I’ve Got This Feeling…

Nitro and Sebastian

When a behavior problem isn’t really about behavior at all…

  Yesterday I went to visit some wonderful clients of mine. Ashley and Jordan have two sweet, excitable Labrador retriever mixes named Nitro and Sebastian. They’ve put a lot of effort into their pups, and at seven years old, Nitro and Sebastian can do all sort of behaviors, from the basics like sit, down, stay to fun tricks like give paw. Why then, would they need a dog trainer?   Well, Nitro and Sebastian live in a apartment complex in Chicago, which means that exercise and bathroom breaks all happen on leash. Going outside means they need to walk down the hall to the elevator, ride the elevator to the lobby, and get through the double doors to the outside. The problem? Shrill, intense whining, accompanied by heavy panting and other stress signals the moment anyone picked up their leashes to take them outside.   The first question many of would ask is “why?”   While not aggressive, Nitro and Sebastian are very anxious around other dogs. Seeing a dog would send both of them into a shrill chorus of intense whining and leave them panting from the stress of the encounter. And in such a pet friendly complex, that’s a pretty frequent occurrence.   All of us – dogs, humans, cats, hamsters, and even frogs and lizards – learn in two main modes: association and consequence. Behaviors like sit, down, and give paw are learned through consequence. The dog sits and is given a treat, so he will sit again the next time he is asked because the consequence of doing so was favorable.   Association has to do with emotion, not behavior, and dogs quickly form emotional associations with the things they enjoy or find stressful. They also come to anticipate the first signs that something emotionally meaningful is coming – like Pavlov’s famous dogs, who learned to associate the sound of a bell with being fed. (This is called classical conditioning.)   So what was going with Nitro and Sebastian? To find out, we actually need to work backwards. At our first session, I observed that dogs were obviously the major trigger for anxious behavior. So we can start there and work our way back by asking what comes before.   -Dogs -before dogs, exit building -before building, enter lobby -before lobby, walk to elevator -before the elevator, go out front door -before door, get leashes on   Now the source of their anxiety seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it? This is called higher order conditioning. I like to call it the rule of “what comes first?” If sequence of events is consistently linked to something emotionally significant (whether good or bad), dogs will always learn to respond to the very first event that begins the sequence. I’m sure you can use this process to think of some great examples of “what comes first” in your own dog’s life!   So…how do we fix this? Obviously, the underlying cause has to be properly addressed: anxiety around dogs. We immediately began forming positive associations with the presence of other dogs by consistently offering food as soon as they came into sight. Sebastian and Nitro are good eaters who love their food, so this went very well.   With that protocol in place, we took a close look at the chain of events linked to their anxiety, and began breaking that chain apart. What does that look like? It’s actually remarkably simple!   The first trigger for their anxiety was being leashed. So, we simply leashed them up…and did nothing except practice settling down.   Once being leashed up was no longer a trigger, we moved on to stepping out the apartment door. There we would feed them each a bit of food to create a positive association and…head back inside the apartment and settle down. We did this about three times before Nitro and Sebastian would walk calmly out the door without whining or showing stress signals. In fact, in anticipation of their treat, they began to offer a nice calm sit. Perfect!   What next? The elevator! We walked out the apartment door, fed a quick treat, and then walked down the hall to the elevator, where we treated again and then… Can you guess? That’s right, we went back inside the apartment and settled down.   The next stop was the lobby. We still fed at our previous “check points”: outside the apartment door and before the elevator. We also began expecting that the dogs would sit and check in with us before being treated, to promote not just positive emotions but desirable behaviors. Once in the lobby, we took the chance to sit down in a little resting area, and treated the dogs while they remained calm. Then…yep, back up to the apartment to calm down.   Our last trek took us all the way out the building’s front doors. We stopped our check in points (outside apartment door, before the elevator, in the lobby) and fed the dogs each time. The final frontier was stepping outside the apartment doors – where we did indeed see a dog. This is where all of our work came together: Nitro and Sebastian noticed the dog but due to their previous training, remained calm and gave us their attention. That was a big win for everyone, so ended on that happy note and took them back to their apartment.   This process only took up about half our lesson, and in that short time Nitro and Sebastian were able to get out of their building without any whining or excessive stress – for the first time ever.   Sometimes we’re not looking to change the way a dog behaves – we’re looking to change how a dog feels. Understanding how this type of conditioning works can help you understand your pet – and yourself – better.