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.
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:
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 and 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!