looks down at the treat bag instead of reacting to the passerby. For the rest of the video, he watches people who are less nearby, so he doesn’t need the reassurance of asking for a treat. At one point, if you pay attention, you can see his nose twitch: this is when he saw a couple of dogs across the street.
This technique has helped us in several ways:
- Spencer, who was initially very agitated and stressed in the car, now adores it. We’re pretty sure that car rides outrank walks in his list of favorite things.
- Spencer no longer reacts to anyone within 3 metres of the car, which has lowered everyone’s stress level.
- Getting used to people being nearby while we’re in the car has made it easier to be closer to them when we’re not in the car.
- Because stress is cumulative, eliminating this source of stress has helped Spencer be calmer in other ways.
- Spencer can now be left in the car for short periods without panicking. Our newest variation is for me to park the car somewhere where it is unlikely for many people to walk right next to the car and run into the store or the post office. He’s always calm when I come out, and one day he was even eating the chewstick I had left him, which indicates a significant level of calm and relaxation.
To sort of give credit where it’s due, the title of today’s article is from the joking remark someone (and I’ve forgotten who) made when I explained how the car had been helping with Spencer’s socialization. “Like the Popemobile…the Spencermobile!”