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Posts Tagged ‘positive reinforcement’

Mini schnauzer Little Bear having a cuddle

Bear deals much better with firework night if he has someone to snuggle with.

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” For some unknown reason we’re still celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow the Houses of Parliament to smithereens 400 years after the fact.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tradition if it brings a smile to people’s faces, but when you have a dog that’s terrified of loud noises, firework night is traumatic. Picture your dog hunched in a corner, shaking like a leaf and panting so hard you’re afraid he might pass out.

It’s a pitiful sight especially when you’re unable to control the source of their fear. What’s worse is the fact that as the sale of fireworks is unregulated, fireworks ‘night’ now seems to last up to two weeks meaning another assault can come at any time.

Advice 

Lots of dogs are of course frightened of fireworks and social media has been awash with people asking for advice on how to cope with their terrified pets.  On the whole the advice offered is sound: Turn up the TV; try a Thunder-shirt, herbal calmers, hormone collars and diffusers like Adaptil and for those instances where nothing works, a consultation with your vet for a prescribed tranquilliser.

However, there are still those who insist that ignoring your dog is the only way to deal with the situation.  I understand where this thinking may have come from – in positive reinforcement training we often ignore bad behaviour like jumping up for fear of reinforcing it with our attention.  However, YOU CAN’T REINFORCE FEAR! Once your dog is afraid he’s incapable of learning anything so you won’t make it worse by giving him attention.

For pity’s sake, just cuddle your bloody dog! 

So please, if your dog is frightened and wants to be near you – CUDDLE HIM! Distract him, play with him – hell, wrap him in a blanket and feed him roast chicken off a fork if it’ll make him feel better but please, PLEASE do not ignore him.

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Little Bear hates having a bath. He’s not unusual as I suspect most dogs dislike our penchant for making them sit in warm water while shampooing away all those delightful doggie aromas: mud, stinky puddle water, poop (LB loves the fox variety but will settle for cow pats at a push) and his particular favourite, dead stuff. The day he rolled in a long dead rat is still chillingly fresh in my memory as is the sight of him swaggering home, proud as punch not realising that six baths would be necessary to rid him of the stench.

Bath time blues
Little Bear is now six so I’d sort of resigned myself to the fact that bath time would always be a necessary evil where he turned on the puppy dog eyes with the occasional shiver for good measure and I ended up feeling guilty.

Positive reinforcement
As a big fan of positive reinforcement I’ve tried using toys and treats over the years but he largely ignored the toys and took the treats with a reproachful ‘this isn’t working you know’ glare.
So imagine my surprise when yesterday, LB jumped into the bath on his own!

Bath time Bear
We’d been out for a long forest walk and he was really muddy. But as he’d only had a bath last week I decided to let the mud dry and brush it out. Bear though had other ideas.

While I was hanging up the towels in the bathroom he trotted in, rested his nose on the bath and wagged. Then came the cute over the shoulder look to see if I was looking and another wag. I quietly closed the door, usually a cue for him to dart out of the room, but he just stood there wagging at me.

Now LB loves chasing stones in the ford and over the summer he’s been playing in a paddling pool my mum found for him. He’s so obsessed with the stones I’ve got a handful in a jug in the bathroom in an attempt to make the dreaded bath time more bearable.

I picked up the jug and before I could do anything he had jumped into the bath! What’s more he was wagging fit to bust!

Needless to say he got his bath but not until we’d played stones for a long time – it seemed only fair after he’d asked so nicely!

Lessons learned
Yesterday reminded me of an incredibly valuable lesson: never underestimate the power of a positive reinforcer – they work, but they’re often not the things we think they are.

(Please excuse any formatting issues, I’ve had to write this on my iPhone as he’s fast asleep on my lap and looking way too cute to disturb!)

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Mini Schnauzer Little Bear takes a break out on a solo walk

Little Bear takes a break during our solo walk

If you have more than one dog, chances are you probably walk them together.  I actually still recall the “Walking two dogs is no more work than walking one” argument I used as part of my case for a double dog household.  Oh foolish fool, how wrong could I have been?!

The reality is, if you have reactive dogs like ours, combined walks can sometimes do more harm than good.

Tipping point

Just like us, all dogs have a tipping point. Now for your laid back, confident pooch the circumstances needed to reach that tipping point might never ever arise but for the nervous, under-confident dog the line between calm, rational thought and an emotional, amygdala driven outburst is always that much finer.

In the fourteen years we had our beloved Springer Spaniel, I only once saw him aggress and that was when a Rottweiler  jumped into our garden and cornered him in the yard. Even our sweet old gent found his tipping point that day and acted to defend himself much to our utter amazement.

For reactive dogs like Bear and Annie, their equivalent of a Rottweiler over the garden wall can be as seemingly benign as a dog on a lead 300 yards away. Through an unfortunate mix of temperament, experience (and lack of it), they see threats where there are none.  But when they bark and lunge, it’s out of the same fear my old Springer felt all those years ago, it’s just that their tipping points aren’t as obvious to us.

A life lived in fear

They say a life lived in fear is a life half lived and this can certainly be the reality for many dogs. On Little Bear’s scary list were: bikes, skateboards, other dogs,  horses, velcro (?!) and thunderstorms to name but a few.  A walk invariably encountered at least one of the things and so for a long time, practically every trip out of the door would mean he’d end up in a frenzy of fearful barking and lunging.

Positive reinforcement 

Over the years we’ve worked to raise his tipping point to a more comfortable level.  Armed with clicker and treats (and a swift and unapologetic about turn if we spot something that I know he won’t cope with) we’ve slowly built up his tolerance to the point that he can now see a dog across the street and remain calm enough to sit and get a treat for his non-reaction.

Bikes and skateboards no longer get a second look thanks to the same positive reinforcement and he can walk past a field of horses without batting an eyelash. That said, he has learned to flutter them a little in the hopes of a reward when he thinks he’s been especially good.

The key to the training has simply been to encourage him to feel differently about the things he was once afraid of.  Get rid of the fear and the over-reaction just isn’t necessary anymore.  Which brings me on to the need for solo walks.

Going solo

Part of the ethos of positive reinforcement is that dogs are alway set up to succeed. Considering his naturally anxious disposition, Little Bear has achieved a lot over the last few years which is why asking him to be cool, calm and collected while his best friend Annie is freaking out by his side is really a bridge too far.

So, as much as I love walking my dogs together, until he and Annie are at a similar level in terms of tipping points we’ll continue to walk them separately as often as we can. The good news is that judging by Annie’s progress, she’ll not be far behind him.

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