Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Touch

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

This is part two of the sample translation of chapter 8.3 (Early interventions for fearful puppies) of my German-language puppy book. Click here for part 1: Protocol for Proximity.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Special thanks to canine sports medicine extraordinaire and FDSA colleague Sue Yanoff for proofreading, and for her thoughtful feedback! 

 

Work through the Protocol for Proximity before working on the Protocol for Touch.

Protocol for Touch

 

Your Dog’s Chest

 

Now it is time to raise criteria again. Approach your puppy just like before. Squat down. This time, reach towards the front of her chest, but stop your hand at about 10 inches distance – do not touch her. Click, drop the treat, and retreat. Wait 15 seconds between reps, and stay at this level of difficulty for at least 5 reps. If your puppy is comfortable with the hand reaching towards her, move your hand 2 inches closer the next time. Click, treat, retreat. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat. Raise criteria only when your puppy appears confident and relaxed.

 

You should soon be able to move your hand up close to your puppy’s body. Now you are ready to gently touch the front of her chest. Gently put your hand on her body, barely touching her. Repeat this step at least five times without your puppy showing the stress signs described in the ladder of aggression (see body language chapter). She should remain perfectly relaxed: the muscles are soft, the tail rests on the floor or wags gently in expectation of a treat. The body isn’t stiff, but loose. Rolling over onto one hip is a good sign.

dog training, fearful dogs, protocol for touch, puppy training, counterconditioning, desensitization

 

Did your dog stay relaxed or show signs of happy expectation? Excellent. In your next rep, put a little bit of pressure on your dog’s chest with your hand – the same amount of pressure you would use when petting a dog. Repeat this step at least five times, and make sure your dog is comfortable. Once you can do this, you are ready to slowly stroke your dog’s chest. Move your hand over her chest for three inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. After five reps of this, move your hand over her chest for 6 inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. Repeat five times, and raise criteria to 9 inches. (If your dog is very little, 2, 4 and 6 or even 1, 2 and 3  inches may be better suited!)

 

Your Dog’s Chin

 

Once this works well, it is time to move on to a different body part. Your dog’s chin tends to be a good second spot. Again, start with extending your hand towards her. Stop your hand at about 10 inches distance from your puppy’s chin, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Work your way up to touching her chin, just like you did with her chest. Once you can touch her chin, scratch her with your fingers for one second before clicking, dropping the treat, and retreating. Gradually extend the time you spend scratching your puppy’s chin by counting in your head: “One good puppy.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. Work your way up to 5 good puppies before moving on to the next body part.

 

Your Dog’s Side

 

Next, you will desensitize your dog towards touching her side. Just like before, start by reaching towards her without actually touching her body, and work your way up to a 9-inch stroke (less if your dog is very small).

 

Your Dog’s Withers

 

A good fourth spot to work on is your dog’s withers. Be patient – this may be more difficult for your puppy than the previous body parts. Follow the protocol until you can stroke from the withers back to her rump. Does she seem enjoy you touching her rump? If so, step five should be initiating touch there, and gently scratching her rump with your fingers. Work your way up from “One good puppy” to “Five good puppies!” of rump scratching. If she doesn’t enjoy her rump being touched, leave out this step.

 

Your Dog’s Head

 

Equally difficult is your dog’s head – your sixth spot of touch. Take your time, and only increase criteria when your dog is completely comfortable with the previous step. Your goal is being able to stroke from her head down to her withers.

 

Your Dog’s Chest and Belly

 

Number seven in our list are your dog’s chest and belly. Start when your dog is relaxing on her side, but not asleep. Allowing you to approach while exposing the belly is a sign of trust! Gradually build up your approach again before physically touching her body. Your first spot of touch is just behind the front legs. Build up to stroking her all the way back to her belly. If your dog doesn’t usually rest on her side when you are around, that is okay – skip this step for now, and move on to spot number 8. On the other hand, if your puppy enjoys being touched on her chest and belly, feel free to experiment a litte and gently scratch different parts of her belly. Never keep your hands on her for more than 5 seconds at a time (“Five good puppies!”) before clicking, treating, and retreating.

 

Your Dog’s Legs

 

Now you are ready to work on another sensitive body part: your dog’s legs. Start with the shoulder of a front leg, and gradually increase how far your hand slides down. Most dogs prefer a medium amount of pressure to a very gentle touch on their legs. Your goal behavior is slowly sliding your hand down from the shoulder muscles to the toes. Go through the protocol for both front legs, followed by both hind legs.

 

Generalization

 

Repeat all steps when your dog is standing instead of lying down. Choose a time of day where your puppy is calm and relaxed, and start from scratch: take a step towards your dog, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Gradually decrease the distance, and then add touch. Start with every new body part like you did when your dog was lying down: the front of her chest, her chin, side, withers and back, head and neck, chest and belly, front legs and hind legs.

 

Puppies under 16 weeks of age should be able to go through the protocol for proximity and touch relatively quickly. Dogs that age are still behaviorally flexible. The fear response isn’t fully developed yet, and positive experiences quickly lead to positive associations. Nevertheless, a puppy between 12 and 16 weeks will already require more time and patience to learn to like your touch than a puppy under 12 weeks would. The socialization window has already started to close.

 

dog training, puppy training, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, desensitization

Have you successfully worked through the entire protocol on your puppy both when resting on her bed and when standing upright? Good! It’s time to generalize what she has learned! Keep practicing in different rooms of your house as well as outdoors. At the same time, the other members of your household should work through the protocol as well. Dogs do not generalize well. Everyone who works through the protocol needs to start from the very first step. Don’t worry though – with every new helper, your puppy will make faster and faster progress. Once your puppy is comfortable being touched by your entire family, it doesn’t hurt to ask dog-savvy friends to work through the steps as well. Choose calm helpers you trust with your dog, and give them clear instructions on when to feed and retreat. Click for them in order to help their timing. The more people your puppy learns to trust in this way before the age of 16 weeks, the better: women, men, children, and elderly people. Equally important is generalizing proximity and touch to as many different environments as possible. Work in different indoor and outdoor locations in order to generalize her positive associations to touch as widely as possible.

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Registration for Out and About , her April class at FDSA, is still open! Join me to learn more about advanced recalls, leash manners, getting past distractions, and keeping everyone safe on your dog-based adventures!

 

The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

What happens in your body when you run into a lion?

I’ve been translating parts of my German-language book on fearful puppies, and decided to rewrite and extend my introduction to the specific training protocols for helping young dogs conquer their fears. All my protocols stress patience and working under threshold. Here’s the reason why:

Psychogenic distress has a number of physiological effects we should be aware of when trying to help a puppy overcome her fears. There are two systems that get activated under stress: the sympatho-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Let’s look at them by means of an example.

Imagine you are walking to the supermarket. Suddenly, a lion jumps out of a driveway. The SAM axis responds immediately – your adrenaline levels rise quickly, and you are getting ready to outrun or fight the lion! A few minutes later, your adrenaline levels drop back to normal again. The same holds true anytime your puppy meets “her lion” – no matter whether that’s indeed a lion, a person on crutches, a strange dog or a teenager on a skateboard.

The HPA axis, on the other hand, is activated more slowly and remains active longer. It leads to the release of cortisol. Indeed, your cortisol levels will only peak approximately 20 minutes after you ran into the lion, and elevated cortisol levels can be measured in your body for up to an hour or two after the stressful event. Again, the same things happen in your puppy’s body when she encounters a trigger.

Why is this relevant when trying to change your puppy’s negative associations to skateboarders, men in hats, or strange dogs? Staying under threshold in training is significantly more effective than training in a state of mind our dog would be in if she saw a lion: anytime your puppy experiences distress, her ability to learn is compromised. While we do want to face the triggers your puppy is concerned with, we need to stay at a point where they do not trigger the physiological responses associated with distress. A puppy’s brain is most receptive when she is in a relaxed and attentive state of mind. That’s why, in order to maximize the training benefits for your sensitive puppy, you should stick to the recommended maximum duration of the training protocols as well as the minimum relaxation times in between sessions. If your puppy “goes over threshold” (i.e. the physiological stress response is triggered), you don’t only lose the benefits of your current desensitization session, but also of the following reps: the physiological stress response takes a while to subside, and only when your puppy’s body has returned to homeostasis can you effectively change her association to a trigger by one of the protocols described below.

Stress Stacking

Earlier in this chapter, we learned that adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t immediately drop back to normal the moment a real or metaphorical lion disappears: adrenaline levels stay elevated for several minutes, and cortisol levels for up to two hours. When several minor stressors happen immediately one after the other, the total level of stress keeps rising. That is to say the puppy doesn’t process them one after the other (image 1), but simultaneously (image 2).

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 1: Meeting several minor stressors in a row isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

An isolated trigger that is only perceived as slightly stressful by your puppy might cause your puppy to run away, freezy, alarm-bark or air-snap if it happens simultaneously or soon after another minor or major stressor. Stress stacking is also the reason many moderately reactive puppies and dogs don’t react to the first or second trigger they meet on a walk, but will react to the third one.

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 2: … but more like meeting a lion!

Thresholds and Relapses

And there is another reason I recommend always working at a distance to the trigger that is great enough to avoid fear reactions. Experiments show a connection between elevated heart rate during training sessions and future relapses. This hasn’t only been studied on animals, but also on people undergoing exposure therapy in order to conquer phobias. The results showed that the subject was most likely to relapse when the level of fear they themselves reported to be experiencing was out of line with the level of fear indicated by their heart rate. This is why I don’t like using food lures when socializing fearful puppies: a food-motivated puppy may be tricked into approaching someone she wouldn’t approach otherwise, only to realize she is in way over her head once she has swallowed the food.

Special thanks to FDSA instructor Jessica Hekman for making making sure I got the science right! Jessica also pointed me to one of her articles, which wasn’t only helpful, but also interesting and enjoyable to read. Check it out if you want to learn more about psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

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.

Building Courage Around Town

Grit is not a fan of the urban world. People, cars, concrete, motorcycles, and the hustle bustle … Not exactly her favorite thing. We used to live in a teeny tiny town, at the end of a dirt road. I could open my gate and would pretty much be in the middle of the woods right away. It was perfect for her.

Now, we live in a townhouse in a dead-end street. It took Grit a while to feel at ease downstairs, with the large glass front looking out into the street, and it took her even longer to feel safe in the fenced-off carport in front of the house. But we got there, just by means of living life rather than consciously working on it. We can now play and train here, and it has become part of her comfort zone. This brings us to yesterday! I’ve started taking Grit on “city” walks in my street. Up until now, I hadn’t asked her to go out into the street – she told me very clearly she wanted to go from the house into the car, and from the car right back into the house. If I asked her to get out of the car before opening the door to the house, she’d wait at the door with her tail tucked between her legs. So instead of expecting her to spend time in our street, we just took the car and went to the beach, or to the park, or to the plantations where we could go for a nice, real walk. I’m all for giving dogs time, plus I totally agree that walking around palm trees and orchid plantations is way more fun than walking in streets anyways.

Now that Grit considers the carport a safe space, it’s time to expand her comfort zone further: I put her on a 5 meter lead and a back attachment harness, and she gets to explore our little street. Not because I tell her to, but because she would now choose to. We go in the middle of the day, when most people are at work. We start by walking in and out, in and out of the carport. I want her to know the gate is open and she can head back home anytime. Should someone show up unexpectedly, we will retreat. I have hotdogs in my pocket – just in case I need to distract Grit or lure her away from something that might overwhelm her. My goal is not to train, just to let her explore on her own terms. I’ll talk to her when she looks at me, I might comment on her sniffing spots – but I’m not asking anything of her as long as she makes good decisions. We’ll add food to the experience a little later – you’ll see. For now, I want Grit to take the lead.

This is a clip from today’s city walk; the second one overall. We just meandered around the street for a few minutes. And not only did Grit sniff, she also peed! For her, this is a big sign of confidence. She’ll only pee in places she feels safe. Does this look like a normal dog taking a normal walk? That’s exactly what it should look like. My favorite way of building confidence is to stay right at the edge of the dog’s comfort zone – at a place that allows her to look out of her comfort zone, but doesn’t require her to step out of it. Looking will push the boundaries further back, and make her comfort zone grow. (I know the neighbors are all gone because their carports are empty. So it is safe to let Grit explore on a long line without her unexpectedly running into a stranger behind a gate.)