Have a Plan When Changing Behavior

When a dog is repeatedly frightened by the same stimuli, and is not ever given a chance to think and feel differently about this stimuli, you will likely see the same reaction long term to this stimuli whenever it presents itself.

Pablo looks at me with dogs in the distance
Pablo looks at me with dogs in the distance

Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning is the process of learning to think and feel differently about a particular stimuli. Remember it is the feeling or emotion that is going to drive the behavior you see in your dog.  Stopping the behavior by a shock, will obviously make the dog stop the behavior to avoid the shock, but does nothing to help the dog feel any better about the scary stimuli and often times will make the dog react stronger the next time.

Have a plan!  Spring is a time when people and children will be out and about not only a lot more, but at predictable times.  Skate boards, bikes, scooters and motorcycles will all be zipping by very soon.  If these are things your dogs gets aroused and barks or lunges at, then let’s make a plan!

Think about rewarding your dog for staying calm when he hears the trigger, be sure your dog is definitely going to practice a new behavior. How? Be far enough away from the stimuli and have high enough motivation that your dog can not fail!  Once you start getting a new behavior, you realize your dog can change his habits, he just needs you to set him up for success and be sure he can stay under threshold so his old habit does not appear.

When your dog is under threshold or far enough away from the scary stimuli that he is able to think about the stimuli and how he feels, you know you are making progress!

So, if given the chance, would your dog would run across the street and bark at the neighbor child on his scooter? If the answer is, “Yes”, then start with your dog down the street each day at the optimal time, and reward your dog for looking or just alerting to the neighbor as he comes out.  Each day use high value rewards and get just five feet or so closer to the neighbor.  Over time, your dog will realize that the presence of the neighbor predicts him getting his treat; hence his emotion to the neighbor appearing will be very different in just a few training sessions.

Please do not try to get closer every day, but stay the same distance so your dog can feel safe.  Going too fast is a common problem and will most likely force your dog to use an old unwanted habit.

Finally, I recommend you always end on a good moment when things are calm and going smoothly so when you begin the next time, you and your dog will have a good feeling about training in this location.