Sunday, March 23, 2014

Napi's Second Reactive Dog Class: So Much Better!

Napi's second reactive dog class went much, much better than the first one did.

As before, when we entered the building, he piloerected and barked all the way to our station, and it was impossible to distract him with food. Once we got into our little corner, he barked a little, but quieted down much faster and was overall quieter than he'd been the week before. He also started eating much sooner, although he did "run out of stomach" (got full) about 45 minutes into class. Small dogs are so hard that way. After that point, he found petting and close contact to be very soothing, which makes me think he might benefit from a Thunder Shirt. Although Napi spent most of his time pacing at the end of his leash, I was very excited that he was willing to sit this week! It wasn't relaxed, and calling it "settled" would be a stretch, but definitely an improvement.

Once again this week, we worked primarily on classical counter-conditioning. In my opinion, this is the most powerful tool a dog trainer has for behavior modification. It's not a "sexy" technique, and to those not in the know, it doesn't look like much. Sitting somewhere and just feeding a dog, regardless of his behavior, seems strange and even counter-intuitive. I sometimes have trouble getting my students on board with this, but creating positive feelings about being in a new environment around new people and new dogs will allow a dog to calm down enough to begin thinking and not simply reacting.

This paid off for us in spades because not only was the class better overall, we also had a nice five minute stretch where Napi was able to "become operant" - by which I mean, we were able to work on actively teaching a skill. While classical conditioning is simply about creating an association regardless of the dog's behavior (“being here means I get yummy food no matter what I do”), operant conditioning requires the dog to do something specific in order to get the food (“now I have to earn my cookies”).

People new to training think that it's all about getting the dog to do something, so I often see my students ask their dogs for operant behavior before the dog is ready – and able - to offer it. The truth is, in the first week of a reactive dog class, most dogs are either at or over their threshold. Although not ideal, it's nearly impossible to avoid. When a dog is in this state, he simply cannot think well enough to perform behaviors. He's too busy freaking out about what's going on in his environment. He has to be emotionally comfortable before he can learn anything, and classical counter-conditioning is the key to this. This is why I encourage my students to simply feed the dog. It doesn't matter if he's sitting or standing, barking or quiet, or even if he's responding to cues. Just feed the dog.

Some dogs can move to operant skills work in the first week. Others, like Napi, can't. This is okay. Behavior modification is not a race against others. Napi is definitely a turtle in that respect; he will not overcome his past quickly. This is why I spent the entire first class just feeding him. And it's why I spent most of the second class (55 minutes) just feeding him. But we were able to do a bit of doing this week. Although it's not something we typically teach in reactive dog class, I worked on teaching Napi to make eye contact. I chose this task because I wanted to reward him for coming in and looking to me instead of roaming around at the end of his leash. Bonus: he learned what the clicker means!

I have to admit, I really did not want to take on another reactive dog. And I wouldn't have, had it not been for the fact that he came as a package deal with my fiance. But I'm actually kind of enjoying it. I'm already really pleased with Napi's progress, and I'm very excited to see what happens when the meds kick in. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, Crystal. My reactive dog and I have made great strides in going from classical from operant learning in his reactive dog class over the course of a year, and he recently was allowed access to a "regular" group class to allow him to expand his list of not-so-scary places. The new setting and being with dogs and people who are less well-managed than his Rowdy Rovers class has been hard on him, and we have to take a step back to do some classical conditioning because it's overwhelming for him. It was at first a little upsetting, and I felt like we had gone backwards in our progress, but it's just a gentle reminder that he needs a little help getting his brain in a good place before he can offer any behaviors, even if he's been offering them in his other class for some time. Napi is lucky to have you supporting him as your family continues to grow!