A Simple Solution to Dog Problems

Sharing a lesson from the field:

Antecedent Arrangement, or management, and how it can help dog owners solve dog barking out the window problemsThe other day, at an appointment with a new dog training client, one of the problems she had mentioned was how her puppy – a terrier mix – would bark A LOT at squirrels Ellie saw out this one window in the living room. If you have a dog prone to this behavior, then you more than likely can empathize with my client. You probably never knew you had so many active animals outside until you brought a dog into your life. You may even look forward to evening darkness when finally, you have some quiet.

Think about it from that dog’s perspective. Having to be on alert all day, watching out for those critters who could be scampering through the trees at any moment can make you pretty tense. And then, just when you are able to relax, well, there goes another squirrel!

Anytime you are working to modify behavior, it is really important to manage the environment so that your pet does not get practice of that unwanted behavior. The scientific term for this antecedent arrangement, which refers to arranging the environment so that whatever is serving to set that behavior into motion is, well, not available; or so that your pet has less motivation to do that behavior.

In terms of the humane hierarchy, a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive, antecedent arrangement is a high #2 on that list, just below ‘addressing medical, nutritional and physical environment variables’.

And, there are many times where antecedent arrangement is enough to modify the behavior. I give examples in this blog post.

Ellie is yet another example. I just got off the phone with my client who told me she followed my recommendation to eliminate Ellie’s access to that window; and she has seen a dramatic change in her dog this past week. In addition to the lack of barking, Ellie has been better able to focus on other things and she is overall very much calmer. I can’t wait to go back for our second appointment.

This is my challenge to you: when your pet is exhibiting a behavior you do not like, an important question to ask yourself as your begin the journey of behavior modification is this, “What I can I do right away to make a change in the environment so that behavior won’t be set into motion because every behavior that gets practiced, gets reinforced.”

How To Stop Your Dog From Barking Out Windows

It is not uncommon for people who share homes with a dog to complain about their furry friend bursting into a barking frenzy as a response to seeing or hearing something outside the window. Understandably the noise can be really annoying to human ears, especially when it comes at inopportune times.

There are so many reasons why dogs react to stimulus by barking, panting, running side to side, and have accelerated heart beats. It could be territorial or fear or barrier frustration, or for herding dogs, it could even be due to your dog’s instincts to herd.

If this happens on a regular basis, you may want to take steps to modify your dog’s behavioral reaction.

Here are a few suggestions. Please note that behavior is always the study of one, with differing environments, stimulus and animals. These are some general considerations to think about.

Let’s look at this behavior modification plan from the standpoint of the Humane Hierarchy, a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive. For more on this, please see my post.

Antecedent Arrangement

If you have ruled out a medical or nutritional variable, then let’s begin with antecedent arrangement. What can be done to manage the environment so that a) your pet will not have access to practice that unwanted set of behaviors and b) your pet will have less motivation to do the unwanted set of behaviors.

Remember, practice strengthens behaviors and if your pet has access to seeing and hearing those outside stimulus when you can not be in teaching mode, you will be setting your pet up to keep practicing and getting reinforcement from those behaviors.

If your dog is barking at what he sees out the window, then consider blocking access to that window. Drawing the curtains may not be the solution as curtains can be moved by a pushy nose. Some suggestions are preventing access to the window or applying a cling film (that can be easily removed) to the window (purchased at a home supply store).

If your dog reacts strongly to outdoor noises, playing white noise or a radio may help.

As a motivating operation, if you increase your dog’s mental and physical exercise, you will be making resting more valuable to your dog. Think in terms of exercising your dog’s mind and body through training, thinking toys and games.

Positive Reinforcement

In a controlled setting, when you are fully focused and in training mode, you can teach your dog behaviors you would like to see in him when he sees something outside.

A friend of mine saw trouble ahead when her neighbor began letting two dogs out to run and bark on the other dog training tips: how to stop your dog from barking out the windowside of the fence. Karen first saw Baxter, who is a certified therapy dog, running back and forth and she anticipating the barking that would come next. In that moment, she averted his attention quickly and then started putting together a plan. With high value treats, she began teaching Baxter that the cue ‘doggie doggie’ was for alerting (turning his head to look at them) to the other dogs, and then running to Karen for something awesome. She began teaching this inside, behind a window where Baxter could succeed before moving to outside.

What Karen was doing was very similar to Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That Game beautifully detailed in one of my favorite books, Control Unleashed. In a very simplified description, Look at That teaches your dog that *when* he looks at a stimulus, *then* something awesome happens like a pretty tasty treat getting delivered by a well liked human. As your dog’s teacher, playing this means being in a location and at a time when your dog will not be over threshold (in other words BEFORE the lunging, barking behavior begins). Begin by teaching your dog to look at something more neutral. As soon as your dog notices the stimulus, then you mark that behavior such as with a verbal Yes! or a click, and then follow it with a high value treat. As you have continued success, you can first move this game to a more distracting environment, and then a more distracting stimulus. (Leslie recommends teaching this with a cue.)

Very important here is the timing and consistency with which you teach this. Before going any further, I encourage you to read my post on classical conditioning.

As for timing, remember, for your dog to learn that one stimulus (in Karen’s case, the barking dogs next door) predicts another stimulus (tasty food), then the dogs barking must come before the tasty food.  Marking the very moment your dog sees the stimulus is very important as the quicker that consequence occurs after a behavior, the easier it is for an animal to build the association between behavior and consequence.

The management portion of this plan is important because if you allow your dog to practice reacting to his environment outside of your limited training time, you will make behavior change very difficult.

As for Karen, with enough practice, instead of barking back to the dogs next door, when he hears them outside, he runs to find his housemate.

In your house, you can practice classical conditioning without the cue as well.  In a controlled learning environment and without the cue, practice having your dog see stimulus such as people walking to your door or riding a bike down the sidewalk and immediately follow that with giving your dog a super tasty treat. (beginning this at a distance from the window or with people at a distance from your house where your dog will not begin barking and progressing only at the pace at which your pet can succeed at remaining calm – having relaxed body muscles and normal heartrate). The changes you are seeking are internal, involuntary responses. As trainer Kathy Sdao says, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus. You can do this exact same process only with sounds instead of visual stimulus.

To see a fun example of the effectiveness of classical conditioning, please watch this video.

On a last note, remember, if your dog jumps and barks at the sound of your doorbell, chances are pretty likely he has learned that jumping and barking at the doorbell causes the door to open and either – incredible people or scary creatures to walk in. That is another lesson for another day.

 

Effectiveness Is Not Enough In Animal Training

I was one of more than 500 trainers from across the globe who convened on Dearborn, Michigan in March for the Karen Pryer Clicker Training Expo. It was a phenomenal opportunity to learn from some of the best trainers and behaviorists whose focus is on modifying behavior in the most positive way. What also made the weekend special for me was the chance to see my very first teacher and long time mentor, Dr. Susan Friedman (who pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Science to the care and training of captive and companion animals). Susan is who opened my floodgate to behavior science and got me hooked on it.

In one of her lectures, ‘Effectiveness Is Not Enough’, Susan reminded us to make a habit of two things: to HELP or at least to DO NO HARM.

Ask yourself…

When a dog snarls at youth on skateboards and is held down while they continue to skateboard in small circles around him until he stops reacting, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

When a dog struggles to escape a comb held close to his face and is restrained at the scruff while combing his muzzle until he stops resisting, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

When a dog lunges, growls and barks while on leash while another dog is around and is restrained until he stops those behaviors, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

What do all of these approaches have in common?

In each of these circumstances, the frequency and/or intensity of a behavior is decreased in order to remove or get distance from an aversive stimulus that is added to the environment. Scientifically this is called positive punishment.

Does this work to change behavior? Unfortunately, it does, and every time it does the teacher is reinforced for using it.

Susan has reminded me time again the cost of using this approach.

Sure, you may have changed behavior but punishment can cause apathy, generalized fear, counter aggression, and escape/avoidance. Punishment does not serve to ‘teach’ the animal what you want him to do instead and most certainly does not teach the teacher how to help the animal succeed. It requires escalating intensity to maintain suppression. It is actually a double negative in that it both it is a big withdrawal from the positive reinforcement bank while also being highly aversive. AND, for all of this, the teacher can become associated with those aversives.

In fact, in several of the cases above what has happened is called ‘learned helplessness’ as a result of flooding. Flooding is a form of training in which the animal is exposed to an aversive stimulus with no possibility of escape until the stimulus no longer arouses anxiety or fear. But can you imagine the level of anxiety and discomfort it causes the animal in the process? It is either sink or swim basically. In many cases flooding only serves to make the animal more anxious and forces it to adopt different coping mechanisms to ensure safety and survival.

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

Watch this video where Ceasar Millan teaches a dog to ‘calm down’. Specifically at about 3:14 into the video you will see an example of flooding. Watch the body language of the little dog he is working with. Sure, that little guy is not lunging and barking any longer after being held back but does he look like a dog who has learned a positive association with being near to the golden retriever or is this a case of learned helplessness? (What is that little dog’s tail, face, and body doing?)

Susan teaches a Humane Hierarchy when it comes to behavior change strategies. As much as possible, animals should be empowered to use their behavior to control significant events in their life. Read more: Dr. Susan Friedman: What’s Wrong with this Picture

The Humane Hierarchy is a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive with Level 1 being the most socially acceptable and giving the animal the highest amount of control. “The overwhelming majority of behavior problems can be prevented or resolved with one or more strategies represented in Levels 1 to 4,” she wrote in a paper.

The levels include:

Level 1: Distant Antecedents – address medical, nutritional and physical environment variables.

Level 2: Immediate Antecedents – redesign setting events, change motivations, and add or remove discriminative stimuli (cues) for the behavior.Dr. Susan Friedman's Humane Hierarchy in animal training

Level 3: Positive Reinforcement – contingently deliver a consequence to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur, which is more reinforcing than the problem behavior.

Level 4: Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behavior – reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.

Level 5:

  1. Negative Punishment – contingently withdraw a positive reinforcer to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.
  2. Negative Reinforcement – contingently withdraw an aversive antecedent stimulus to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur.
  3. Extinction – permanently remove the maintaining reiforcer to suppress the behavior or reduce it to baseline levels.

Level 6: Positive Punishment – contingently deliver an aversive consequence to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.

Learn more about antecedent arrangement and using it by clicking here.

Learn more about differential reinforcement, by clicking here.

 

When I train dogs and other animals, I always work to empower them, by teaching them that making a wanted behavior choice will result in a positive consequence. What is an example of how you modified your pet’s behavior in a positive way? I’d love to hear.

 

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