Big Problems Need Creativity (and Splitting)

Buzz – Feed Part 3. What if it’s too traumatic?

Classical conditioning, explained in part 1 and part 2 of this series explains how it works, and why you can sometimes pay, “bad” behaviour and get “good” behaviour. Common obstacles to success were also covered. If you haven’t seen those two blog posts, they’re a great place to start. But some problems seem too large, too insurmountable.

Families accurately point out that placing a fearful dog into a bathtub of water will result in an epic battle of wills where the dog uses the human to claw their way out. Animals seem to only learn, “If you hear water running in the tub – RUN!”

If the fear is too traumatic, adjustments can be made.

When a strategy fails to produce results, it becomes, by default, ethically questionable. It would be unethical to sell services that are likely to fail. Here’s the thing, classical conditioning can still work. Our feral kitty from Part 1 demonstrated this. The second ethical question would be whether a less traumatic option exists. It would be unethical to cause undue stress if another effective, but less noxious option existed.

Fortunately, classical conditioning isn’t simplistic. Challenging problems are solved by presenting triggers in smaller, more manageable steps. By reducing difficulty, the training process is easier on the animal. Splitting is a win-win.

A dog in training, learning to like baths, could be put in a dry, rubber lined tub to prevent slips. In this dry tub, feed the dog some special treats. Ensure that the food is presented correctly, as described in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. Fearful animals need to learn that bathtubs are safe before they can learn that baths are safe. They also need to know that their human can be trusted. When the dog is successful, the human is ALSO SUCCESSFUL.

Empty, rubber-lined tubs are a great starting point for puppies. Place them into the dry tub and offer them a little something special (but age-appropriate). In a short period of time, the tub should inspire as much happiness as a dog bowl does.

Empty rubber-lined tubs are easier.

Once dogs are indicating that they want to enter the tub (Can I get in the chicken bowl mom?), families can place a small amount of water inside. Make this a positive experience, like playing in puddles. Give a few treats. Splash a little (gently), but only when the dog is ready for it.  Increase the quantity of water in the tub gradually over days or weeks. Take care that you do not accidentally startle your dog with gushing water. Start with dripping water. Split big tasks into smaller steps. It ought to feel TOO EASY.

Gradually progress through more difficult steps. If in doubt…split.

Of course, there are some dogs that refuse to enter the bathroom. They are so terrified of grooming that it would be impossible to put them in a tub. Classical conditioning can still get the job done. Split the difference again.

Such dogs experience fear before they enter the bathroom. The tub and bathroom has negative behavioural baggage. Circumvent the baggage by starting with a new “tub.” Kiddie pools work well for this. Start with an empty kiddie pool. Teach the dog to like by showing the dog the pool. Then throw a treat INSIDE THE EMPTY POOL. The pool has no baggage and within a short time, the dog should be leaping into it. Then as before, add a little water and play in the puddles. Increase the water level taking care not to spook the animal with gushing hose water. Teach the dog to like baths in the pool. Once the dog has overcome the fear of baths, it should be possible to re-introduce them to the bathtub.

This is even easier for many dogs.

There are many different ways the steps in a training plan can be split. They should follow a logical progression: from what the dog can do, to what we want them to do. There should be a mechanism for testing if and when the dog is in fact ready to move to more difficult levels.

It may seem that splitting into many, many small steps would inevitably become a long and tedious process. The opposite, in fact, happens. When our dogs can effortlessly succeed, progress progresses more quickly. There are many ways in which a dog’s trigger can be adjusted such as the distance to the trigger, the magnitude, the duration, and more.

There is also a way of splitting standard obedience skills. While similar, the underlying processes are different. The main takeaway is that the rules of classical conditioning are very different from teaching skills. It’s important to know the rules in order to achieve training success. Knowing the rules informs us of how and when to apply them. If executed with precision, it is possible to teach an animal to like what it previously disliked.

In order to work efficiently, it does help to know how trainers determine if a dog is ready to “level up,” or “level down.” Classical conditioning creates responses inside the body, things like changes in salivation, heart rate, pupil dilation and so much more. These things are not readily observable. In the absence of laboratory equipment, there must be a test – and there is.

Next blog: Why and how you should test a dog before levelling them up.

I have taken liberties with the terminology in this series to prevent jargon from interfering with readability.