Bar’s Open! Desensitization – a Basic Guide

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It is clearly too late to desensitize your dog to everyday things like the doorbell and that pesky vacuum cleaner before guests arrive for Thanksgiving this year. As the sayings go, Christmas is coming, there is no time like the present and all that jazz. Many dogs need our help to condition to the stresses of our daily lives, and dogs need lots of guidance to learn how to live in our world.

This post will explain classical conditioning and how you can use it to help desensitize and calm and quiet your dog. ¬†Dogs (and people!) don’t/can’t think and make good choices until the underling emotional response is addressed.

A few examples of things that we can desensitize may include: doorbell, knock on the door, kids, dogs, cars, lawn mower, skateboards, bikes, joggers, vacuum, fly swatters, coughing, or a car horn. You can desensitize pretty much anything that drives your dogs, and in return, you — nutso.

Basically you will pair a stimulous ie doorbell with something pleasant, usually food.

For explanation purposes, I will start by using a doorbell as example. You may apply similar principles to help your dog with other annoying stimulus.

Doorbell 101

If at all possible, start at below thresh hold levels. That is the point at which your dog does not react and well before they”check out”. It can be helpful to start this process with your dog outside the house, and you may have to quiet the doorbell by taping a towel over it.
No fear if you don’t have a doorbell and your dog reacts to door bells on TV. The sound of doorbell chimes can be found readily on line. Remember to begin with the sound very low.

The principle is simple.

Doorbell = open bar.

Doorbell stops = bar is closed.

If your dog does not take treats at the sound of the doorbell, you are too physically close to it, and or it may be too loud for starters. The best time to start is breakfast or dinner time when your dog is hungry.

Our goal in desensitization and counter conditioning to to change the dog’s emotional response to a stimuli. Where a doorbell once meant “BARK BARK BARK OMG OMG OMG!! a dog can learn it means, doorbell rings and good things happen.

peter and mickey

That is behavioral science. Classical conditioning must take place before learning can take place. Pavlov is always on your shoulder.

The second step is to teach your dog an incompatible response.
After emotions are addressed we teach the dog to be operant, where they will need to do something to get something.

Once clear heads prevail you then teach your dog what is expected when an event takes place. Doorbell could mean sit! Or Doorbell could mean run to the kitchen as fast as you can and wait for me to get to the treats. Doorbell could signal run to your crate, or your dog bed, or down as fast you can. This part is up to you.

Classical conditioning is the first step. For more in depth information, please check two of my related previous Life With Dogs posts How to get your dog to stop BARKING and The Quest for Boring.

Evil Motorcycles 102

My new rescue dog Beck came with some deep seated issues with motorcycles and loud and unexpected vehicles. His initial reaction was to chase and bark at full warp speed. This of course is dangerous to both dog and drivers. Beck had been a stray and he clearly had practiced and gotten rewarded by making what he perceived as the “big scary thing” go away. Beck’s first step is management, and my job is to never allow him to chase. Not ever.

Like many people with reactive dogs, I am always on high alert that something may come around the corner that could set him off. I walk with purpose, and try to always on the ready. I have exit strategies and I am ready to run into a neighbor’s driveway in a single bound and avoid at all costs. I am ready to whip out special treats that Beck only gets when he sees motorcycles, and I try to be ready for trainable moments that arise.

beck and finn LWD classical
My herding dogs Beck and Finney would bark at and chase and herd anything and everything that moved. Thank goodness for training!

Here are some of the things we have done to prepare Beck for life with motor cycles:

I have asked friends with motorcycles to help me set up scenarios where they approached and started and stopped if he got aroused. Just like with the method for doorbells, Beck started with an open bar, closed bar. Motorcycle in the distance means treats, motorcycles stops or drives away, bar is closed. We started this at a distance of about 1 football field.

Beck has had a trip to the Harley store where the sales people were super nice and let him sniff the motorcycles and walk around and learn about them while being fed a steady stream of goodies. Beck sits in the car with me with the radio loud to drown out the noise while eating dinner and doggie crack dog treats. Beck does not leave the house on walks without his special “if we see a motorcycle doggie crack” packed in my pocket.

I have taken him training to places where we are likely to see numerous motorcycles drive by. We started far away. Beck is well past classical conditioning and at this point, his whole body snaps around when he spots a motor cycle and he waits patiently for me to fumble for my goodie. Beck has learned to love our very own version of I Spy for dogs. After we were successful in pairing the motor cycles with something new, Beck learned that a recall is expected whenever he sees one. There were plenty of steps in between and they are found in my Quest for Boring post. (above)

Everything Else 103

My last rescue dog Charlee was highly dog reactive. We would find neutral dogs for training set ups. We paired other distant dogs with great things. Gradually we worked at getting closer. Orchestrate dog set by having non reactive dogs appear from behind cars and buildings. When the dog is in sight, open bar. When the dog disappears, bar is closed. Tip-make sure your helpers understand the exact rules and do not get closer to your dog than you tell them to.

Tip: Don’t be a greedy trainer and be sure to go slow.

Whatever your dog’s issue. It all starts with Pavlov.

I am sure you can think of other scenarios where classical conditioning can help your dog. As always, my suggestion is to not hesitant to seek help from a positive, professional trainer. Look at it this way. Our dogs live with us for such short times, and with proper direction everyone wins.

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charlee easy button
Charlee 1998 - 3/2011