About six weeks ago, I posted about my rather unorthodox training plan to reduce Maisy’s reactivity. In that entry, I said that Maisy had learned that a bark-n-lunge would be rewarded if she turned back to me immediately. As a result, my trainers and I theorized that I had created a rather undesirable little behavior chain.
Since the easiest way to get rid of undesirable behaviors is through extinction, we created a two-pronged plan. First, I ignored the bark-n-lunge. I didn’t call her back to me, I didn’t reward her for returning to me voluntarily, and I didn’t even look at her when she did the whole I’m pretending to be reactive routine. Second, I very heavily reinforced appropriate behaviors, both proactively as a counter-conditioning measure and as a reward when she chose them instead of a bark-n-lunge.
Now, as a reminder, I know this isn’t the typical method of dealing with a reactive dog, and it isn’t the course of action I would normally recommend, or even follow. I did this under the guidance of two highly qualified and experienced trainers. If you’re dealing with a dog who barks, growls and/or lunges at people, dogs or things, I highly recommend that you seek help from a good positive reinforcement trainer.
Okay, with the disclaimer out of the way, I am so pleased to report that the preliminary results are in…
At first, Maisy seemed quite confused. A behavior which had reliably paid off for her in the past was no longer producing the results she was hoping for. As the first week wore on, she became increasingly frustrated, and on the fourth and fifth days she demonstrated an extinction burst.
On both days, we were at a local pet store that has a large training ring that you can rent by the hour, working on jumps and heeling past distractions. On both days, Maisy saw a trigger and had a huge reaction- no, it was an overreaction. Something that would normally get several barks was treated to an extended round of barking and growling. It was actually quite embarrassing, as I knew I had to ignore it, but the trigger- in both cases a person carrying a large bag of dog food- looked at Maisy with some reservation. More than that, since I had to completely and utterly ignore Maisy’s behavior, I continued my heeling pattern (sans dog), which probably made me look quite crazy! At the time, I was fairly certain that I was seeing an extinction burst, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to get worse or not.
Thankfully, it has not. As the weeks have gone on, she has continued to try the behavior out occasionally. However, both the frequency and intensity of her reactions have dramatically gone down. For example, she’s been to two trials during that period. In both cases, despite being stressed, she held herself together and only had one minor outburst at each trial. They each consisted of a brief bark, a small lunge, and then a self-interruption. And, even more exciting, this week she got through our entire reactive dog class without a single bark, lunge, growl, huff or wuff. She was truly amazing!!
I don't think Maisy will every be a completely normal dog. I know that she will have days where she regresses and falls back on her old behavior patterns, especially when stressed. I also know that there will be days that I have to manage her more than others. And, of course, I know that my first priority will always be to help her feel safe and secure, a task which will require eternal vigilance on my part.
We still have a lot of work left to do. As the reactive behavior has reduced, she has shown more behaviors that look like poor impulse control. She is doing a lot of “friendly lunging”-she’s pulling and straining towards things while on leash, but with huge, sweeping tail wags, and more importantly, quietly. She now looks ill-mannered rather than aggressive. The interesting thing is that what she’s doing now is very similar to how she behaved as a puppy.
At this point, we have been working Control Unleashed exercises for about a year, and realistically, I expect that we have at least another six to twelve months of hard work ahead of us. For example, I’m hoping to increase the duration of calm periods so that I'm not constantly shoveling treats in her mouth. I also need to help her learn to demonstrate calm behavior with increasing amounts of stress. Of course, each time the environment gets busier, I need to decrease my duration criteria, so I think we’re entering a period in which the level of reinforcement ebbs and flows based on the environmental distractions going on. This will take a level of training sophistication that I intellectually understand, but will need to practice to get it right... which, of course, will lead to the inevitable setback.
Even so, I am so thrilled with the progress Maisy has made, and can’t wait to continue to learn and grow with her. I am determined to put in the time and effort to help Maisy feel and act better. She is a truly amazing dog, and she deserves it.