This post is the second installment on the work I have been doing with Katie. Katie is an under-socialized and very fearful Chihuahua. She especially fears meeting people at her home. As I mentioned on the previous post, the ultimate goal is for Katie to be so comfortable with my presence first, followed by being comfortable engaging with me, so that I can teach her how to interact with other people in a manner that makes her feel safe and in control of the interaction.
One of the most important principles that I keep in mind during any work that I do with fearful dogs is to make sure they have choices as to how and if they want to interact with me. At this point in the behavior modification plan with Katie, I am reinforcing her for any attempt at interaction with me, such as moving in my direction, standing still, instead of creating more distance when I toss cheese to her, giving me eye contact, orienting towards me, and overall feeling less afraid and a bit more confident. I can get some idea of how stressed she is as well as when she begins to feel more comfortable by carefully watching her body language. There are specific things that I am looking for.
How do I know that she is stressed? Or not ready to interact with me? I look for what is called displacement behaviors. These are natural dog behaviors that are taking out of context. Some of the most salient in Katie are lip licking, yawing and turning away. It is also very apparent that she is nervous when she scans the environment in a frantic manner versus soft eye movements in looking around. Her body posture can also tell me that she is feeling more confident and relaxed or that she is once again not feeling comfortable interacting with me.
Finally, I am using a clicker (a small toy that makes a noise) to communicate with Katie just prior her getting the cheese. I can be quite precise as to what sort of behaviors I want to see more often in Katie and I click for those followed always by the delivery of the cheese.
The reason I am looking into shaping some new behaviors for Katie is because as she learns new alternatives for interacting with a scary person; the chemistry in her brain is also being affected. In doing this kind of work, we must always consider the physiological aspect of behavior. It is as if we have a feedback loop. As the dog learns new responses to a given stimulus new neuropaths begin to strengthen. The more the dog practices these same behaviors, the stronger the connection of the neuropaths in the brain will be.
Think about it. It does not “feel good” to be afraid or anxious but it does feel “good” when we can be relaxed and in control of the environment. The same is true for any living organism. And while one can never be in control 100% of the time, having any measure of agency over one’s interactions and the environment produces feelings of well-being and safety.
In my interactions with Katie, I am hoping to establish a methodology that does exactly that: give Katie (most) control and choice regarding her interactions with me. If Katie chooses to remain in her crate, I close the door to the crate and exit the room. I repeat this over and over again so that it is very consistent, thus Katie can begin to notice a pattern that has been created by her own “behaving”. If she comes out of her crate and chooses to interact with me in any way, she gets a click and some cheese for that.
She is in control as to when the interactions happen and when she needs a break by just stepping inside her crate. When she does I respond by closing the crate and exiting the room.
Behavior is never a straight line but more a series of steps forward with some hiccups along the way. To expect a constant moving forward is really setting us up for failure and disappointment. It is much better to instead realize that they will be set backs and that when they happen, we must learn to be creative and flexible while keeping our focus on the training plan so that we can allow the dog (learner) the space to integrate new experiences. It goes without saying that when we “push” too hard because we are in a hurry or because we grow impatient, not only are we being really unfair to our learner, but the confidence that we are trying to build between us is begins to crumble.
As you can see in the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXvka6GsR7k
Katie appears stressed. Notice how she lip licks, trembles and her eyes and expression are not relaxed. (0:01-0:14). You can even see that she stoops down as I am approaching the crate to let her come out if she chooses to do so. Of course, I wish I had another mechanism to open the crate without getting so close to her. However, this unfortunate forced interaction will too create a baseline for me to assess in how comfortable Katie is with my proximity.
I open the crate and Katie is conflicted about coming out (0:21). Her tail is wagging she is at the front of her crate in anticipation of having the crate open. She vacillates and you can clearly see she is scanning the environment (0:36-0:46).
As I exit the room and she is in her crate, (1:11-1:21) her conflict turns into curiosity and even expectation of the cheese coming her way. This is exactly what I am looking for: Katie associating my presence with cheese which is something she loves. Being able to “observe” her via the video confirms this expectation in her.
By our next interaction (1:23) she is more at ease and ready to interact with me. Notice that she is in front of her crate (she has the choice of moving all the way back). Which is a “green light” for continuing to interact with her.
Even though she is a bit more relaxed, she is still conflicted as if she is thinking: I really want the cheese, but I am still not sure about this person. Conflict in animals is a very healthy response. It is best to be hesitant yet safe than to prompt to interact and dead! My goal, of course, is to set things up as best as possible so that she feels less and less conflicted about interacting. One of the difficulties here is that I must remain as immobile as possible as any kind of movement coming from me still scares her. Katie’s startled response is very high and this might never change. Perhaps as she becomes more confident she will startle less, but since startling is an autonomic response this might not be the case.
She chooses to interact (2:13-2:15) and by (2:26) she has had enough interaction and signals it so by going into her crate. I “tell her” that I got her and remove myself after closing her crate.