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— August 13, 2013 —

Daphne’s Story: Part Three.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been discussing Daphne, a very dog-reactive hound mix who was rescued from a local shelter. Daphne’s reactivity came as quite a shock to her new mom, since she was described as, “The sweetest dog here” by the volunteers at the shelter.

If you listen to trainers discuss the type of problem behavior that Daphne displayed, you hear the term “Correction” thrown around. Correction is the wrong word for the techniques we used with Daphne.  In cases such as Daphne's, a more accurate term would be “Interrupter.” The idea is to interrupt the dog’s bad behavior and install an acceptable behavior in the same situation. We then teach the dog to handle the situation through this correct response. The correct response is usually an obedience command, like sit or down. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the correction doesn’t teach a dog anything. It only serves to interrupt the bad behavior. When the behavior is interrupted, you can use that moment to give a command. By practicing this regularly, the dog learns to react differently to the given situation. (As a side note, many people try to pet and soothe their dogs during explosive behavior episodes. This also does not have the desired effect. It usually teaches the dog to become more and more reactive.)

An obedience command that is used to stop bad behavior is called an “Alternative Incompatible Behavior (AIB).” In other words the dog cannot sit and lunge at the same time. In teaching Daphne to sit around other dogs instead of lunging, we taught her how to remain calm. This calmness, or Impulse Control, is the primary goal of training a dog like Daphne. As Daphne develops better impulse control, we are able expose her to more dogs and to desensitize her further.

In last week’s article, I talked about how we introduced Daphne to the e-collar, the muzzle and the concept of obedience. We made sure that she understood very basic commands and taught her how to respond to the commands when the collar was being used. We call that process “Loading the Collar.” Loading the collar is kind of like “Loading the Clicker” in clicker training. The collars that we use have a vibrate function, which only allows Daphne to feel the collar shaking on her neck. We start with the process of giving Daphne obedience commands and giving her treats as well as vibrating collar when she does what is asked. In short order, Daphne figured out that the collar is part of our instructions and the vibrate of the collar signifies a reward. The process was repeated with the electric stim function. We generally like to set it to a level where the dog barely feels it, and may flick an ear when the stim is applied. A major part of learning Daphne’s sensitivity level to the stim function was figuring out how she reacted to the collar when excited. When Daphne got excited, she didn’t feel the collar at all unless the level was increased.

Once Phase 1 was accomplished, we began Phase 2. The goal of this phase was to expose Daphne to the dogs in our facility. We had already established that she could sit and give eye contact on command, but the sight of another dog caused her to break focus and lunge. So the Training and Exposure Phase of the program consisted of bringing her into an area where there were dogs and having her work on eye contact. We were careful to only expose Daphne to very calm dogs that she could ignore successfully. It was a very delicate balance of getting her close, but not so close that she would react. In the beginning of this phase, we kept the dogs at quite a distance. As Daphne learned to control herself, we moved closer and closer until she could be right next to another dog without reacting. There were a few explosions, but overall we managed to keep her reasonably calm. In cases where Daphne lost it, we used the stim function at a level high enough to “Interrupt” the unacceptable behavior and get her to sit and give eye contact.

Throughout this phase, we constantly looked for ways to push Daphne a bit further and increase her tolerance. Since she was dong well with very calm dogs, we started exposing her to more active dogs. Again, we started with the dog across the room and slowly decreased the distance. Also, we began to work on other formal obedience commands like the “Heel” command. We taught Daphne to walk nicely next to her mom. First this was taught without distraction, and later we had Daphne perform the heel command in the presence of other dogs.

The second phase was all about teaching Daphne to respond to obedience commands while there were other dogs in the room. If the other dog was very active or very close, it was harder for Daphne to comply. The more she learned to ignore the other dogs, the less reactive she became. As Daphne became less reactive, she learned that social interaction with other dogs was a positive thing. Daphne was starting to learn to like other dogs.

Next week, we’ll tie all of this together and explain the final two phases of Daphne’s program. We’ll also discuss the “certain terms and conditions” that apply to Daphne’s acceptance of other dogs.

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