Over the next two posts I’m going to look at how to change your dog’s feelings about something many dogs loathe. This first instalment will look at the science behind the process, the next will lay out the exact steps I took when implementing that process with Felix, my young border collie.
And what is the horrifying event we’ll be using as a case study?
The event both owners and dogs usually dread. I have no idea why dogs hate being bathed as much as they do! Almost every dog I’ve ever known has hated being bathed with a passion. The very same beastie that would take great delight in throwing themselves into thick smelly mud, freezing cold streams or rough salty water, would tremble and pant at the very first signs of towels, shampoo and “bath time!”.
Felix is no exception. He’s been bathed a couple of times, usually when he’s successfully anointed his entire body in something unspeakably gross and smelly. These events have been unplanned and unavoidable – and unpleasant for all concerned.
Felix is not a ‘spit & polish’ sort of dog
If baths were going to be a rare event maybe I’d be less inclined to work hard to make them pleasant – preparing the bathroom with towels etc is inconvenient! And to be honest, over time, with careful handling and lots of food, my dogs have generally just come to accept the indignity of shampoo and conditioner.
However, Felix has the type of coat that’s going to need regular shampooing so I’m able to keep it healthy and mat-free – it’s huge with masses of thick fluffy undercoat, which he’s not keen on shedding. Bathing allows me to remove all that fluff without tugging and pulling, so, time to make shampooing a time of joy – or at least not traumatic!
To turn ‘stressed and fearful’ into ‘relaxed pleasure’ takes a bit of planning and work. It’s not a process to be rushed or pushed. You can only proceed as fast as your dog will let you so if you’re planning on working this bit of magic make sure to allow plenty of lead in time before the actual event.
Tools of transformation
I use two types of learning process to change my dog’s emotions: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Many people tend to rely only on classical conditioning but I’ve found that using both gives me faster and more robust results. Let me explain…
Classical conditioning processes
There are two main protocols for changing emotions via classical conditioning:
- counter conditioning, where we pair the ‘trigger’ with something the dog loves. Usually this is toys or food but it doesn’t have to be – work with the dog you have in front of you.
- systematic desensitisation where we are careful to introduce the ‘trigger’ slowly and at very low intensity so as not to push the dog into a fear or stress response. As we progress we gradually increase the intensity of the trigger, or layer in separate aspects of the trigger situation to move incrementally towards the full experience.
It’s best if linear progressions are avoided: don’t constantly make the challenge harder! Be prepared to back off, make things easier and lower the intensity of the triggers to give your dog a break as you’re working.
If you read any training book, or watch any training video, on changing fearful responses you’ll see these two techniques being put to use. They work very well but can take a looong time.
The ‘operant’ part of the process.
I’ve found that adding some ‘active’ learning to the mix can speed things up and allow the dog to feel more in control of the situation. Here are the ‘tricks of the trade’ I used for Felix and his bath time blues:
When working with emotional issues, I do my best to avoid luring if I can. Sometimes you just have to, but I never do it more than 5 times, just to get the behaviour started – and I only lure the tiniest amount, that very first step, not the whole thing! For Felix I only had to lure one tiny step, that was putting a paw in the bath itself. More details later…
The dog can always say “No”. If you’re working with a stressed or fearful dog and you’re NOT in an emergency situation, don’t be afraid to wait your dog out or even just quit for the day. Forcing the issue will set you back further than if you’d never started.
The importance of the ‘release’
For situations where you’re asking your dog to voluntarily enter a space he finds stressful I always cue a release BEFORE the dog chooses to leave if I can. That might mean using a clicker or verbal marker and tossing the food away. Alternatively, it might mean I cue the dog to another place and reward that instead. Either way, I want ‘leaving’ the scary place to be part of the reward for entering it or staying there.
Why? Because of the Premack Principle: “the opportunity to perform a high probability behaviour (leaving the scene) will reinforce a low probability behaviour (staying put)”. Also known as Grandma’s law: eat your greens to get dessert.
What are your reinforcers going to be?
During the bath process I want to be able to reinforce/reward the dog for bravery and tolerance. I don’t expect him to adore the process but over time I want him to feel better and better about it. For Felix I chose three ‘rewards’:
- Top value food (cooked meat and offal)
- Leaving the bath itself
- Playing with the towels and being ‘bundled and wrapped’. He LOVES being towelled off and tickled! It’s a game I taught him as a tiny puppy as many dogs aren’t initially that keen on being dried after rainy walks and toilet breaks.
Step 01: the initial plan
Break it out into component parts and decide which behaviours you might need to pre-train.
For Felix I already had cues for ‘on/off the platform’ and ‘get in/out’ of specific places such as a crate or dog bed. I used those pre-learnt skills in the bath time scenario and didn’t have to teach anything new.
What is your dog currently happy to tolerate?
Make a note of what your dog will and won’t accept happily. This will give you ideas for what you can and can’t utilise if necessary.
Outside, Felix will voluntarily walk into a fish bin of warm water to have his feet and undercarriage washed off with a cloth. He doesn’t like the hosepipe and won’t voluntarily go anywhere near it if it’s on.
Inside, Felix will happily enter the bathroom as long as none of the ‘bath time’ triggers are present.
Where is the experience going to occur? Do you need to do the training in multiple places so it generalises? For Felix I only have to bath him in the bathroom. If I was going to have to bath him in different places I’d be repeating the whole training process in multiple environments. Never take it for granted that what you train in one situation will transfer cleanly to another!
The triggers that are problematic for your dog
Break the problem scenario into as many bits as you can. Almost every scary situation will have multiple components. Felix is totally relaxed in the bathroom under normal circumstances. However, the addition of certain ‘things’ caused him to flat out refuse to enter the room, never mind get in the bath itself!
This is the trigger list for Felix and baths:
- The towels on the floor
- The platform (Needed to get him in and out of the bath tub without me having to lift him. I have a bad back so that’s not going to happen!)
- The smell of the shampoo
- The number of people in the room
- The water running from the shower head (doesn’t like the hosepipe outside).
In the next post I’ll lay out the exact training steps I followed to turn Felix from a shrinking, shaking mess into a bathroom junkie. If you’d like to know more about the ways dogs learn, you can find out more in my FREE online course.
Sarah and the Gang
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