Families working through fear and anxiety based problems are often told that their dog needs a positive association to the trigger. To accomplish this, they are told to do something like this:
When the dog notices the trigger, feed, feed, feed until the trigger is gone.
It’s like teaching a cat to like a can opener.
Buzz – food.
With repetition, the cat starts to love love love the sound of the can opener. Similarly, with repetition, the dog starts to love love love the trigger. I used classical conditioning at the beginning of the, “How to Dremel Your Dog’s Nails” video.
Classical conditioning works best and fastest when people do fewer repetitions with longer breaks between. And yet, people often feel like they didn’t get enough homework done each week.
Here in Canada, we have extremes in weather. It can get too hot in the summer and far too cold in the winter. You can walk for days in the winter and see no one. When clients apologize at their inability to get work done, I ask if they consistently paid the few repetitions they did manage to do. I also ask what they did during the downtime.
Instead of strolling about peacefully, many drill other skills. Usually they start to incorporate some darn piece of online advice that sounds like it ought to work. They hear that hand target might redirect their dog. They read that leash walking might help. They are told to work focus. Sounds good on paper. Or should that be sounds good on monitor?
I suspect that most people are uncomfortable with downtime. Downtime feels like a waste of time. We grew up being told that if ten math questions are good, then twenty are better. Fifty makes you a rock star. We are accustomed to the idea that we should be working more and not less.
Remember, classical conditioning works faster with fewer repetitions broken apart with longer breaks while using a huge payout. No trigger – no treats is right. How much more difficult is it for the dog to recognize that the trigger means treats if treats flow and no trigger is present? For some dogs, it makes it impossible for the association to ever form.
No trigger needs to mean no treats. It’s important. Drilling skills during downtime is counterproductive. However, there is another class of drills you can do. You can work the opposition.
I admit to appropriating this expression from my Body By Simone workouts. It’s a fitting analogy for an often overlooked category of exercises that can supercharge your rehabilitation work.
Work the Opposition. What does that mean?
Take a look at your biceps. When you curl your arm, using your biceps, your triceps underneath relax. When you kick your arm back, using your triceps, the biceps relaxe. These two muscles work together and in opposition. One works, the other relaxes. One relaxes the other works. If you work on your biceps, you’re reminded to also “work the opposition.” There are TWO parts to your upper arm. You need to work BOTH to have a strong arm.
In classical conditioning there are also two parts to the exercise. The trigger is present or it is absent. One or the other is happening. Two parts, working in opposition. You work one or the other.
Feeding after the the dog notices the trigger is the exercise most are familiar with. Part two involves driving home the point that the trigger is absent. Work the “opposition.” The downtime between triggers allows us to work what is NOT the trigger. This doesn’t require any food at all. So it doesn’t sabotage our goals.
Downtime is a large and generous opportunity to do a process of elimination. This is not the trigger and that is not the trigger. This neither is the trigger.
See, the world is full of people, places and things. We don’t work in a sterile box where the trigger and only the trigger appears. The dog can form associations to any number of things. We might be thinking the dog is noticing the trigger, but they might be noticing something entirely different. There are dozens of “not the answer” in the real world. All these competing things can get in the way.
Humans are pretty predictable. While some people have unusual quirks, most people have very similar habits. These habits can accidentally suck the association away from the actual trigger.
People, including trainers often do predictable things like:
- Put up barriers and dividers to prevent dogs from having a direct line of sight to triggers. These barriers are new and novel and thus conditioning magnets.
- Shorten the leash when a trigger approaches to gain better control.
- Wear bait bags. Dogs notice the magical bag and learn that bait bags are awesome. Trigger – what trigger? Bait bags rock.
- People reach into pockets. Dogs learn that this predicts food.
- People grab for packaged items that crinkle. Jars with lids. Treats on tables.
- The smell of high value food wafts to the dog’s nose when we load up prior to getting to work.
- Leashes, harnesses, muzzles are placed on the dog before going out to train or before guests arrive.
- Still others, in an effort to give the dog space, move to the side when triggers are nearing.
There are many, many more dog training tells that we all have. But these are really common. We all have unique dog training tells. Like poker tells, except these are things that dogs pick up on during training. Our actions and habits can prevent counterconditioning from working correctly.
The downtime between triggers, that long, long pause affords us the perfect opportunity to address all of these things. Think of these as “not” exercises. These are “not” the trigger. It’s a process of elimination where all the wrong answers are presented to the dog and food fails to materialize. Triggers are nowhere to be found.
Working the opposition is a low stress effective thing to do. There is no trigger and yet, the dog is learning. What sorts of things should one do?
- Bring out barriers and don’t have any triggers present. Although reducing the intensity of the trigger is probably a better strategy. Try avoiding barriers and marker if at all possible. There are times when barriers cannot be avoided. If that’s the case, make sure it’s not sucking the association away from the actual trigger.
- Wear a bait bag and don’t work the dog. Put it on. Take it off. Repeat. No trigger and no cookie. Bait bags are irrelevant.
- Reach into pockets. Bring out your inner actor. Pretend you’re reaching for food. And then don’t feed it.
- Scent yourself with high value food. Put a piece of chicken or cheese in a pocket. The smell of really good food does not mean it will materialize.
- Crinkle bags, reach for food containers, open jars. Don’t feed. These sounds mean nothing.
- Periodically put leashes, harnesses or muzzles on dogs when not working them. Then take them off.
- Try walking off to the side of the sidewalk when there are no triggers approaching. Stop, pause, then move on. Moving to the side is just something to do.
- Periodically shorten the leash and then let it back out again. Shortening the leash has no meaning.
Once you’ve removed the standard predictable things from the list, use careful observation to look for the quirks. We all have little tells. Unusual exceptions that can be spotted if we only open our eyes and ears to the possibility of their existence.
For example, my door has an automatic door lock. The sound of the lock is something all dogs notice. To counter this, I often lock and unlock the door for absolutely no reason. The dog learns that it means nothing.
All of these can interfere with our conditioning efforts if not addressed. Working the opposition is an opportunity to clear a path to the right answer. Remove all irrelevant information. Clear out any confusion. Assume the dog may not be noticing what you think is obvious to you. What remains is a clear line of sight between the trigger and food – ONLY the trigger and food.
Well-executed classical conditioning involves a lot of downtime. And that’s the right way to do it. Downtime allows for low stress exercises that provide clarity. Work the opposition. Pay close attention to your unique dog training tells. See if you can spot them. Share them so others can can start looking out for them as well.