Counter conditioning is a useful tool in any trainer’s toolbox. It is an effective strategy in changing a dog’s negative emotional response towards a trigger. The aim for change is capturing a reaction which is calmer and relaxed while the trigger is present. This behavior modification technique can be used in a variety of settings and is supported by a strong training regimen which focuses on obedience cues, particularly the focus cue.
The focus cue seems to be a throw away cue for many clients because many clients unfamiliar with dog training may not initially see the purpose. In actuality, the focus cue is the foundation of shaping more desirable behaviors on cue. This is especially important in changing the frustrated default behavior. The importance of the focus cue is creating space for a dog doing a competing behavior (gazing at the handler) while a stressful trigger is present. The aim of the competing behavior is in decreasing the stress response because the dog is conditioned to looking at the handler when given the command while a trigger is present. In addition, the time looking away assists the dog in naturally developing a calmer response when the trigger is present. This calmer emotional response eventually becomes the default behavior.
How to teach the focus cue with a more insecure dog:
- If doing a private in home session, start in the least distracting environment. Most of the time this is inside the house.
- The client will start in front of the dog while the dog is sitting. This will allow the dog an opportunity for learning the behavior and most dogs naturally come to a sit in front of the handler. If a dog finds another position such as lying down more comfortable, go with the flow!
- Once the dog is sitting in front, and looks up to the handler, praise and reward. Once the dog finds the behavior of looking up at the handler a rewarding experience, the behavior will occur quicker. Capturing the behavior is less threatening for an already skittish or frustrated dog because the dog is deciding on her own to make the eye contact.
- At this time, the handler can begin saying focus, look at me or watch me and then praise and reward.
- The goal at this point is building the dog’s confidence while teaching obedience.
An insecure dog may show more apprehension when presented with unfamiliar or new stimuli such as unfamiliar dogs, people and environment during a group class. It may take a session or two for an insecure dog to gain (in gaining) confidence while working on the focus cue. If a dog in a group class appears to be shut down or completely distracted, invite the client in encouraging the dog to move away from the class until her dog is visibly more comfortable and can manage the eye contact. Remind the client this is necessary for the dog to be less stressed and is not a failure on the client’s or dog’s end. This will be a step towards the dog being more confident in a group class. This will also help build a stronger bond between the handler and dog and the dog will see the handler as responding to her needs. This will also lay foundation for capturing more appropriate behaviors.
Practicing the Focus Cue When Not in Training
In many clients’ lives, they have major time commitments from work and family obligations. Clients can set aside time for training a few minutes a day with other daily activities such as getting dinner ready or during commercial breaks or while they are getting ready for bed, to name some examples. The focus cue can easily be inserted into these already established routines. For instance, during a commercial break, a client can call the dog over and once the dog sits and looks up at the handler, praise and reward. The integration of training into a handler’s already busy life will make it a more manageable training experience.
Generalizing the Behavior
Once the focus cue is visibly known by the dog, encourage the handler in increasing distractions. It may be working in the backyard or on an apartment patio. The handler then can move slowly into a public setting. Working on the focus cue in more of a public environment may involve coming across a trigger unexpectedly. Remember, behavior modification training is only possible when the dog is working under her stress threshold. If the handler and dog come across a trigger too close and there is a stress response by the dog, encourage the handler in moving the dog away in the opposite direction. If the dog is too fixated on the trigger, the handler may whistle, give a high pitched voice, or anything that will break that tunnel vision and get the dog more interested in the handler. The moment, the dog appears relaxed, ask for the focus cue and praise and reward. Continue practicing the focus cue a few more rounds along with other known behaviors while keeping an eye on the trigger. Once the trigger moves (or has moved) out of the area, encourage the handler and dog in continuing on the walk. Now, this is the beginning of blending the focus cue into counter conditioning regimen.
Some great websites and additional reading material which go into more detail on counter conditioning are:
Behavior Adjustment Training-BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs by Grisha Stewart M.A. CPDT-KA. Her book is phenomenal and can truly transform a dog’s emotional response.