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Close The Economy On Food
This means that your dog will receive all her daily food and treats contingent upon noticing the trigger, or as reinforcement while practicing DRI behaviors. She’ll get the same amount of food, but will be working for it. Your dog must want the treats being offered in order to form positive associations with the trigger. If she isn’t hungry, your plan will be ineffective.
Associate The Trigger With Good Things While Your Dog Is Under Threshold
This is the Counterconditioning (CC) and Desensitization (DS) part of the plan. We can change a dog’s emotional response to triggers by repeatedly pairing the trigger with something the dog enjoys, such as food, toys or play (CC). In time, the dog learns to associate the trigger with the pleasurable thing, and develops a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER) to the trigger itself. Your dog must always be kept under threshold, in other words, show no negative reaction to the trigger whatsoever. The intensity of triggers is then very gradually increased as your dog’s emotional response begins to change (DS).
By this point, you should have read the Terms and Concepts section, and completed the PrepCARE phase of the plan.
Prepare some soft, palatable treats, and cut them into pea-sized bits. Boiled chicken is a good choice. Begin at your carefully chosen location, and below your dog’s carefully established threshold.
In the beginning, very short exposure with high magnitude treats is efficient. For example, the first few sessions can last anywhere from 20 or 30 seconds to minute or so, and consist of just a couple of exposures or even a single exposure. After that, you should plan to work in sessions that are no more than about half an hour long, and, if possible, expose your dog to the trigger about half a dozen times. Exposures should appear random to the dog. Both the exposures and the “down time” between exposures are important, and are best if varied in length. This helps your dog make the appropriate associations.
The following order of events is critical: When your dog notices the trigger, wait two or three seconds, then begin rapid feeding of many small treats. When the trigger disappears, wait two or three seconds, then stop feeding. You should also talk calmly and happily to your dog as you feed him the treats. This lets him know there is nothing to worry about, and may help to keep you calm, too. Again, the order is critical; the dog must see the trigger first, before happytalk and the flow of treats begin, and the trigger must disappear before happytalk and treats stop. In the beginning, you will be putting the treats right into your dog’s mouth. It is important to note that the dog doesn’t have to do anything at all but notice the trigger. Watch for the dog to start looking at the trigger, then expectantly back at you. This is a developing +CER. It almost looks like a game, and it means the dog is beginning to form an association between the trigger and the treats. It should look like the example in the video below, in which a reactive dog is being Counterconditioned to pedestrians passing with a small dog.
attr. Veera Tohola
When a +CER is established, begin the next session just below the same intensity where you left off, and then slightly increase the intensity of the trigger until you are just beyond where you left off. Continue at this new level of intensity for as many sessions as it takes to again develop a +CER. Once a +CER is established at the new level, begin next session just below there and again slightly increase intensity of trigger and continue at that level until you have a +CER. Repeat, repeat, repeat. There is no standard time frame for developing a +CER. You must go at your dog’s pace. Only proceed to the next level when your dog shows you that +CER, by looking brightly and expectantly to you for a treat.
Here is another nice example of a dog being Counterconditioned, this time to scooters.
You will notice that no matter what triggers your dog’s reactivity, the procedure is the same. You can substitute cyclists, teenagers in hooded sweatshirts, men with beards, children, really anything that upsets your dog for the dog and scooter in the videos.
Note: if your dog becomes reactive unexpectedly you should get some distance and pay the contingency trigger=treat anyway.
Reinforce Desirable Behaviors
This is the positive reinforcement (R+) part of the plan. You will positively reinforce DRI behaviors. These are behaviors such as Sit, Down, Let’s Go, Watch, Walking Watch, Find It, Target, etc. These are the behaviors you want your dog to do instead of barking, lunging and pulling on leash. It is also recommended that you reinforce any behaviors you like and want more of. For example, if you are walking along with your dog and she “checks in” by looking back at you, reinforce it, and she’ll “check in” more often.
If you had determined at the beginning of PrepCARE that your dog is a frustrated greeter, you will start here. You will still get some associative learning that will produce a positive emotional response to your dog’s triggers as a bonus when you positively reinforce operant behaviors in situ for your reactive dog. Start in your living room, and move gradually to practicing in more distracting environments. Work up to practicing on walks as you pass other dogs, or practice on leash right after an offleash play session with other dogs, particularly the one(s) he just played with. If he hasn’t been offleash with other dogs much. Try to get your dog around other stable, well socialized dogs at every opportunity and help him hone his play skills by monitoring his play for overexuberance, and giving short time outs, should this happen.
For all others following the 3-phase plan, DRI behaviors are an integral part of the CARE protocol. You should have some already trained, such as Sit, Watch, Find It! Touch, and Let’s Go. You may need these now to get out of a tense situation if a trigger gets too close, and you may want to train others, such as Go Sniff, Say Hi, as you go along and your dog’s emotions and behavior change.
In any case, all reactive dogs need some new behaviors to take the place of barking and lunging. Consider a reasonable goal for your particular dog. Do you want to be able to pass, without incident, by another dog, stranger, or cyclist on the street? Do you want your dog to be able to briefly greet another dog or a person and then move on with you? Train these new behaviors to help your dog move calmly with you through the outdoor environment.
Eliminate Common Mistakes
DS/CC is a simple procedure; remain under threshold and create a one-to-one contingency, i.e. Trigger=Treat. Simple, right? It seems so, but this is where so many people, trainers and dog owners alike, have difficulty executing a successful DS/CC plan. You must eliminate these common mistakes to ensure the success of your DS/CC plan.
DON’T~ Give your dog the special treats when not in the presence of the trigger.
DON’T~ Expose dog to the trigger if you are not prepared to CC
DON’T ~Push too fast. Wait for a +CER before every small increase in intensity
DON’T ~ Create competing stimuli. You must make it clear to the dog that it is the trigger that predicts the treat. Period. If you reach for your pocket or the treat pouch before your dog has seen the trigger, your reaching hand may become the predictor of treats, not the trigger, as you had intended. If you keep treats in a plastic bag and inadvertently crinkle the bag each time, the crinkling sound may become the salient stimulus. Even driving to the same location, at the exact same time of day for DS/CC can signal to the dog that treats are soon to appear, and you’ve lost the one-to-one contingency you’re trying to establish. So, be sure to extinquish competing stimuli in your DS/CC plan. You can do this by wearing the bait bag around, filled with treats, or take it on and off without delivering treats from it. When you are with your dog, crinkle the plastic bag in your pocket from time to time without delivering treats. Vary your schedule and locations when doing DS/CC. This will make it clear to your dog that it is the appearance of the trigger and only that, which predicts the flow of treats.
DON’T ~ Leave your dog in a “behavior vacuum” by underestimating the importance of DRIs. DO show you dog how you want him to behave, and heavily reinforce desirable behaviors.
DON’T~ Skip around or omit any line of this plan, as it is a very condensed protocol.