Sometimes, the unexpected happens…and it becomes a good topic for a blog post!
Last week, while working outside with a longtime client, a man came by on a bike. He happens to be a dog lover so he stopped and got off his bike to say hello. Everything seemed fine about that, the girl on the end of the leash had loose body muscles and was moving toward him to say hello back.
Then, IT happened. She got too close for comfort and suddenly barked and backed up. Immediately I asked him to back up and we went into a different mode of training.
My directions to this man were to turn sideways (not facing) this dog who wasn’t feeling so good about meeting a stranger, toss one of the treats I had given him away from him, and then move a few steps back; and repeat. When he did this, fairly quickly actually, she began moving toward him again with a loose leash. As tempting as it was for him to want to at that point reach down to pet her, I told him not to and to continue what he was doing.
After a few minutes of this, he was able to stand facing her and she was coming very close. His directions where to stand still, be a tree, except when she came close to toss a treat again. By this time she was maintaining loose body muscles and even staying near him.
The next criteria was for her to come close to his non-treat hand (she even touched it) and then her reinforcement for that was that he would toss a treat with his other hand. When she was continuing to show relaxed body muscles, the man’s next step was to bend over, stand up, then toss a treat.
By this time, he actually needed to be on his way but in a very short period of time, this dog worked made some great progress that would not have happened if we would have instead encouraged him to lure her to him with food right off the bat.
Very often, I see well intentioned people doing just that – having the person for whom the dog is afraid lure the dog to them with some high value food. The problem is that, while the dog may come close simply by the temptation of some incredible food, when the food is gone, the dog suddenly realizes it is WAY too close for comfort and more times than not will exhibit a fear reaction (barking, backing up, increased heart rate, tense body muscles, even lunging, snapping, or more). That well-intentioned effort on the part of people, may actually end up giving that dog even more reason to stay away and not trust that treat the next time.
The Treat/Retreat Game was coined by Suzanne Clothier. Systematic desensitization and counterconditioning are at the foundation of the game’s effectiveness. These strategies are about helping an animal overcome fear in a humane way that empowers and builds confidence in the learner. Counterconditioning is the process of teaching an animal to re-associate a fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting stimulus; and systematic desensitization is the process of gradually exposing the animal to what is scary with the criteria for advancing to the next step being ‘calm’ body language (non-elevated heart rate, loose body muscles, not fixated on the stimulus, etc.).
Treat/Retreat uses negative reinforcement, meaning that the dog’s reinforcement is getting distance from the fear-illiciting stimulus and thus getting relief. The behavior of initially moving away and then moving closing is positively reinforced with the food.
For this to all work well, you need to be attentive to your dog’s body language (and know what to look for). Please click here to learn more about dog body language. You also need to be careful not to proceed beyond your learner’s capacity to be calm or under threshold. Please reach out to a trainer who uses positive strategies for assistance if needed. Live in Cincinnati? I’d love to help.
Here is a simplified breakdown of the game:
NOTE: Make sure necessary safety precautions are in place as needed, just in case. The goal is to not move beyond where your dog (or parrot or any other animal)’s comfort level but still, if your dog has a history of aggression, safety precautions are good practice and will help you to feel more confident.
While I am explaining this with a visitor, you can play the part of ‘visitor’ when you are in the vicinity of a dog who exhibits a fear/aggressive reaction.
- Give your visitor tasty, bite sized treats.
- Your visitor should be instructed to avoid direct eye contact with your dog.
- When your dog has alerted to the visitor or begins moving toward the visitor (remember, curiosity may cause your dog to move closer initially but then may get out of comfort zone), the visitor should toss a treat away from your dog while that person stands still or even moves away.
- Repeat these steps over and over. Do not be tempted to progress beyond your dog’s limit.
- If you are in a situation where you can stop, take a break and give your dog a mental break with either sniffing or a bone while the trigger person is away (or even stopping for the day, to come back to), that is great. Always great to leave your dog wanting more!
- Raising criteria should be done in very small steps. Some different criteria you can raise (that are reinforced with a food toss) include closer proximity to the visitor, touching nose to the visitor, slight movement from the visitor, greater movement from visitor, finally (ONLY when the dog has been able to move passed over steps with calm body language) taking a treat from visitor. When you get to this step, after your dog takes a treat, the visitor can toss a treat afterward.
- Do this with a variety of people in a variety of places.