Monday, June 1, 2009

Counter Conditioning - TIMING IS EVERYTHING!

In the last two months we've been working on changing Duke's underlying attitude towards dogs. Much of the work we started off earlier was about teaching incompatible behaviors (i.e. Duke sees dog, he looks at us) but now we're tackling things a bit more head on.

For example, at the dog park - when we unleash Duke and dogs come to greet him, we click and treat as the dog approaches and Duke stays calm. (he takes the treat). When a dog approaches and sniffs Duke appropriately, we click and treat. When Duke approaches a dog and sniffs nicely, we click and treat. The result after just a couple of weeks has been phenomenal. While in the past, Duke used to let out a warning howl and snap to send incoming dogs away, now he tolerates their arrival and allows them to sniff him (and he will often sniff them back).

At the dog park, we usually do this work off-leash. I've gotten good at throwing a treat such that Duke sees it coming and can eat it in mid-air (or anticipate where it'll fall and pick it off the ground right away).

We've been doing the same, on-leash, with certain dogs on the street and sidewalk. Click and treat just for the mere presence of another dog (we're not asking for him to sit or look at us). Click and treat as the dog approaches. Click and treat after Duke passes the other dog. Click and treat if we can get them to meet on leash (major jackpot here).

A couple of things to keep in mind:

1. Safety - we've gone back to using the Gentle Leader so that we can close up Duke's mouth if ever he decided to bite another dog. Also a side effect of the Gentle Leader is it adds a certain level of suppression to Duke, which makes it a bit easier. (Suppression, as I see it, is the underlying fear of something unpleasant - in this case, pulling up to close the Gentle Leader is not exactly a fun thing)

2. Level of intensity and Flooding - if Duke won't take the food (I have waved milk bones right in front of his nose and he's turned away from them) it means the stimulus is too great. If this happens, you either have to lower the intensity (distance is best, or sometimes the particular dog is too "hot" for him) or increase the intensity of the reward.

3. TIMING IS EVERYTHING. The moment you click and treat is really critical. It has to be done the split second your dog's brain picks up the stimulus as its fed from his eyes. Its that split second where his brain is processing what the stimulus means where you have the opportunity to input meaning by a well timed click and treat. If you haven't had a professional dog trainer or behaviorist tell you that your training is bang-on, don't attempt this sort of program without getting expert help. If you're in the Toronto area, I can help you, or I can recommend someone who can.

I recently watched this video by Dr. Sophia Yin that really illustrates the power of classical counter conditioning. This video really shows that TIMING IS EVERYTHING.

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