Green, Yellow, Red: What Zone Is Your Canine In?

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Zoom and Ireland Road Trippin!!

Zoom and Ireland Road Trippin!!

Part 1 of this mini series talked about how stimuli in our environment affect our canines mental state, how some variables can increase the level of anxiety and stress in our canines depending on their individual backgrounds, and how we can to begin to understand and work with these nuances in each of our furry companions. Part 2 then went into talking about the limits that each of our canines have, and how even when we are setting them up for success, and creating positive situations that each one of these interactions and moments is cumulative. As we build them up through appropriate interactions and training experiences, our canines are using up their “comfort/stress” fuel, and when this tank is empty, much like when we become over worked or over stressed, our mental “thinking” faculties begin to work inefficiently, that we and our canines are less likely to work through situations appropriately and can be more likely to default back to behaviours that we might be trying to stop or avoid simply because they are too tired to deal with the situation.

Part 3 is all about putting this all into action. Knowing what we now know, what is the best way to begin to tackle these “problem” areas of behaviour? Lets begin with another human analogy and an extreme version of counter-conditioning.

Thinking Like A Human:

Many humans are afraid of heights. For some, its any height, for others, its more extreme heights like standing on the top of a house or building. Now how would we be able to help any of them work through their fear?

At one time, a method called Flooding was used where a subject was subjected to a extremely high level of exposure to their known “fear” to the point they become numb to it. For some cases under extremely controlled environments, the process can work. However if even one aspect isn’t controlled for, it can have the reverse effect and even amplify the already existing issue. In the case of the person that is afraid of even a little height, a flooding example would be strapping a parachute on their back and having them skydive out of a plane. Sounds potentially traumatic doesn’t it? Imagine if they jumped with a trained instructor and they had their main chute fail and need to use the backup. Even though they landed safe, what effect do you think that added experience to an already intensely uncomfortable one would have? It is easy to see how the fear/uncertainty/unwillingness to engage in the future could be amplified by such a process.

Now picture the same person, extremely fearful of any height differences, being gradually built up to changes in elevation. Not only that, each small, and successful attempt is rewarded with praise and feelings of success?  Can steps backward happen in this scenario as well?  You bet!  That’s life! But each step forward is solidified through learning and each step back is smaller and as controlled as possible.

This is the progressive methodology we use at Canines By Design to help our clients achieve long lasting results and an understanding to work through any problem areas, whether it is desensitizing and counter-conditioning for canine related behaviours such as excitement, fear or aggression, or helping canines become more comfortable with particular environments, and even performing particular behaviours.

Canine Context:

Think of your canine a static object where the environment and the stimuli in that environment move around them. As your canine stands there, particular stimuli come and go, get closer, and then move further away. This applies to all stimuli. Smells come and go, sounds come and go, and visual cues come and go (albeit at different rates). Some of these stimuli are completely neutral, and are so for many reasons. One of the main reasons being that through previous exposure and learning experiences these stimuli offer no “outcome”, with those stimuli simply existing in the environment, and offering no “reward” or “punishment” outcome. But other stimuli are not so neutral. Positive outcomes (from their perspective) will drive the canine to perform the behaviour again, and negative experiences plus those that offer no outcome, can decrease the presentation of some behaviours and can also drive the canine to avoid or “control” those situations or stimuli.

In addition, depending on the severity of the previous encounter(s), this stress response can be immediate (think of our height phobia example in humans). For others, the stress response is more gradual, and as we get closer (or in the height example, as we get higher off the ground) this response grows until we cannot deal any longer. As these stimuli move closer to our canine, they begin to move through the zones of comfort. Check out the basic diagram below:

Zones of Comfort

The Zones Of Comfort:

If you and your dog area the black circle in the middle, you can see three distinct areas.

  • GREEN (outer ring): The green zone represents whatever distance is required from a certain stimuli for your canine to give it no attention at all. This is the “neutral” ring. At this distance your canine will go about listening to you and performing behaviours as you would expect and as you see in “safe” environments such as at home where they pay no attention to familiar stimuli around them. Think of this as your safe distance. Here you know you know you have your canines full attention and therefore have control of the situation. However, to train and work through behaviours we need our canine to be aware of the training stimuli/environment. For a young canine, or one that has led a sheltered life, the green zone may not be initially achievable in a new environment or one that offers high sensory stimulation. Make sure you are aware of this as you develop your bond and are getting out in your community together.
  • YELLOW (middle ring): As that stimuli moves closer to the center position it begins to transition from the green zone into the yellow zone. This zone, the “heightened awareness” zone, represents the distance from your canine from which the stimuli begins to illicit a response in our canine. They begin to look at the stimuli, body posturing may change, vocalization, leash manners, (there are many cues to engagement 🙂 ), and their resulting attention on you or the trainer may begin to change. OK, Time To Educate!!! This is the time to pull out all your redirection and set up for success techniques because your canine is now beginning to mentally engage with the stimuli, but is doing so at a distance where they still feel comfortable enough to listen to your redirection, continue to mentally engage with you, and learn from the situation.

It is important to remember though that we are also now depleting their “comfort/stress” fuel tank. Initially these tanks will empty more quickly when they are new to training and exposure (e.g. puppies or recent rescues) but their ranges will increase. You will know their tank is close to or empty when their attention and redirection skills are much less effective at a once effective distance (NOTE: this is very individual to every dog, and requires practice and time in different environments to see the small changes and cues, and understand how the relate to your canines internal state).

  • RED (inner ring): This zone is when the stimuli in your environment has moved close enough that your canine is focusing on it and you are “wrestling” to keep their attention. When we work with clients we treat this zone as the no go zone, but its not for the reason you may think. When stimuli enter into this zone, we as teachers will have an extremely tough time getting our students attention, having them focus on us, and learning “today’s lesson”. For some dogs this space is very close to them. Much like our personal space, and their issues lie when stimuli enter this. For other dogs, such as the example of a dog with a high prey drive, seeing a rabbit halfway across the soccer field might be close enough to be in their red zone, triggering previously learned behaviours (e.g. chase) versus listening to our redirection. As humans, we have a similar zone, that when things get to intense we can mentally “shut down” down, and rely on more basic “fight or flight” instincts. Some professions, such as Military, Police, Fire, and Rescue, train their employees specifically to be able to think in these tough situations (expand the range of their stress/comfort tank) and when its too tough for that, they have been conditioned through their training to still be able to perform their tasks. For the everyday canine caregiver though, we want to be able to comfortably go through our daily lives and make sure our set our canines up to feel the same way about things, so its learning in the yellow, avoiding the red!

A big concept to remember is that these distances or zones are fluid, and can change depending on the day, the particular environment, current health state of the canine, and also their energy levels and what kind of day they are having.  Knowing how stimuli have what kind of effect, at what distance, and when those stimuli transition from yellow to red takes a keen eye, patience, practice, and time to do it productively and safely.

Starting to think this way about your canine is an amazingly powerful tool and will help you view the world through their eyes. You will be able to quickly deduce “problem” areas anJeterd help avoid unnecessary confrontation while building both your canine and yourself up to certain situations at a safe and comfortable pace while you are out in your community! So now you are asking where can we help? Practicing the timing and learning to understand the cues in our environment and how they affect our canines takes time. Our motor skills and timing is just as important in the equation for success as our canines timing and skill sets. Let Canines By Design show you the way!

The Canine “Comfort/Stress” Fuel Tank: What Is Your Canine’s Range?

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Let’s dive a little deeper into your canine’s “Zone of Comfort.” Last week, we introduced the idea that your canine’s level of comfort is constantly being adjusted when things like their environment change or as they approach new, exciting (and even familiar) stimuli. We also talked about how we as caregivers need to account for this adjustment as part of how we create a successful, positive, and educational experience for our dogs. This week, we are going to talk about exposure limits to stress, and how stress affects our canines and their behaviour.

Let’s start with a human analogy: For some of the human population, entering a really busy mall or crowded street can be frightening, even debilitating. Heart rate rises, palms get sweaty, we get a little on edge, and it can even get to the point that we take ourselves out of that situation. But for others, going to a busy Sunday farmer’s market sounds like a perfect morning!

Next, think about one of those “unnerving” things in your life. How long could you be in the same room or in a closed situation with that “thing”? For some, about two seconds is enough before they want out! For others, with controlled practice, desensitization, and positive reinforcement, we can extend that time. In a sense, we have a “comfort/stress” fuel tank, and the more uncomfortable something makes us, the faster we use the tank up! Once our fuel is used up, we do not have an ability to deal with the situation we are in (or with that particular item(s) in the environment). Often, stressed emotion starts to overpower our thoughts. Military, police and related groups specifically train their members to increase their ability to handle severe and stressful situations (increase the range of their tank) so that they are still able to use their cognitive processes and training when it really counts!

The same stress scenarios regularly affect our canines. For some, specific stimuli can create real feelings of unrest, and if severe enough, they can elicit behaviours in our canines that we may have never seen before. In fact, we may only see them in that exact scenario! As we work with, and bond with, our canines, we begin to understand their likes and dislikes, where they feel comfortable – and where they do not.

If we are working through certain behaviours and are developing a desensitization program to a particular stimuli or behaviour, or simply working on socialization and general environmental exposure, keeping in mind the idea that our canines can only handle some situations, stimuli, environments, and their combinations, for a certain period of time becomes hugely powerful.

What it means for us as caregivers is that, alongside the bonding and discovery process, we need to also recognize the small signs and changes that show us that our canine’s “comfort/stress” tank is being used up. Most importantly, we should be in tune to the moment when it is getting close to being emptied. When this happens, just like in the human world, our canines will be more prone to reacting to situations versus thinking them through.  In some cases, A tired dog might be a happy dog, but like tired/distracted humans, mistakes in judgement and reaction can be made by these tired minds.  What we do with the “zones of comfort” at Canines By Design is work within a canine’s comfort boundaries (dictated by their behaviour to a particular environment or specific stimuli) and slowly build up their ability to handle the scenario, understand that the scenario is safe, and build the trust up between canine and caregiver. We want them to feel comfortable walking in their own paws, and it is about giving the caregiver and the canine the tools to do so in a positive way!

Next week is part three of the “Zones of Comfort” feature in which I’ll discuss the three colours we use, how they are used, and how they can supercharge your canine’s education in a safe and positive way!

Zones Of Comfort: Finding Canine Comfort in Uncomfortable Situations

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An ever popular topic here at Canines By Design, this week we bring up “zones of comfort”, what it means, how it affects your canine and how you can use it to help your canine through stressful situations.

Are you asking yourself “what does that mean?”… or “isn’t that some prop from Get Smart!?”.  Well, we aren’t talking about a Hollywood TV prop, but, like the safe learning space that the (awesome) “cone of silence” was designed to create, building a comfort zone means working with the environment around us to create a positive and, most importantly, educational, experience. And unlike Maxwell Smart’s device, I’ve found a much simpler approach that actually works to achieve the desired outcome!

We all have zones of comfort.  These imaginary force fields around us help dictate our level of ease in social situations, strange environments and when we test new experiences.  Depending on the individual, these zones will vary depending on previous exposure, comfort level, etc. and it is critical to take all factors into account.

Let’s use an example:  Since I work with dogs, sitting on the floor in the middle of 10 full grown canines playing together doesn’t evoke feelings of stress or fear. However, for someone who isn’t used to large dog fests, or only interacted with guard dogs, their perspective on the situation will be totally different.  For someone fearful of canines, such a situation could be so overwhelming that they might shut-down and glean nothing positive from the experience or not even be able to remove themselves from the environment because they are so overwhelmed.  Some dog trainers like to call this “the red zone.”  For the human analogy, we can say this person has started the “flight-or-fight” response.  This response, also known as the acute stress response, is when the sympathetic nervous system responds to the physical or the strong emotional state that has been presented to the body, coordinating various bodily functions (adrenal gland secretion, pupil dilation, increase heart rate, etc.) in order to create the optimum situation for that individual’s survival (1).

Now imagine the situation where we are beginning to expose a newly adopted canine to various environmental factors.  Maybe that dog had spent its first year locked in a backyard, without environmental enrichment.  Maybe that backyard didn’t even have grass or any trees. Now, when we take that pup out and begin to work through different training scenarios, the environment can become very overwhelming, very quickly.  For this particular example, the canine will enter the “red zone” fast – inhibiting their response to our training programs and damaging their overall personal growth.  Part of my graduate thesis examined this phenomenon, and many examples arose in which increased levels of stress (in particular example it was related to training methodology) directly resulted in a decrease in working ability of canines trained for service (2,3,4).

It is therefore very important as caregivers that we keep our canines’ “zone of comfort” in mind when we are out training and setting out educational experiences for success.  Here are some easy ways to keep this in mind while we are out and about:

One to avoid...

In the “Red” Zone

  1. Keep your dog’s history in mind!
  • If they have had previous negative experiences with something in the environment, their zone for this object/person/dog will be less secure.
  1. Slow and Steady!
  • Fear can be incredibly powerful and debilitating.  We cannot learn when we are in fear for our lives or someone’s well being.  The same goes for canines. Flooding canines emotionally is a very dangerous practice.  Working within what the canine is comfortable with, as slow as it may be, will allow you and your canine to gradually build confidence with that once-scary scenario, and also help you both build a stronger, trusting bond.
  1. Keep it Fun!
  • We always strive to make every situation and experience for canine and caregiver as positive and rewarding as possible.  Success gives everyone a good feeling, and those positive feelings go a long way to help overcome hurdles we encounter and give us further motivation to keep going.

Canines By Design is here for you!  Contact us today to see how our customized approach can help you and your canine work together and create success everyone can see!

1. TheFreeDictionary.com (Medical Dictionary) (2015).  Fight-or-Flight Reaction Definition.  Retrieved from: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/fight-or-flight+reaction.  Accessed on: July 22. 2015.

2. Hilby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004).  Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behavior and welfare.  Anim. Welfare, 13: 63-69.

3. Haverbeke, A., Laporte, B., Depiereux, E., Giffroy, J.M., & Diederich, C. (2008). Training methods of military dog handlers and their effects on the team’s performance.  Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 113: 110-122.

4. Haverbeke, A., Messaoudi, F., Depiereux, E., Stevens, M., Giffroy, J.M, & Diederich, C. (2010).  Efficiency of working dogs undergoing a new human familiarization and training program.  J. Vet. Behav., 5: 112-119.

Redirection and Canine Attention: Putting It Together!

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Zoom waiting for whats next!  @caninesbydesignOne of my favorites, if not THE favorite training tool I love to use when working with, and educating canines and their caregivers, is the power of redirection. Redirection can be defined here as moving our canines attention from one object, thing, or stimuli in the environment to another another in a deliberate fashion to help them succeed at a particular task or in a particular situation.  This can help decrease tension felt in certain situations, help maintain order when multiple dogs are around, and offer a fantastically positive way to keep your canine engaged with you when working with them in stimulating environments or in new situations when distractions are everywhere.  But why use redirection?  Why not other techniques we may have seen on TV or read in a book?  I already gave you the hint, and it is the link between positive experiences and redirection, but lets look a little bit a where redirection fits into the realm of psychology and that might help explain it!

It’s common in modern training circles to hear about Operant Conditioning, including the four quadrants of operant conditioning and how they apply to modifying, changing and creating canine behaviours. I hope I haven’t lost you yet… if you stick with me as I break down the concept, I promise it will be the best move you ever make in your relationship with your dog.

Psychology (and Parenting) 101

Operant conditioning is a keystone concept in psychology. It is brain/psychologyone of the fundamental topics taught to university students attending classes ranging from introductory to clinical psychology, and is also being taught to new puppy parents at their first training session. Founded by Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner, his approach was to understand behaviour by looking at the causes of an action and their consequences. The basis to his findings was that behaviour that was rewarded after it was completed would be more likely to occur again. Behaviours that were not reinforced would become weakened and eventually removed (or extinguished) from one’s behavioural repertoire. In other words, a positive outcome leads to increase of rewarded behavior, and an outcome in which the desired result was not achieved, leads to decrease of behavior.

Skinner focused on reinforcement and punishment, which are the outcomes of behaviours that are likely to affect their occurrence later, and created four quadrants of these outcomes: Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Positive and Negative Punishment. To keep things relatively simple here, we will condense the four quadrants into two: (1) Reinforcement, which leads to an increase in a behaviour and (2) Punishment, which leads to a decrease in a behaviour in the future.

Reward and punishment are terms that we have experienced in our own upbringing. Did you receive a “favorite dessert” for cleaning your room? Your parents were practicing operant conditioning. Specifically, a type of reinforcement in which something positive is added (dessert) to increase the chances that a behaviour (cleaning your room) will happen next time.

dog treats reward

Turn a Negative Into a Positive

Quiz time: What part of Skinner’s theory seems out of place with what I’ve been writing about these past few weeks? Your answer should be along the lines of… “I thought we were to always keep things as positive as possible and nurture our bond with our canine?” and “wouldn’t that mean the punishment quadrant shouldn’t even be there?” Well, you would be correct!

We will all encounter situations where our furry friends are misbehaving, putting themselves in dangerous places, or doing something wrong. This is where I would like to introduce you to a very powerful word, and way of thinking: Redirection.

Redirect is defined as “to change the direction or focus of” (Dictionary.com, 2014). As a fundamental focus at Canines By Design, I propose that we replace the word “correction” with the word “redirect,” removing negative interactions with our dogs (such as scolding them or physically correcting them with a leash) when addressing their behaviours.

It’s Not as Hard as You Think…

You are going for a walk with your canine and working on heeling and keeping slack in your leash. One block up, your neighbour turns the corner and continues up the same route in front of you. Now all your dog wants to do is pull out in front to hurry up and go say hi to their friend. Old school (and outdated) technique would tell us to use physical touch to correct them, using a butt-tap or backward force on the leash. What you are doing here is correcting their behavior by adding something negative (collar correction) for pulling ahead. Instead of adding negativity to the situation, add redirection instead.

Redirection would be to use a command or behavioural response currently in the canine’s repertoire to change their leash pulling into a proper on-leash heel. For myself and Zoom, I could say “touch,” which is his cue to turn to me and touch my open palm with his nose, or “look at me,” which is his cue to make eye contact with me. In either case, the situation has been turned from a negative one where your canine isn’t listening or walking nicely with you, to a positive one for both. Zoom would stop pulling (which makes me happy) by performing a command (which makes him happy because he gets praise for doing something right).

The Future of Training

Using redirection instead of negative corrective techniques requires patience and practice. However, keeping it positive, calm, and working progressively through these situations without negative influences (caused by adding punishment) will only help to strengthen the bond between caregiver and canine, and promote a very healthy working relationship.

I would love to hear about your experiences using redirection and positive reinforcement in your training journey. If you would like more information on positive training methodology and how redirection can change how you interact with your canine, I would be happy to start that discussion with you.

#caninesbydesign http://www.caninesbydesign.ca

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References:

Dictionary.com (2014). “Redirect”. Retrieved from: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/redirect. Accessed on: April 1, 2015.

Don’t Forget to check out the other Canines By Design blog posts such as T.A.P for a better relationship https://caninesbydesign.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/t-a-p-a-better-relationship/, and Proofing, https://caninesbydesign.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/proofing-what-is-proofing-and-what-to-proof/.  Canines By Design helping canine communities succeed!