Changing an emotional response


Ever wonder how dogs learn about the world around them? They learn by association, by emotional response.

Humans learn by emotional response, too. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you would be sure to keep your hands away from hot stoves in the future because your previous stove experience produced pain.

Dogs experience the world in a similar way.

Emotional associations are important to a dog’s survival from an evolutionary standpoint. They develop immediate associations to everything in their environment – safe, dangerous, good for them, bad for them, neutral.

When my sweet black lab, Martha, was 8-months-old she was jumped on by five exuberant border collies. I knew these dogs; individually they were friendly, but the overly friendly welcoming committee left young Martha very upset. 

From that day forward, Martha hated all fluffy black and white dogs. Because Martha and I competed in agility, a sport Martha loved and a sport ruled by border collies, I had to be very selective about when and where we played the game to keep Martha comfortable.

Often we don’t realize our dogs are developing a bad association to something until it’s obvious they are fearful. 

Common examples are nail trimming, other dogs, tile floors, training sessions, etc. We often have no idea what happened to cause their distress but we can help them change their emotional response.

Changing an emotional response is called desensitization and it involves the three Ds: distance, duration and distraction.

If you are afraid of spiders and you are motivated to get over that fear, you would start with one spider far enough from you that you felt was safe. After you slowly moved the spider closer, you might be able to feel safe if the spider is in your presence for a duration of two seconds. Through the sessions of closing the distance and lengthening the duration, you would distract yourself by having your very favorite rewards – mine would be small, bite-sized bits of dark chocolate.Lots of tiny rewards generously spaced out only while in the presence of the spider.

Eventually, your emotional response to spiders would change. When I see a spider, I won’t run away in fear but instead I’d ask, “Where’s the chocolate?”

With dogs, because they can’t tell us how they feel, we learn their body language to figure out their emotional response. 

If your dog barks, growls and lunges at other dogs, we can assume they don’t like other dogs. The first thing to do is keep enough of a distance from other dogs so your dog’s body language tells you they are relaxed. Then you offer your dog rewards, lots of rewards for being in the presence of another dog. When the other dog is not present, those special treats get put away.

Another way dogs learn is by consequences. For example, if I ask my dog, Geo, to sit, but then take my time opening the treat container to give him a reward for sitting, he might miss the point. If, while Geo’s still sitting, he yawns, shakes his head, is sctaching his ruff with his back foot when I finally give him the treat, he likely will think he is getting rewarded for scratching his ruff with his back foot.

He will not understand the treat is for sitting.

Dogs need the immediate consequence of the treat as close after the behavior asked for as possible for them to understand clearly why they are receiving the reward.

Dogs see the world in basic terms – safe vs. dangerous – and what works for them vs. what doesn’t work for them.

Dogs don’t do things to get back at us or to be stubborn. What is likely going on when your dog tears up the sofa cushion is very simple. Your dog is bored, there is a bit of kibble under the cushion or his favorite person’s smell – you – is on the cushion. He starts pawing at it. A small hole develops. He thinks the game is fun. Eventually, the cushion explodes.

You come home to see the cushion tattered with stuffing fluff everywhere. You immediately have an upset look on the face. Dogs are great at reading our body language. Your dog is instantly scared, having forgotten all about the cushion destruction a few hours ago.

You are seeing fear in your dog, not shame.

I already thought dogs were amazing, but when I learned their body language and how they learn, I was even more amazed. 

Dogs are dogs, not people. Be patient with your dog when you are training them for that fun trick.

Find Rock Nest Training & Pet Care LLC at Facebook: @Rocknestpetcare, or call Cheri at 541-895-3162.



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