Don't Get Lost in Translation
Whatever your journey through transforming your dog's reactive behaviour may look like, the most difficult component to the program is learning to translate the theory and foundation skills learned to real-life scenarios.
The first several weeks of your program will focus on teaching you the functional relationship between your dog's behaviour and the stimuli that create responses, how to to systematically train your dog new behaviours, how to predict their behaviour by reading their body language and communication and how to effectively change your dog's behaviour by applying the concepts learned with a sturdy plan for exposure.
But once the class is over, it's up to you to implement all the concepts learned and create opportunities to expose your dog to their triggers in a way that will effectively teach new responses and wonderfully pleasant associations.
Key Concepts for Success in Your Exposure Sessions:
1. Before you even start, practice your Emergency Response Plan! I often talk about creating controlled setups or training practice sessions, but as much as we like to control the world around us, there will always be unexpected surprises. The best course of action is to be prepared with automatic escape behaviours to safely get out of situations with your dog, have your dog get behind you, or distract him with a sniffing game. Your ERP needs to be so well practiced that it is automatic and you don't even have to think about the behaviours but just do them in the moment.
2. For exposure sessions to be effective you MUST create them. I really can't stress this enough, if you don't practice in controlled, set up scenarios, you won't master the automatic stage of learning, and you will constantly struggle to catch up with life as it's happening. Creating setups allows you to practice the skills in a completely controlled environment so you are ready for life when it comes flying at you (aka a dog comes flying around the corner, off leash and running right for you!).
3. Success requires a plan. What is the trigger? What is your goal for this session, or what will constitute success? What is your dog's melting point or in other words, what is their threshold level? What will you be working on today: proximity, movement or both? How long with the exposure last and at what intensity? What behaviour are you clicking in this session? What is your goal for clicks per minute? If your dog has a reactivity episode how will you handle it? What is your escape route if this doesn't go well?
4. No matter the plan, relax your criteria to start. The first few times you practice your exposure, even in a closed or controlled environment, make it easier or simpler for both you and your dog. Give yourself a few money in the bank exposures to build your confidence up right out of the gate. Lower your criteria, aim for a shorter exposure session, pick a location with little to no distractions, start with a definitive sub-threshold presentation of the trigger - you can always get closer if its too easy, but start further away to be sure! Set yourself up for success!
5. Prepare meticulously. Have all of the equipment you will need including treats and food for reinforcement, clicker, a fixed leash, proper collar, harness or halti and have a clear plan of what you are going to do in this session. Give specific, detailed instructions to your helper and make sure they understand, and then do a dry run without your dog to make sure they understand their very important role in the session. Make sure your training space is secured and controlled, without unexpected distractions, competing motivators or additional triggers present.
6. Remember that your dog gets to decide what happens next. Just as your emotions can vary and change from moment to moment, so can your dog's. You're success yesterday don't guarantee the same results today. Don't push your dog beyond their capability. Reliable success will come with time and practice but you must be patient, no matter how eager you are to change their behaviour. Read your dog very carefully and proceed at a his pace which will allow learning to effectively take place.
7. Decompress, analyze and take notes of your session. A systematic approach to behaviour change is the best way to proceed because within the system you know where you've been, what plans worked and which didn't so you can focus your behaviour building program on a strong foundation. Equally, it's important to make notes of why things went wrong in some scenarios so you can avoid those in future sessions. Take notes in a journal so you can move forward and keep improving. And make sure your dog gets some quiet time to chew on a kong or raw bone or maybe even nap after an exposure session because it is difficult work for both of you and they need to decompress too!
Lastly, don't forget to breathe and be kind to yourself and patient with your dog. After all, as Karen Pryor says, "it's only behaviour!"
I have spent the past 15+ years learning the science of how all things learn and mastering my art as an animal trainer, behaviour consultant and transformative coach. With my specialty in canine reactivity, fear, aggression and canine communication, I have many insights to share into understanding, preventing, predicting and changing canine behaviour.