When we are training our fearful dogs we are facilitating a change in how they respond to events or objects (including us and other animals) they are exposed to. There is likely an endless array of ways we can come up with to do this, but ultimately what we are doing is making the scary stuff either neutral or good enough so that the dog can continue to seek out rewarding, reinforcing activities while in its presence. The ways that this can be done are based on how a nervous system reacts to stimulus.
Habituation occurs when constant exposure to something stops producing a response and in a sense becomes a non-event. When a collar is first put around a puppy’s neck it can be a big event. The puppy feels the collar and may be upset about it, some more, some less. Eventually, like us and a watch strapped around our wrist, the puppy doesn’t notice the collar, they habituate to wearing it. The challenge with using this approach with something that has scared a dog is that animals don’t habituate easily to things that they felt threatened by in the past. It doesn’t make sense for this to happen. What didn’t kill and eat you yesterday might just get you tomorrow. This makes our efforts to change how dogs feel about things very challenging and why simply exposing a dog to the scary thing is often not successful.
We can use a process called desensitization to increase the amount of the scary thing that is required to produce a fearful response. By starting off with small doses of it, and gradually increasing how much of a trigger a dog is exposed to, how long they are exposed to it, how many they are exposed to, how close they are to it, we can change the dog’s tolerance of it. This can be very effective but as you might guess, sorting out and controlling the “dose” of the trigger can be tricky. A big risk, and not one to be taken lightly is that if we go over the amount necessary to build tolerance and cause the dog to have a negative reaction we can increase the dog’s sensitivity to the trigger. This means that in the future less of the trigger will be required to produce the fearful response. If yesterday you fled from the monster when it was 10 feet away and you survived to tell about it, tomorrow when you notice that monster you will up the odds of getting away if you flee when it is 15 feet away. Now the reaction you had yesterday at 10 feet away from the trigger is occurring at 15 feet and as the monster gets closer your negative response to it increases so that at 10 feet away today you may be more afraid than you were yesterday at the same distance. Ooops. We didn’t mean for that to happen!
Counterconditioning is changing what the dog has learned the trigger predicts. For most of our dogs triggers predict feeling scared. That alone is enough to kick in the dog’s automatic responses so they behave in ways that might ensure their survival. They may run, they may hide, they may fight, they may beg for their life. It’s not easy to change this. It’s better to leap away from a stick and have it turn out not to be a snake then to bend over to pick up a rattler to use as a cane. The most effective way to countercondition is to combine it with desensitization, but if we make a mistake with the desensitization piece and the trigger causes a negative response from the dog we can still attempt to countercondition and maybe get the point across. And the point we are trying to get across is that men with hats and beards predict that fabulous things are going to happen. For most dogs some kind of smelly, greasy, real, food will do the trick. It may take numerous repetitions for the dog to make the association that it’s the scary monster man that is the heads-up notice that cheese is on its way, but when it does you can see it by the way the dog reacts. Instead of the trigger predicting fear is on its way, he now predicts that something good is going to happen and the dog behaves in a way that demonstrates they are anticipating the good thing. At our house when the scary monster man comes home Sunny runs and picks up a frisbee because the monster now predicts that games will be played. Sunny likes games.
By using our big brains we can come up with all kinds of ways to take advantage of how animals can change their response to stimuli they are exposed to. We can talk about what is going on for the dog in any number of ways as well; the dog is gaining confidence, learning they have control, making choices, learning skills, etc., but at the end of the day they are habituating, desensitizing or being counterconditioned to the trigger.
My goal for a fearful dog is straightforward, I want them to be able to function in their world easily enough that they can seek out positive reinforcement. I want them to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (or out of their crate or the corner they’ve hunkered down in). I want them to be able to enter new environments and be capable of looking for ways to feel good, to do something fun and rewarding, or to find a good spot for a nap. I want changes in their environment to elicit curiosity or the anticipation of something good, including the opportunity to do something they’ve been taught and get a treat for it, not terror or worry. We have our jobs cut out for us with our dogs that’s for sure, but by taking advantage of desensitization, counterconditioning and using positive reinforcement to train we are using our time, and our dog’s time wisely.