Common Mistakes When Modifying Behavior, Part 2

Here it is: the follow-up to our first behavior modification installment, not-so-originally titled “Common Mistakes When Modifying Behavior, Part 1”. In the first part, we discussed the difference between consequence (how something works) and association (emotional response), how behavior should be treated as information, and how important is to keep your dog below threshold when hoping to change behavior. We also talked about working our dogs in a neutral territory, and the pitfalls of trying to work too fast.

Today, we’ll discuss some of these points in greater detail, as well as add some new concepts about HOW to actually change behavior. Keep in mind that this is the “CliffsNotes” version of behavior modification and won’t turn you into an expert. If you find you need more help, we’re here for you!

In the Happy Dog Institute spirit of reinforcing us for getting it right and setting us up to be successful, we’re adding what you SHOULD be doing when modifying behavior – not just focusing on what you shouldn’t. Here goes:

DON’T confuse consequence and association. As we mentioned in the first part of this series, it’s important to identify WHY your dog does the behaviors they do: function (consequence) or safety (association). Dogs who are fearful, anxious and/or aggressive are usually feeling that something isn’t safe. Punishing or withholding reinforcer for reacting is a non-starter. 

DO focus on association (emotion) and use desensitization + Open Bar/Closed Bar to change emotion. Here’s the meat, folks. THIS is how – combined with everything else we’re talking about – we can teach dogs to feel better about something. Mind you, there are lots of methods for modifying emotion, but this is a popular one.

Counter-conditioning, otherwise known as “Open Bar/Closed Bar” is a method that combines two things: first, keeping the dog below threshold when exposing them to a stimulus (i.e. tall men in hats with beards). This process is called desensitization. The second method uses a reinforcer, often food because it’s so valuable. Here’s how an Open Bar/Closed Bar + desensitization session might go:

  1. Dog is HUNGRY and TIRED, and you have a large amount of smelly, tasty treats cut to the size of M&Ms.
  2. Strategically located in a neutral territory (i.e. not your neighborhood, living room, or a familiar park) with plenty of distance and a clear escape route – we like to stay relatively close to a car, too, if possible – stand around with your dog and be boring. The bar is closed, nothing fun is happening, they can’t have any food. BORING.
  3. Wait, wait and wait some more for something to turn up in the environment. Let’s say, for example, our dog is afraid of people – especially men as referenced above. When somebody starts walking past you, WAIT for your dog to notice. You want them to be so below threshold at first that they notice but aren’t worried. Remember, the goal is not to recreate the behavior but to hardly see it ever again.
  4. When your dog has noticed – really noticed – this person coming along, open the bar. This means you start feeding your dog at the rate of one treat per second until the person is gone. Don’t ask them to sit, don’t ask them to leave it (they shouldn’t be that close anyway!) and give them lots of lavish praise too. Why not?
  5. When the person is gone, abruptly stop feeding and praising (close the bar). Don’t tell them “what a good boy” or anything, just wait for something else to come along. Remember, you’re feeding for what’s going on in their environment, not what they’re doing.
  6. If they start to get closer to threshold, move back or reduce the intensity of the stimulus.
  7. Again. And again. And again, until they start to anticipate good things when people show up. Then, you can gradually move closer and closer.

Counter-conditioning is not glamorous and should be fairly boring and anti-climactic. That’s how you know you’re doing it right! Whatever you do, do NOT feed your dog or reach into your bag of treats, BEFORE they’ve seen the person coming along. That’ll teach them the wrong association! Let us know if you need some help with this process, that’s what we have Behavior Consulting for!

DO use your dog’s behavior is information. DO keep your dog below threshold. This ties into the first point about consequence and association. If you’re using your dog’s behavior as information, you now have one of the most valuable tools in your toolbox: the ability to read your dog’s body language and behavior in order to keep them below threshold and feeling safe. If your dog is “misbehaving” – and I’m not talking about eating the butter off the kitchen counters, here, I’m talking about fear, aggression and reactivity – it usually means that the dog shouldn’t have been in the situation in the first place.

DON’T use it as a way to apply or remove reinforcement (except in certain circumstances). THIS is how we change association-related behavior – not by trying to get them to “behave” and “be quiet”, etc. If we are trying to rationalize with our dog when they’re having a panic attack, how effective will that be? Here’s a hint: not very! It’s true that our dogs learn that doing a certain behavior, like aggressing or reacting, makes things go away pretty effectively. That’s consequence learning. However, we still need to delve deeper and help our dog un-learn these behaviors, and we do this by keeping them feeling safe, using their behavior as information, and applying reinforcer for EXPERIENCES, not behavior.

DON’T push them too fast. When you are working with your dog below threshold, using Open Bar/Closed Bar and desensitization, it’s tempting to move closer and closer each time your dog doesn’t react. But remember this: just because your dog isn’t reacting doesn’t mean they have positive feelings about something. We’ll say it again: just because your dog isn’t reacting doesn’t mean they have positive feelings about something. Don’t move your dog closer (i.e. push them) until you’re seeing clear evidence of a changed emotion. Every time I push a dog before I’m certain they’re confident at the previous level, I regret it. At least, I can’t think of a single time I’ve decided it was retrospectively a good idea!

 DO work in a neutral territory where your dog will be successful. Besides pushing your dog too quickly, it’s also tempting to move back home – or not work in a neutral territory in the first place. Don’t do it! Wait until you’re seeing a good amount of progress in a neutral spot before trying it out at home or in the neighborhood.

DON’T move too quickly into a non-neutral territory. Remember, your dog has likely had most of its negative experiences there, and you can’t escape! See points #3 and #4 from our previous post for more on the importance of staying below threshold and working in a neutral territory.

DO make sure your dog gets plenty of decompression walks, mental stimulation and cardio. You’ve heard that cliché that “a tired dog is a well-behaved dog”, right? Amen. We’ll take it a step further, though: walking around the block isn’t physical exercise. Walking is a social event, CARDIO is physical exercise. Also, mental stimulation is significantly under-estimated. Check out this information on Decompression Walks by Sarah Stremming and this Canine Enrichment Facebook group.

DON’T expect miracles. “Love the one you’re with” – are those song lyrics? Or just another saying? I’m not sure, but they resonate with me when talking about behavior modification. We have the dog we have, we love the dog we have (most of the time!) and we’d like to see them more confident and successful. However, we can’t change genetics, temperament, and/or a significantly under-stimulating or under-socialized puppyhood. One day at a time and we’ll see where we end up!

I don’t say this to be discouraging – I wouldn’t do what I did if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe in the power of optimism, diligence, compassion and science. I do, however, feel that it’s also very important to be realistic and set reasonable goals.

Get in touch if you need more help. We just added another Human Stranger Fear & Aggression class to the schedule, and we are working on getting some behavior webinars uploaded as well. Keeping checking back, or contact us if you’re interested in learning more. Happy training!