I adopted a shy dog two days ago. You can see how tense she is in my house in the first picture. I’m including a second picture to prove that she isn’t like that all the time! (Also: doesn’t she look just like a domesticated fox that was dipped in yellow paint?)
This is Jenny. Jenny spent her first ten months on the same property on which she was born. She got to live with other dogs and knows a lot about how to interact with them. However, she doesn’t know a whole lot about interacting with humans, and we are pretty scary to her. She also doesn’t have much experience with the world in general. She’s been with me for about two days now and is just getting to the point where she’s willing to eat while I am in the room.
When Jenny is really alarmed by something I do, she pees. This is known as submissive urination; she’s sending a social cue to say “I’m harmless; please don’t eat me!” I can mostly avoid doing things to her that are this scary, but sometimes I do have to put a leash on her to get her outside, and then she is liable to pee. I’m taking various management measures to preserve my furniture, but this afternoon Jenny started being interested in eating treats that I tossed her, so I saw the opportunity to engage in some counter-conditioning with her.
When I approach Jenny purposefully and pull out a leash, she is scared, and pees.
Conditioning a new emotional response
The goal is for Jenny to see the cue (my purposeful approach, leash in hand) and feel good about it instead of scared. The solution is to break the scary cue down into cues that are smaller and less scary, and help her work through each of those with the help of something positive (treats).
It’s not just one thing that tells Jenny that I am about to grope around for the clip on her harness and attach a leash. It is my approach; the way I look straight at her; the purposeful way I walk towards her; the display of the leash in my hand. Each of these things is really a separate cue, and each should be worked on individually.
Working with Jenny
Jenny was on the couch downstairs. I wanted to be able to walk down the stairs and approach her with the leash. First, I tried it without the leash. I walked down the stairs more slowly than usual, stopped farther from her than usual, and avoided eye contact. I tossed her a treat. She thought about it, then ate it.
I repeated exactly the same sequence of events. This time, she ate the treat promptly, suggesting that she was comfortable with the sequence.
I tried it again, and this time walked a little bit closer to her. That was okay. I tried again, making eye contact and walking faster. This scared her; she wriggled away from me on the couch. I stopped and backed up, looked away, threw a treat. She waited for me to go upstairs before she ate it. I tried again, this time backing up to something that she had previously accepted — stopping a ways from the couch and not making eye contact. This was still successful (she ate the treat without appearing alarmed). Phew. I started progressing again, but more slowly.
Counter-conditioning is extremely simple, but it can be really hard to implement properly in practice. We tend to get impatient. Why do we have to take such small steps? Can’t we go faster? Unfortunately, if the protocol you’re trying isn’t working, the answer is almost always to break the sequence you’re conditioning into smaller events and add new challenges more slowly (or maybe give better rewards; I could explore different types of treats to see if there is something more exciting for Jenny). But that is really hard for most humans. That’s the challenge of counter-conditioning and why it is often best to do it with the help of an experienced trainer until you get the hang of it.
Hopefully I will be able to teach Jenny over the next few days that the leash isn’t scary. For tonight, I stopped while I was ahead and didn’t push things too far.