Since Tajji’s last class, we’ve been working her frequently and most particularly on voluntary head-turns, as requested by Sandy Pensinger, our trainer. You simply start rewarding any turn of the head towards you, no matter how feeble, under very low-distraction conditions. Then build towards a real check-in with you.
At today’s class, we saw the payoff, which came despite a serious lapse in training the day before that I’ll describe later. We practiced a training method called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), which basically involves setting up safe situations in which the dog can learn to manage its reactivity.
The week before we had done desensitization via classical conditioning: exposing Tajji to another dog far away and rewarding her as soon as she noticed it by running away to behind a blind, T-touching her and praising her, and then giving her a treat. This kind of training will help her eventually understand that good things happen when other dogs appear, which helps increase her threshold.
This week, we built on this foundation with BAT by exposing her to a dog almost 100 feet closer, and then waiting for her to voluntarily disengage. If it appeared she wasn’t going to quickly enough, then the handler (Deborah or I) would attract her attention with a slight movement or her name. Once we got a head turn or any other sign of disengagement (Deborah won kudos for using subtle ear-flicks to detect disengagement), we praised her while running back behind the blind to where there was a box with treats in it along with some birch scent, a setup to help get her started on nose work if we want to.
Note that she’s being rewarded three ways. Praise is almost as good as food to a dog, running away from a scary thing is even better, and lots of treats where she can’t see the other dog is best of all.
Despite a very high base level of arousal before both trials (each dog worked twice), Tajji did OK the first time around, and very well indeed the second time. You could see the repetitions sinking in, and towards the end of the second trial, after she’d had time to “think about” the first trial, she appeared to be as close to “bored” as we’ve ever seen her under such conditions, at least as far as reactivity to the other dog was concerned.
We were both relieved, for just the day before, I’d left the garage open and Tajji got out of the yard. She menaced a couple walking a Chihuahua and a small GSD bitch, but came away easily when I called her. I didn’t see what had happened, but no one was hurt or bitten, although the looks thrown my way scorched a bit—hardly a prickle compared to my own melodrama: “Oh! I’ve set her back weeks, especially after such an effective rehearsal of reactive behavior. And with a small dog, too!” (Anything under about 15 pounds or so is the Devil.)
Yet, a day later, there she was all ramped up on the field watching two different small dogs walk around, and she frequently disengaged without incident. Part of that is testament to her fundamental resilience despite her trauma, and part the outcome of the training protocols we’re learning to use, all of them positive. In the five months we’ve had her, we’ve never “punished” Tajji, and can’t imagine why we’d ever do so, since working this way is so very effective and fun. And that’s to say nothing of the joy of seeing her open up to the world again, little by little.