From Fear to Confidence (for your dog)

A local dog training non-profit organization, Your Dog’s Friend, hosted a lecture called, “From Fear to Confidence”, a few weeks ago. It was given by Tonya Wilhem of Raising Your Pets Natural, a behavior professional from Toledo, Ohio. It was a very interesting talk with lots of food for thought, so I thought I’d share my notes!

    1. Bringing a young dog into your home is an opportunity to prevent fearful and anxious behaviors through positive reinforcement of which you should take advantage! Tonya gave the example of lavishly rewarding her puppy for calm behavior during thunderstorms (for years!), before he started developing storm anxiety. I’d note that it’s probably never too late to use positive reinforcement to prevent undesirable behaviors – so give your dog a treat for being good pupper whenever!!
    2. It is an owner’s responsibility to prevent (and if necessary, manage) situations that will put their dog over threshold. “Threshold” is a term meaning the point at which a stimulus will provoke a reaction. So my Luna can see a squirrel down the street and not react, but if a squirrel pops out of a few feet from us, you better believe she’s going after said squirrel. Thus, Luna’s squirrel threshold is somewhere between “down the street” and “a few feet from us”. For a dog that is suffering from anxiety, it is vitally important to keep the dog under threshold and that may mean the owner has to determine some areas and activities are off-limits. A dog-reactive dog just should not be walked in an area frequented by other dogs, and a stranger-reactive dog should likewise not be walked where loads of people will be.

      It’s worth noting that “reactive” and “anxious/fearful” can be synonymous for some dogs. A dog may be reactive (i.e. barking, lunging, and generally carrying on) for many reasons: frustration, fear, excitement, etc. You have to know your dog and your dog’s body language to tell the difference!

    3. Know your dog’s body language. How do you identify your dog’s threshold, prior to doggo becoming a lunging, barking mess? The dog’s body language! It is unfortunately true that some proportion of dog owners misinterpret canine body language so it’s a good idea for any owner to brush up on their canine body language in general and to carefully study their dog’s body language in a variety of situations. This piece on dog body language from the ASPCA is a good place to start but remember that every dog may be a little different.
    4. Use counterconditioning to change your dog’s emotional response to fear-inducing stimuli while your dog is under threshold. Counterconditioning is the process of pairing a stimuli that elicits an undesirable response with something positive with the goal of changing the dog’s immediate response to that stimuli. The key here is to use counterconditioning when the dog is well under her threshold! So I’ve used counterconditioning extensively with Luna – one example is with the neighbor whose yard abuts ours. For whatever reason (I’ll withhold my non-charitable thoughts about how this guy has never even said, “Hi!”, to me despite my perfectly friendly overtures), Luna has decided that she does not like him and will be barking at him at any given opportunity, thank you very much. To counter-condition Luna’s reaction to him, I kept her on leash (to keep her below threshold) and as we walked around our backyard at some distance from the neighbor, she would get treats for looking at him and not barking. Over many weeks, we slowly closed the distance between the fence and Luna, and now she (mostly) does not bark at him. Counterconditioning win!
    5. Appropriate tools and products are helpful, but they will only get you and your dog so far. Some pet products on the market will definitely make life harder for you and your anxious dog, because anything aversive -or force-based, like shock and prong collars, loud noise canisters, etc., will likely induce further fear and anxiety and undesirable behaviors. Great tools that will help you manage an anxious dog safely are widely available, such as front and back-clip and front-clip harnesses (Freedom Harness, Easy Walk, etc.) and head halters (Halti, Gentle Leader, etc.). In the way of counterconditioning, there are also products designed to help you deliver that special positive counterconditioning treat on the go, like treat pouches, LeanLix, Treat Toobs (fill with yogurt/pureed pumpkin/peanut butter/etc.), a really special toy, etc. And that’s just to name a few, and not including appropriate veterinary care, supplements, food, psychopharmaceuticals, and other products that may be helpful to an anxious dog.

      The bottom line is that a holistic approach to a dog’s anxiety is the only way to move your dog from fear to confidence!

If you enjoyed this entry, please give it a, “Like” and leave a comment below! I’d love to hear about your experience with an anxious or reactive dog.

If you’re in the DMV (that’d be DC-Maryland-Virginia area for you non-locals!), check out Your Dog’s Friend for other FREE dog behavior seminars like the one describe here (and great opportunities for fee-based classes too!)

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Journal Article: Hand Movements Are Mightier Than The Clicker?

Title: Clicker increases resistance to extinction but does not decrease training time of a simple operant task in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)

Authors: Shawn M. Smith, Ellen S. Davis

Published: 2008 Applied Animal Behaviour Science

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General overview:

These researchers studied the effects of using a clicker during dog training, as these devices are popular with dog owners but have not been scientifically evaluated. The authors identified three possible mechanisms that clickers may serve in the dog training process (definitions found here):

  1. A conditioned/secondary reinforcer: A neutral stimulus paired with a primary reinforcer until the neutral stimulus takes on the reinforcing properties of the primary.
  2. A marking signal: A signal used to mark desired behavior at the instant it occurs.
  3. A bridging stimulus: An event marker that identifies the desired response and “bridges” the time between the response and the delivery of the primary reinforcer.

In order to investigation the mechanism of clicker training, the authors recruited 35 basenji dogs that had never been exposed to a clicker. Eighteen dogs were assigned to the clicker group and the remaining 17 were assigned to a control group. The authors used a trainer to condition the clicker group dogs that the click was associated with food delivery in a nearby bowl, while the control group dogs were simply given rewards in the bowl with no click. Then the trainer taught the dogs a behavior (nose touch a cone) and conducted strengthening trials to reinforce the behavior where the dogs were intermittently rewarded for correct responses to the nose touch cue. These trials were followed by extinction trials in which the dogs were given the nose touch cue but not rewarded.

The authors found that there were no differences between the clicker and the control groups in the number of trials or the time needed to learn the nose touch cue, which suggested that the clicker did not serve as a marker or bridging stimulus. It did, however, the clicker group dogs significantly longer to achieve extinction – that is, to stop nose touching the cone after the nose touch cue was no longer reinforced with food. This suggested that the clicker did serve as conditioned/secondary reinforcer, possibly because the clicker dogs were facing “double extinction”: they had to unlearn both that the clicker did not result in a reward and that the nose touch did not result in a reward.

The authors noted that dogs in both groups were obviously responding to hand movements from the trainer that were associated with delivering food to the bowl, which may have interfered with the dog’s ability to associate the clicker with the food delivery instead. The authors also had a significant difference between the age of dogs and the time/number of trials needed to learn the nose touch behavior: younger dogs were faster than older dogs.

My comments

This was an interesting study because, as the authors noted, it is one of the few that scientifically evaluates the mechanism by which a clicker may facilitate learning in dogs. (How do dogs learn?Check out Crash Course Psychology Episode 11 and Episode 12.) However, I had some concerns about how the authors chose to evaluate the clicker in the context of owner-dog training.

First, the protocol that the trainer used to teach the dogs a nose touch behavior involved the reward being delivered in a dish rather than directly from the trainer. Why?? The authors did not explain this adequately. I wonder if this may have impacted the dogs’ learning based on the information I have read from Dr. Yin about the importance of timing and posture during treat delivery when training dogs. The authors even noted that the dogs were apparently watching the trainer for hand movements that indicated treat delivery to the bowl, which aligns with Dr. Yin’s assertion that treat delivery is highly influential to a dog’s learning experience. Furthermore, I have never heard of an owner training their dog in this manner – therefore, the validity of applying the results from this study to a typical owner training their dog is questionable.

Secondly, if the goal of this study was to evaluate the utility of a clicker in training by the average owner, using a professional dog trainer likely produced results that are not valid outside of that context. A dog trainer will likely have skills that the average owner does not, such as effectively applying cue-reward protocols where a regular owner may have faulty or incorrect application simply because of experience. Because owners may be less accurate during the cue-reward process of training than dog trainers, it is possible that dogs could pick up on the clicker as a marker or bridging stimulus in the absence of other effective instructions. Additionally, other researchers have found that dogs are more attuned to their owner’s social cues vs. a stranger’s behavior. If the purpose of this study was to evaluate clicker’s use for dog owners, the dog’s actual owner should have been used in the training process.

In summary, I agree with the authors that the mechanism of clickers in dog training is an interesting and useful avenue of study. Clickers may be a useful tool in promoting humane, effective dog training for the average owner but incorrect usage of the devices may frustrate owners. Understanding how clickers help (or don’t help) dogs learn could aid behaviorists and trainers to advocate effective and safe training methods to owners. While I do not believe this study’s findings can be applied to a owner/dog training scenario, it is an interesting contribution to the understanding of how clickers impact canine learning.