Taming Excitement through Holistic Training

Whoops, it looks like I missed a week – getting my business set up has been eating at my free time.  This post is going to be pretty good though, so maybe that will make up for it.

We’re going to talk about changing behavior. Ranger, in this example, was just getting too excited at his training class.  The week before last, he was hyperfocusing on me, throwing behaviors at me, bouncing around, and barking the second he stopped earning treats.  In fact, the entire time we practiced the Supervised Separation part of the CGC test, he spent 3 brutal minutes barking and bouncing at the end of the leash, barely restrained by the poor innocent handler with whom I had exchanged dogs.  Excitement turns to frustration quickly if a dog does not know how to handle NOT getting something he wants or has come to expect, and when I, the source of reinforcement, disappeared, he just had no idea how to cope.

What do we do? Here’s the way I see a lot of people try to tackle an over-excited dog:

“NO.  Bad dog.  :yank on dog’s collar:”

Well.

Punishment can certainly suppress behavior, but it leaves a void that can then quickly be filled by any other behavior the dog thinks might work to get attention or a treat.  In addition, it creates negative associations.  I don’t want my dog to associate training time with escaping or avoiding pain!

So what do we do?  Instead of using pain, let’s use our brain.  Step back and look at all the moving parts with me…

First, why is Ranger so excited?

What is the broader context?  Let’s look at the routine we used that week.

  • Dog sleeps in house all morning
  • Dog goes outside to play a little
  • Dog sleeps in house all afternoon
  • Training time! Get out leash and high value treats, run to car because we are late!  Jump in the car!  Drive to training!  Arrrrr, there be DOGS here!  And treats!  And people!  Dogsandtreatsandpeopleanddogsandtreatsandpeople!!!  BARK BARK BARKBARK
  • After class, come home and eat puppy dog dinner
  • More sleeping

Looking at it this way, this seems like a terrible idea.  So the first thing I focused on was changing the context.  Here’s how.

1) Ranger had a TON of energy to get out

  •  Next time, I will run & walk Ranger for at least 10 minutes before class

2) Ranger was hungry, which caused lack of access to treats to be more frustrating

  • I will feed Ranger half his dinner BEFORE class

3) Ranger is more excited over higher value treats

  • I will bring lower value treats

The first one is pretty much a given – it makes a lot of sense to run some energy off the dog to help him settle.  The second two I admit I was not 100% sure about.  What if Ranger is still excited, but now he won’t listen to me at all because he is satiated?  I really thought that this could work though, so I did it anyway.

Second, what was driving the behavior in the moment?

I had a theory on this.  We had been working on a lot of behaviors that required movement.  Stand up, Sit, Down, Heel, turn right, turn left, Here boy!!  Ranger had been getting a ton of reinforcement for doing “stuff”, and doing it as fast as possible, with little time in between cues.  When he did not get a reward for offering these behaviors in class, his frustration kicked in and the barking started.  Besides changing the context, I also needed to change our training.  We needed to slow down and return to our Settle.

So last week, we did this:

4) Ranger has been getting reinforced for activity

  • Reinforce Ranger for doing nothing

That’s right, I turned it upside down and gave Ranger a treat for lying down in one spot and chilling out.  We worked on Settle and I rewarded Ranger for being calm and for offering a Settle whenever I sat down instead of offering “Look at me DOING stuff!!!”

Finally, as I noted, Ranger got very upset when I walked away from him during class.  I am the most reinforcing thing at training class, which is great most of the time, but not if that means he is going to go ballistic if his Cookies and Petting and Cuddles and Praise Person moves AWAY from him.  So we did this too:

5) Ranger is frustrated when I am away from him because I am the primary source of reinforcement

  • Reinforce Ranger for being separated from me

During our Settle practice, I added in the Stay many times and reinforced Ranger for NOT moving when I got up, for staying put while I walked around the house, and for staying in his Settle while I was out of sight.

Five hypotheses.  Five big changes.  Was it enough?

Class day came around and as I planned, I fed Ranger half his dinner, took him out for a jog, and brought only Charlee Bears and a couple of freeze dried liver pieces instead of his beloved doggy sausage.

We got to class.

Ranger barked twice coming in, then we got to the chair, and he defaulted to his hard-earned Settle.

He practiced Settle-Stays at the end of his leash behind my chair between exercises so that I could establish a reinforcement history of separation from me during class.

He performed half of his exercises without treats at all, just petting and praise, to keep him from getting too keyed up.

And then it was time for the Supervised Separation.

I handed Ranger’s leash over and asked him to Settle-Stay.  I walked away and hid in the bathroom.

For three minutes he lay flopped on the floor and gently panted.  He wagged his tail when I walked back to him.  He waited for his release cue to get up.  SUCCESS!  We had done it.

Does this mean that Ranger will never get overexcited again?  No.  But it does give me darn good confirmation that I am on the right track, and that I can reduce his excitement and frustration by giving him an energy outlet, decreasing the salience of the reinforcers, working on Settle as a default behavior to do while I am sitting, and strengthening separation and Stay as more reinforcing than trying to get to me to earn more cookies.  And best of all, no collar yanking and yelling needed.

Well done, Ranger.  And thank you.  We learn just as much from our dogs as they learn from us.

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