In the first Bumping the Threshold post I talked about cued behaviors–Look at that, look at me, and touch/hand target. Keeping a dog “operant” or able to think in a stressful situation is important and these type of cued behaviors keep a dog thinking and working. What they don’t address is teaching the dog to make a choice to not react–they redirect or distract to keep him/her from reacting which has value but if these are all you do to work on reactivity, I think some important things are missing. I think it’s crucial to teach a reactive dog to make good choices not just respond to cues that prevent reactions.
These behaviors are worked at a bit below threshold to start (or I do so I can have a high rate of reinforcement for the right choices) and once the dogs understand the concept you can work closer to threshold. As you work closer to threshold you will notice that the threshold decreases. Dogs are practicing and learning how to make reinforcible choices in higher stress situations.
There are 2.5 things I work on to bump the threshold without using any cues. One thing is that I work very hard to build a default attention–when my dogs do not know what to do they almost always give me eye contact. This is a handy behavior to have if the pups are uncomfortable in a situation they look at me and I can reinforce their choice to look at me. The second thing I work on (not chronologically) is Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). BAT teaches the dog to control their environment by offering calming signals–they learn that if they offer a calming signal that they will be removed from the stressful situation. My half thing is really quite similar to BAT but not really. I like to click and reinforce any calming signal in stressful situations with Shayne who doesn’t give calming signals frequently (or didn’t until doing BAT). The big difference is that I don’t relieve the social pressure by walking away… I’m simply working on increasing the calming signals.
Default Attention: I’ve worked very hard to build a lot of focus and attention in even the most distracting environments from my dogs. It’s not a behavior I ask for, just one that I reward heavily. I started all of this by building insane focus in small boring rooms… whenever my dogs would orient to me I’d click and treat. In no time at all I had the dogs staring at me in small spaces. I moved that work to other areas in the house… whenever I noticed the dogs orienting to me and giving me eye contact click/treat (assuming the eye contact wasn’t begging for something). When Rio was a puppy I took him to a park on a 15ft line and let him have all that space to look around.. eventually he turned his head to look at me and I click/treated him. I repeated this over and over until I built really good focus from him outside, next to a play ground, next to tennis courts, etc. A side effect of this focus building work is that when the dogs are uncomfortable or unsure of what they should be doing they shoot me eye contact. I had Rio at an event and a young child was petting him nicely but as the child was called away by a parent, he stopped petting and grabbed Rio around his neck and squeezed. This friendly hug was really concerning to Rio… but his response was to shoot me eye contact to find out what he should do next. This stressful situation could have ended in a much different way but because Rio has learned to look to me when he’s stressed/unsure of what to do I was able to reassure him and then get him out of the situation quickly.
BAT: As I’ve mentioned a few times (most recently in the Going BATty) I really love BAT. BAT teaches dogs to control their environment (proximity to the trigger) by offering calming signals. Dogs are worked under threshold and are never left to “deal with it” if they start to react–they are called away from the trigger and removed from the situation. BAT sessions are all very individual and different but you set up a situation where you walk toward the trigger and when your dog notices the stimulus and offers a calming signal (look away, sniff the ground, lip lick, shake off, etc), you mark the behavior and reward by turning around and walking away. After your dog has added a good bit of distance (I normally say minimum of 10 ft but it’s different for everyone) I turn around ang go back toward the trigger. Once the dog offers a calming signal I mark and reward by adding distance. This basic concept is repeated over and over again. Generally speaking you will find yourself getting closer and closer to the stimuli before the dog starts to get concerned and offers a calming signal. If the dog gets over threshold and has a reaction (which is not ideal but does happen), the handler interrupts the reaction by calling to the dog as he/she starts to walk away (the handler turns and encourages the pup to follow and get the heck out of Dodge–you can see this in the video). Since I am not Grisha Stewart (the creator of BAT), I don’t have the best explanation skills about the details of BAT… but here’s a video to check out. Nothing is cued and we are simply rewarding the choices the dog is making when it’s what we are looking for.
Reinforcing Calming Signals–This may not be terribly necessary if you’ve done BAT work, but for Shayne, this type of work was very important. She is a dog who doesn’t communicate well and doesn’t offer calming signals frequently (the complete opposite from Rio who yawns at just about everything). Shayne would get stressed and start to stare at the trigger dog and couldn’t break away. I started working this before BAT so I’m not sure if I’d have needed if I just started with BAT…but it couldn’t hurt! I start this way under threshold (before the staring began) and I would wait for a calming signal and click/treat… and repeat. As she started offering more calming signals, I began bumping up her threshold while continuing to reinforce calming signals. I didn’t take the social stress off by walking backwards at all but simply rewarding calming signals in stressful situations. The act of making calming signals … well, rewarding and calming (by the act of feeding her for offering them) really helped her become better at communicating with calming signals and using them when she felt stressed in general.
I really think that when treating fear based reactivity, using a variety of specific (though compatible) techniques gets more well rounded results. Just using cued behaviors or just using uncued behaviors can leave some weaknesses in the rehabilitation. Now it’s not advised to do them all at once but allowing time to teach the various cued behaviors can be done in conjunction with the uncued situational work.