If you are going through a time of discouragement, there is a time of great personal growth ahead - Oswald Chambers
We often tell our students that success is not always linear. There can and will be setbacks. We have to plan for these and be patient with ourselves and our dogs.
From the outset of this experience, I have shared that Sparkle has some fears, particularly around sounds as well as some discomforts with body handling. She also does not like when its dark outside because she's often surprised by things and she doesn't like surprises.
Much of our training has focused on helping reduce or eliminate these fears. The primary process that I'm using is called counter conditioning and desensitization. The basic concept is that when your dog is relaxed, you pair increasing levels of something that the dog finds unpleasant with something that they like. The most common way this process fails to work is when we work with our dogs when they are not feeling ok or when we push too far too soon.
As you should know by now, I'm not going to intentionally force Sparkle into situations she's not comfortable with in hopes that she'll "get over it." That being said, in the past few weeks, I have been challenged to create an environment for her in which she's able to feel safe outside. You see, the neighborhood we live in is near two active train lines, a major hospital, and a highway. I have always thought that it was a quiet neighborhood because none of the sounds associated with those things happens all of the time or are generally very loud right by our house. Sparkle's reactions to them have caused me to reconsider.
A combination of factors such as bad weather leading to more accidents (and more sirens), increased train traffic (more train horns), and dogs and people suddenly appearing in the dark have led to increasingly stressful outings for her, and by extension me.
We've been working on her issues inside, as you're about to see, but I have been challenged to do the same outside as effectively as I would like. The kicker is that the effects of stress are cumulative, so even if only one of the things she's worried about happens on a given day, they all add up if they happen in successive days. This is known as trigger stacking.
Think about how it feels if you're running late to work and you miss every light and at the last light, the person in front of you doesn't start to move when the light turns green. How much self control will it take to not lean on your horn in that situation vs if you weren't in a rush and you had made all of the previous lights. It's the same sort of situation where Sparkle has been frequently on edge even before we leave the house.
Unable to provide Sparkle with a several day break (which is how long stress hormones can take to leave the body), she has actually regressed in her behavior. What I will be focusing on now will be trying to do more fun high intensity things outside, and doing a better job of limiting exposure to things that worry her by taking shorter walks and having a higher percentage of the time be about ball play, which is her top reinforcer. I will also be taking higher value treats. Her favorite treat is string cheese, so I'll be packing that more. I may even switch to using our treadmill to get her more exercise inside while she de-stresses.
The good news is that our work inside has been going well. Here's what we've been working on:
Making Scary Sounds Less Scary
Sparkle has a number of sound triggers such as train horns and gunfire and also has difficulty with sudden sounds in general. In this video I'm using an app to help her get more comfortable with a few of these sounds. Prior to starting to record, I had relaxing background music and a white noise generator playing. I then played the sounds at a volume where she just barely registered but still remained relaxed, so I was looking for just an ear turn in the direction of the sound. I paired the sound with string cheese and over time increased the volume.
Feeling Better about Lifting
I've been working on helping Sparkle feel more comfortable with body handling. One of the things I may need to do on the trip is pick her up if she gets tangled in something or bogged down in mud or is injured. It's also a good thing to be able to do if we're at the vet and she needs to be lifted on a table. I used the same principle as with sounds where I started off with her relaxed and then paired the start of the lift with string cheese and worked up to lifting her a small height.
Angela and Lowell, your friendly Harmony Dog Trainers!