Originally posted in December 2010
Most of the dogs I work with live with serious anxiety and or aggression issues. Interestingly, I also live with a serious anxiety disorder. My anxiety manifests as panic, and I have a list of triggers as long as my arm. I am afraid of driving as a passenger in a car. I am afraid of teenaged girls. I am afraid of high schools. I am afraid of phoning people I don’t know. I am afraid of some crowds. I am afraid of going to Downtown Toronto. Conversely, I am NOT afraid of public speaking, sharing my vulnerabilities, taking an unpopular stand, standing up for the rights of the weak, intervening in a fist fight, or aggressive dogs. But when my anxiety is high, I reach for my old familiar strategy of panic. Like many of the dogs I work with, I have things I am anxious about and things I am not, but also like the dogs I work with, I am a one trick pony when I get triggered.
One of the things that I have had to learn to do in order to cope with my mental health issues is to find new ways of behaving in the face of my triggers. One thing I do is to use a service dog to provide me with more space. Sometimes I hold internal discussions with myself to calm myself, or I can take medication, and sometimes I call a friend to talk me down. The thing is, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I only had one trick; stand there and go through a panic attack with its dizziness, the increased heart rate and the shortness of breath.
This is similar to the situation for many of the dogs I see. When faced with their trigger, they only have one trick; it might be barking and lunging, or growling or showing snarl face or something else, but essentially, it is their one trick. When the trick they have for dealing with an issue is to charge and bite, this can be a very dangerous situation, and the key then is to teach the dog more “tricks”.
Now this sounds simple and it is, but there is a catch. When your arousal is high, and you are disoriented, you are always going to go back to the default behaviour that has either worked best or worked most frequently. If what has worked best or most frequently is dangerous, then as trainers we have to teach the dog to find alternate answers. This is where environmental enrichment and trick training become essential for working with difficult dogs. When we do effective environmental enrichment, and we teach a wide variety of behaviours, what we are really doing is teaching the dog to come up with new answers to old problems.
Environmental enrichment is the practice of increasing the diversity of the environment that an animal lives within. The goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life, but at the same time, we can also use environmental enrichment to help teach the dog to solve problems in different ways. Simple strategies such as putting your dog’s dinner in a paper bag and teaching your dog to find different ways to open the bag to get his dinner can help the dog to learn new ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking are what solving behaviour problems are all about. Once you have moved away from free food in a food bowl to paper bags, changing the picture again is important; we don’t want to teach the dog ONE new strategy-we want to teach the dog to problem solve.
Staying with the mealtime strategies, you can then move to a rolling tricky treat ball- (http://www.omegapaw.com/products/tricky-treat-ball.html) -which requires the dog to figure out how to roll an item to get the treats to fall out. Once he has mastered this type of toy, there are new alternatives; Kong (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQDJkW46BBk) makes one that wobbles, but doesn’t roll, requiring the dog to learn to persist in trying new strategies. Hollow rubber toys that hold biscuits but allow them to roll to the bottom help dogs to learn completely new strategies for getting food, and once your dog has mastered these, you dog is no longer a one trick food pony.
Learning to consider more than one solution to a problem can also be addressed operantly through training. Dogs who are anxious can be difficult to train, because the training process itself involves elements of failure, and failure contributes to confusion and anxiety. Confidence develops when the learner is allowed to have as many successful experiences after expressing some form of effort. Building successes can be a bit of a trick, and part of being successful as a trainer is allowing the dog many, many opportunities to guess right, when the stakes aren’t high and the arousal isn’t high either. Errorless learning happens when the dog is able to be reinforced for almost everything he does, because the scenario is set up so that he doesn’t make mistakes. There is a trick to making this work though; you must avoid just randomly reinforcing everything the dog does. You still only reinforce the thing that you are training. Errorless training can be as simple as hiding a toy in the same place every day, and then progressively moving the toy step by step away from where it was originally; you set the dog up to learn to go to that place and begin to look for the toy. For this to be errorless, you need to begin by showing the dog that you are placing the toy, and then place the toy in the same place later when the dog is not engaging in the toy. Over time you control two variables to teach the dog to look for the toy; if he is watching you place it, and how far from the original place the toy is left.
As the dog becomes more confident about his looking, you can go to reward based training to help him to understand that risks are safe to take. This is where clicker training really can help a dog; the process of free shaping is invaluable to teach the dog to try new things. Games like 101 things to do with a box can help dogs to develop the skill of being creative; essentially, you click for any interaction with a specific object, and then you progress to clicking for variations on that original interaction. If your dog chooses to sniff the box for instance, you could click that. Then you could click for two sniffs. Then you can click for three sniffs, and then for a touch, and then two touches and so on. Each time, you offer the dog the opportunity to decide for himself, what his next behaviour will be. You don’t name the behaviour because there is really no end for an anxious dog; you want him to keep trying new things.
It is important to understand that free for all reinforcement will make anxiety worse. Many people have noticed that parental and teacher approval often backfires, and approval in the form of rewarding behaviour can backfire in dogs too. When support for the looser in a contest in the form of approval is offered, it can create conflict in the child. The child knows he has lost the game and hears from the teacher or parent that he has done a great job. Confidence is dependent upon success, but only on actual success. The power of success can be boosted by recognition, but approval for errors is very damaging. So if a dog is anxious, cuing and prompting and then rewarding behaviours can create a similar sort of conflict within the dog. He may be doing the actions you ask for, but his emotional state is still anxious. This is where classical conditioning can come in handy.
If you know what your dog’s triggers are, you can start to tease apart the criteria that he can and cannot cope with. If your dog is anxious about other dogs for instance, the first thing to do is to figure out how far away from the other dogs your dog has to be in order to be calm. Don’t mistake the absence of behaviour found in the shut down dog for calmness. Being shut down is the result of being overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed is unfair to a stressed animal. It is what I go through when I have to drive in a car with a reckless driver; I may not look stressed, but I certainly am. To get an idea of what it is like to be completely shut down think about what it might be like to be in a bank during a robbery. When a gunman shows up and threatens you, you don’t show your stress; the obvious person will be the target. When you are overwhelmed, you will behave as normally as you possibly can, and hope not to be noticed. When a dog is overwhelmed, he may appear normal but in fact be very upset. You have to look for the subtle signs, the sweaty paws, the rapid eye blink rate, the jerky movements, to tell you that your dog is over his ability to cope well. A very effective way to determine if your dog is close to or above threshold is to offer him treats. If he takes treats normally, ask if he can do a simple behaviour he knows well; if he can, he is not yet at threshold. If he takes treats roughly, he is really close to his threshold for tolerance. If he refuses the treats, he is likely over threshold. And if you find that he has an upset stomach or diarrhoea, you can be certain that he was far over threshold even if he wasn’t showing you other signs
You can also figure out other aspects of your dog’s triggers. If dogs seem to trigger your dog, is it all dogs? Is it only black or white dogs? Is it only small or large dogs? And if you can eliminate the dogs from your dog’s life that concern him, you can begin to present the dogs who are a problem at a low enough threshold that he can begin to integrate those dogs into his repertoire. The mechanics of classical conditioning are very simple-you present the stimulus (in this case a triggering dog) at a low enough intensity (either far enough away, or not moving or otherwise not triggering for your dog) and you pair that with the opportunity to do something he really, really likes. Most often food is used for classical conditioning because you don’t have to take it away from the dog, you don’t have to worry about it going missing, and you do have to feed your dog anyhow. If you have two dogs who live in the same house who don’t like one another, you can feed them separated by a barrier where they can see one another, but cannot interact. If the dogs begin to snarl or growl at each other, you are working too closely, and classical conditioning can only happen when the stimulus is presented at a low enough threshold that the dog isn’t already triggered.
I am often asked if comforting an anxious dog will make them more anxious. It won’t. Consider going to a funeral; mostly likely you were upset and possibly crying. Alleviating a bad emotion comes by decreasing stressors, by having support from loved ones and by being in an environment where you can express your emotions in safety. You won’t feel any better if the funeral director told you to hold it together, and act happy. There is no reason to believe that this is any different for dogs. If you have a dog who is anxious and upset by something, and seeks support and calm by getting into your lap, then let him. If he finds comfort by leaving, then allow him to go. Do what you can to alleviate anxiety in the short term, and you will teach your dog that you are trustworthy and that you will help him to determine the best and safest thing to do in a crunch.
I often see new trainers create conflict in their dogs by setting the dog up to fail, and then rewarding the dog’s effort. Some students are so keen to have their dog succeed that they reward EVERY behaviour that the dog offers. Rewarding every behaviour can be a good first step in a dog who is really shut down, when we want to teach the dog that offering behaviours is acceptable, but when you want to teach the dog a particular behaviour, waffling between reinforcing variety and reinforcing a particular behaviour, you end up confusing the dog, and this means that although you are “rewarding” the dog, you are creating confusion instead of success and that is the sort of thing that makes a one trick pony dog more uncertain and less successful. Another way that my students set their dogs up to fail is to recognize that the dog is over threshold and take him far into the territory of fear and anxiety. Or some of the time, they recognize that the dog is in distress and make the dog face his fears anyways. None of these tactics sets the dog up to learn more than their one trick in the face of danger. As trainers what we need to learn is to set our dog up to learn new tactics, using what we know about triggers, thresholds, operant and classical conditioning, and remembering what it feels like when we ourselves experience anxiety.