From Passive Counter-Conditioning to Active Replacement Behaviors

No matter when a relationship starts going south, people are most likely to get divorced in spring, the season of sunshine, birds, and break-ups. One possible explanation is that being outside more and soaking up sunlight energizes us. It wakes us from hibernating, and lifts our spirits just enough for us to finally turn our unhappy emotions into concrete actions.

The spring divorce peak seems like a good analogy for a behavioral trend in young dogs: traumatic experiences may only show their full effect when the dog is an adult – once the teenage hormones have subsided and she has grown up. Being a teenage dog is our metaphorical winter – the body is busy dealing with changing hormonal statuses, new impressions and experiences; the brain chemistry changes every day. The dog may be feeling yucky feelings – but she doesn’t yet act on them, just like the unhappy partners spending their last winter together. Once spring is around the corner and the dog stops being a teenager, we see who she really is: an adult shaped by genetics and experiences, ready to translate her emotions into actions.

Grit had a traumatic experience when she was about 6 months old. She had been a confident puppy up until then. This experience made her suspicious of a number of things – among others, strangers passing us on walks. Her body language mirrored her discomfort, but there was no strong outward reaction. I focused on classical counterconditioning: when someone passed us, I’d stop by the side of the road, wait until Grit noticed the person, and then feed one cookie after the other until the stranger had passed us. If she was on a leash, I’d often just stand there with her and feed; if she was off-leash, I’d ask her to sit and then feed, feed, feed. This is a basic counterconditioning protocol dog trainers use a lot: the approach of something scary or uncanny is being paired with good stuff in the hope that the scary thing will come to predict the good stuff and eventually take on the positive emotional connotations of the good stuff. In Grit’s case, this worked well enough as a management tool. Her emotions towards strangers passing us on a walk didn’t seem to change a lot though, even though I applied the counterconditioning strategy almost every time we met someone.

When Grit grew into an adult Malinois, her passivity around strangers began to change. Coming of age was giving her the confidence to say her opinion – and her opinion was: “Get lost, stranger!” I could tell Grit would translate her insecurity into fight rather than flight if I just ignored this and kept doing what I had been doing: every time a dog barks and lunges at a passerby, the barking and lunging gets reinforced. The dog is saying “Get lost!”, and passersby tend to keep walking. To the dog, it looks like her behavior has caused the person to go away (rather than pull out a murder weapon and butcher herself and you, as was obviously the intention of this stranger walking down the street suspiciously, wearing suspicious shoes and a suspicious t-shirt and smelling all suspiciously and talking into a suspicious cellphone!) Naturally, the dog assumes he has just saved both your lives (you are welcome!) and averted a tragedy, and is determined to apply the same barking-and-lunging strategy next time.
Clearly, I needed a new approach to passing strangers on the road – feeding cookies wasn’t cutting it. I wanted Grit to learn a way that would get her what she wanted (distance from the stranger) without stressing her out (by being forced to remain motionless while things were going on around her). I wanted to give her an alternative proactive behavior rather than asking her to passively wait and sit and eat food while a stranger passed us.

Grit reminded me of an important lesson fearful dogs have taught me: for many dogs, waiting patiently while a trigger passes isn’t an appropriate replacement behavior to lunging and barking – no matter how many cookies we feed. Passivity (waiting and “doing nothing” is pretty passive) isn’t necessarily an ideal substitute for active, motion-based unwanted behaviors.

An ideal replacement behavior would be as physiologically similar to the original (unwanted) behavior as possible. In Grit’s case, the original behavior entailed movement. Think of your dog as a pressure cooker filled with emotions. Barking/lunging releases pressure and makes the dog feel better. If I ask her to sit politely and wait while eating food, she may still feel pressure cooker feelings – only that sitting still doesn’t release the pressure! As Grit got older and the pressure inside her got stronger, she’d bark as soon as I released her after the person had passed us. She needed to put this pent-up anxiety somewhere!

In order to work towards a more active alternative behavior, I resolved to keep walking instead of waiting by the side of the road and feeding as many cookies as I possibly could. Whenever possible, I curved around the scary trigger and avoided standing still – often, in fact, without feeding Grit at all. It turned out that keeping a distance to the trigger and staying in motion was more important than eating. First on a long line, later off leash, but wearing a muzzle, and under voice control (calling her to me to curve with me), we worked on encounters. When there was no way out, I played LAT instead of just sitting and feeding: now Grit had something to do rather than just remain passive and silent. She could look back and forth between the passerby and me, and stay in a thinking state of mind.

I’m really happy with the result: without me cuing her or intervening at all, Grit will now, whenever she gets a chance, choose to curve around or move away to make space for the stranger we are passing. And when that isn’t an option, she just keeps moving to get past them, like any other dog who never had a traumatic experience would. If she feels yucky feelings, she’ll speed up to get past the strangers faster. She herself is making these excellent behavioral choices – and her good choices are automatically reinforced by the fact that the passerby keeps walking and the distance increases. Also, I don’t need to manage her all the time, which is always one of my goals on my walks. Check it out. All the clips below are from the same walk. There’s no trigger stacking – we can hike busy routes off leash! (*)

Grit uses a path up the hill to put some distance between herself and the people passing us:

Grit runs into the field when people approach (the dog who keeps walking towards the people is Game):

Grit takes a path up the hill to let the guy pass (this time, Game follows her):

Sometimes, there is no way to give the stranger space to pass. Grit is now dealing with this by just keeping going:

In this video, you can see her speed up – her way to get past the encounter as fast as possible. She translates insecurity into movement, and this releases the pressure she may be feeling:

This encounter is nice and relaxed. Grit trusts the stranger isn’t going to approach or even look at her – she can just keep going.

(*) There is no leash-law here. The dirt road in this video is frequented by off-leash dogs that either walk with farmers or just walk themselves, so having my dogs pass people off leash is not an issue here. Off leash dogs are the cultural norm in rural Guatemala, and people don’t mind. Here’s another video from the same walk, showing two random dogs who decided to join us for part of our walk, and another scene of Grit – and everyone else! – running past people.

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