Thank you so much for the response to my blog posts. The last one on Ettie’s undesirable barking around other dogs received a strong response. I know that this is not an uncommon issue and one that can cause people considerable embarrassment and concern. Barking is such an antisocial behaviour, and so noticeable, that it can be difficult to address it without an audience. But as I wrote last week, as long as we are taking steps to address the issue any audience should have no more comment to make other than to applaud our efforts and encourage us on to success. Change takes work, but it’s so worth it.
Ettie has been working hard. The barking is not confined to dogs. She will bark at a pigeon sitting on the garden fence. At any animal on TV. And she even barked at a unicorn on a TV ad! This has given me the opportunity to practice more desirable responses on a daily basis. My training goals are twofold: 1. reduce arousal around the triggers (dogs and other animals) and 2. reinforce desirable responses to the triggers. She is an energetic little scamp so there hasn’t been any need to reduce her dinner portions despite the increase in training treats. Food is a great tool to use in this situation. Delivery is simple, fast and precise. This reduces movement (which can fuel arousal) while giving a highly desirable reward. At home with TV animals, and even those in the garden, dry kibble is working well.
Hard work needs high value rewards
But the instant we are anywhere else, high value treats are the order of the day. Thankfully cooked cocktail sausages don’t seem to be on the panic buyer’s shopping list, so I was able to buy a couple of packets and prep them in readiness for trips away from home. These little sausages can be cut into small tasty pieces. I get about 24 treats from each sausage. Cut it in half longways, turn them 180 degrees and cut in half longways again so that you have 4 long strips of sausage, then chop all four sections into small bits. They definitely tick the high value box for my Ettie. I add some cheese and dry kibble to add variety and interest. I fill the treat bag and we are ready to go.
With most behaviours, those you want as well as those you don’t, anticipation is key. If you can anticipate when the behaviour will occur, you can put measures in place to reinforce it or change it. With Ettie’s barking, this isn’t always easy. I can be watching a non-animal TV show when suddenly a barking dog will appear or an ad break will start. In these cases, I need to interrupt the barking in order to reinforce the behaviour I want. So the treat bag needs to be on hand at all times during this (hopefully) limited period of teaching.
So what behaviour do I want? First and foremost I want zero barking or growling. In order to achieve this I want zero arousal. Arousal is not excitement. Arousal is not a nice state for a dog. An aroused dog is agitated, on edge, full of adrenalin, not able to think clearly. Some dogs build slowly to arousal. But Ettie is faster than a Ferrari. She goes from nought to sixty in under 1 second, blowing their 2.64 second acceleration out of the water! She occasionally has a slow build, giving me more time to anticipate and prevent escalation. But more often than not, she hits the ground running. If I can’t prevent the arousal, I need to interrupt and disrupt. I do this by giving Ettie a high value treat. This can seem counter-intuitive.
Work to beat the bark
A good few years ago now, I wrote a short booklet about it called Beat the Bark and gave workshops on the topic. During that time this was one of the most frequently asked questions: ‘The dog barks and then gets a treat. Isn’t this rewarding the barking?’ The simple answer is no. At the point that you deliver the treat, the dog is not barking. She can’t bark out and take food in at the same time. So when the food is delivered she isn’t barking and so the reward comes directly after silence.
Once I’ve interrupted the bark I work hard to keep her quiet by keeping her busy. Sometimes I ask her to go to her bed (a game that she loves.) Or I just continue to deliver treats while she’s quiet until the arousal drops. (Here I’m associating treats with triggers. This means that when she encounters the trigger her automatic response will be to look to me for a treat.)
This stage is not about rewarding any particular behaviour) After that I can start to reward ancillary behaviours. Often Ettie will offer a sit or a down, both of which I’m happy to reward. And then, once arousal has gone and she can think again, she will choose to look at me instead of the trigger. This gets a reward, and finally she will look at the trigger without barking which gets lots of rewards.
Real life practise works
My friend and fellow trainer Amie was able to practise all this at the weekend when she took Ettie to a Point to Point event. We know that we can interrupt Ettie and that her arousal is not due to her being afraid of other dogs or animals (thought she’s not keep on sheep for some reason), so taking her to an environment full of dogs and horses is a wonderful training environment. It should be noted that for Ettie this is not an exercise in flooding. Flooding is when a dog/person/subject is put into an environment where they cannot avoid the trigger. The theory is that because they can’t avoid it they have to deal with it. Unfortunately for most subjects, this proves completely overwhelming, exacerbating the problem and compounding the issue so it’s not a method I’d use or recommend.
The first ten minutes at the venue were the most challenging. Ettie exited the van and started making her presence known to all within a ten mile radius. Leaving the other dogs in the van so that she could concentrate fully on the small dog, Amie quickly interrupted her and got Ettie to focus on her rather than the environment. Than being done, she was able to walk Ettie around the venue. She mixed interrupting undesirable behaviours and rewarding desirable behaviours as required.
Key to this routine is ensuring that Ettie doesn’t move outwith her critical distance. This is the invisible perimeter within which Ettie can think and respond, outside which she can only react. Every dog has their own set of critical distances. There’s often a point at which you know your dog has gone too far and so is unlikely to respond to a recall. Or where another dog has just got too close to your fearful dog and you know she’s going to react. Our job is to maintain the critical distance so that the unwanted behaviours aren’t required or triggered.
For Ettie this meant not going too close to the horses, especially when they were moving (movement can be very triggering) or the other dogs. As Ettie realised that certain behaviours resulted in more food, she began to offer them with increased frequency. In my experience, allowing the dog to choose how to respond, within the parameters of our goals, works much better than insisting on what we think they should do. And so Ettie has discovered that looking at us or looking at the triggers without barking is what elicits food. She has learned how to get us to give her food. And that control is a powerful reinforcer.
As the day went on, Amie was able to get closer and closer to the triggers without Ettie barking. With other dogs, if she doesn’t bark and the other dog is happy, Ettie can have a quick sniff hello. Her barking sounds like she hates other dogs, but in fact she has never met another dog she didn’t like. In this case, you’d definitely go down the wrong path if you just judged the terrier by the barking. But barking as she approaches other dogs is not ok, not ok for her or for the other dog. So she needs to be calm and quiet if she wants to say hello.
Hard work pays off
After the tricky start, Amie and Ettie were able to enjoy their day out. With dedication and vigilance it didn’t take long for Ettie to be able to enjoy watching the horses galloping past. Or the various dogs moving around enjoying their day out too. Amie was able to reduce the number of treat rewards Ettie received, mixing in touch and verbal rewards instead. She was even able to ask her friend to hold Ettie while she held her own dog, the gorgeous Tablet. Ettie was calm, interested and friendly to all. What more could you desire?
The next step is to reduce the initial arousal – so stay tuned!
Big thanks to Amie and Grace for taking Ettie on a grand day out and for working so hard to make it fun for everyone.
Note: This blog was originally published on my old website on 27th April 2020