Thursday, October 14, 2010
Small Changes Yield Big Results
I’ve known for a long time that Maisy is very sensitive to my moods. At her appointment with the veterinary behaviorist on Monday, Dr. Duxbury saw that, too. She said in her report that during the appointment, “Maisy was exquisitely responsive to [me] but most of her 'relaxed behaviors' (e.g. resting her head on floor, laying on one hip) appeared to be highly reinforced operant responses vs. truly relaxed.”
She went on to acknowledge that this is a tricky area in which to work; while you need to start somewhere, it’s easy to fall into the trap of operantly relaxed, where it’s clear that Maisy is “on” and working, and not actually relaxing. With that in mind, Dr. Duxbury made some suggestions on how I can tweak my current handling in order to promote real relaxation as the medication begins to work.
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Duxbury said that because Maisy takes so many cues from me, I need to be make sure I’m relaxed. She advised me to make a conscious effort to breathe and relax my neck and shoulders. This is much easier said than done!
Dr. Duxbury told me that I need to slow down both my physical and verbal interactions with Maisy. She highly recommended that I don’t use a marker with Maisy because it “keeps the response very operant,” and “interrupts and… ends the behavior.” I quit using a clicker for behavior modification long ago, but I think I will reduce my use of a verbal marker, too. I will still praise Maisy occasionally, but Dr. Duxbury cautioned me thatI need to slow down and speak softly so that I’m not so exciting that it encourages Maisy to get up.
Likewise, I need to be mindful of how I deliver food rewards. She said I need to be much slower in my hand movements, because I have a tendency to be “so quick with [my] food rewards that [I] encourage quickness in her response.” A lot of my quickness has developed because I want to get the treat to Maisy while she’s still performing the behavior. Dr. Duxbury acknowledged that I’m right to be concerned about this timing, but recommended using negative punishment- that is, the removal of the food treat if Maisy tries to leave her relaxed position- to help ensure I’m rewarding the position I want.
I tried this out in my reactive dog class on Tuesday, and it worked fabulously. I put Maisy in her crate, and when she moved into a more relaxed position, such as lying her chin on the floor, I very softly said “gooooooood giiiiiiirl.” I then offered her a treat, using slow, fluid motions. Predictably, she would lift her head or even jump up. When she did, I (slowly) moved my hand away. When she put her chin down, I again moved (slowly, fluidly) to give her the treat. Initially, I allowed very small movements to get the treat, but by the end of class, Maisy was able to lie much quieter as she took the treat. Incidentally, she also rolled over flat on her side, and was possibly the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her at class- even her legs (which usually stick straight out without touching the ground) were becoming soft and loose.
Dr. Duxbury said that while it has previously been necessary for me to manage Maisy by providing her with a lot of stimulation (such as through training or playing ball), I need to be careful that this doesn’t prevent her from resting. I will need to reduce the amount of management I do, especially the number of treats I give, and I will need to start allowing her to entertain herself.
To that end, while I should continue the relaxation protocol, I need to do it both in her crate and outside of her crate/on a mat. She said these should be considered two completely separate exercises. Further, she recommended routinely encouraging Maisy to rest quietly on her mat for 20-30 minutes a day instead of trying to keep her engaged in an activity. As the medication begins to take effect, I will hopefully see Maisy shift over into actual resting instead of operant relaxation. When I see this, she advised me not to interrupt her because “rest is also its own reward, and [I] can just allow it to happen.”
Finally, I need to remain attentive to Maisy’s needs. If there is a lot going on in the environment, I may need to switch back to management temporarily. As she wrote, “it is appropriate for [me] to move her away [from the situation] and fire treats at her as rapidly as necessary to reward her for mentally staying with [me].”
I really appreciated that Dr. Duxbury took quite a bit of time during our appointment to help me practice these steps. I learn best by doing, so even though all of this is stuff I’ve been told to do before, having her coach me on how and when to give treats was very helpful.
I am very encouraged by the success we had at class this week, and so I think I’m going to start over with the relaxation protocol. Maisy’s response has been very operant, and that is not at all what I want with it. Instead of following the program so rigidly by treating at the completion of each exercise, I will try to treat only for relaxed responses. I’ll continue with the slow, fluid treat delivery, too. I’m very excited to see how this goes!