A Lesson in Subtlety and Thresholds

As a trainer, I have the unique opportunity to train Jasmine in a huge variety of circumstances. You may remember the term “generalization” from another post. Generalizing is the understanding of a concept, cue, or task in multiple environments. For instance, a dog might understand that jumping on you delays dinner so he sits quietly instead, but he doesn’t understand that jumping on you delays being petted when you get home from work, so he doesn’t sit quietly for that. (And let’s be honest, do you actually refuse to pet him until he sits?) Jasmine gets to generalize lots of things. She’s not the brightest crayon, so it takes a while sometimes. She was taught months ago to “paws up” on tall things, on unsteady things, and on unusual things. But she just realized this week that she can put her paws on the kitchen counter. (No, she wasn’t surfing.) I was so proud. *smh*

This month we’ve had a few boarded dogs, so I have seized the opportunity to work with her on socialization. While I had two small dogs safely in a crate in the kitchen, I took Jas into the living room and asked her if she was hungry. I have been hand feeding her for just this purpose. She didn’t eat much for dinner and I’m not convinced she isn’t a black hole (8-10 cups of kibble a day!) so I offered her some food, fully expecting her to chow down. Everything about her posture said she was relaxed. Her ears were relaxed, her tail had a slow, wide wag, her mouth was soft and drooly (bulldoggo)…but she refused. I reevaluated: relaxed looking dog, favorite normal food, cannot possibly be full, has had a chance to potty and a drink. What was wrong?

I decided to take her back to the bedroom and put her up for a few minutes. Once we got into the bedroom, though, she became very interested in breakfast. I offered a handful and she ate. Ah-hah. We were too close. Part of the trouble with Jas and other dogs is her subtlety. She always gives warning before she snaps. I firmly believe that all dogs give warning. Humans don’t always see the body language that says they’re being pushed too far, but it is always there.

The key to the kind of work I am doing with Jasmine is keeping her under threshold. A threshold is the level of stimulation under which a dog begins to experience excessive stress. Excessive stress is that which inhibits learning. In desensitization and counter conditioning practices, the animal who is learning to make new associations (for Jasmine, learning that new dogs=lots of good things), that animal must be under threshold.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of stress: distress and eustress. Distress is the “bad” stress. Distress is what you feel when you’re late for work, when your car breaks down, or when someone you love is sick. Eustress is “good” stress. Eustress is what you feel when you’re going on a date, waiting for the cake to cool, or you win a new car. Both kinds of stress can be useful, but in learning we generally strive to create manageable amounts of eustress.

Jasmine needs not only to be under threshold, but to be experiencing only eustress. She’s the type of dog who does better shaping a behavior than asking for too much improvement at once. With Jasmine, we reward TRY. (There are other dogs who will happily solve problems on their own. They try new behaviors in a behavior chain without prompting. I call these “clicks”. As in, “it just clicked”.)

I relearned an old thing about dogs: appearances can be deceiving. Never be afraid to back up and start at the beginning. Sometimes we all just need an easy task, a reward before we try something harder. I am a great fan of encouragement. If someone likes what I am doing, I like to hear about it. I like to encourage others too. If someone is doing a good job, I try to tell them in a way that is meaningful to them. For Jasmine, “meaningful” means food or her squeaky tennis ball. For me, it usually means cookies.

In that first session, I slowly lured Jasmine into the living room. She ended her breakfast well within sight of two very noisy crate-usurpers (our guests). She was happy and relaxed, eating her food from my hand and happily ignoring their protests. I was careful to talk to her, to tell her what a good girl she was, how pretty her wagging tail is, how the terrifying (10 pound) doggos wouldn’t hurt her and how nicely she behaved.

After only one session, and lots of down-time, because Jas needs it to decompress, I managed to get a short video clip of what I’m doing. But this time, we had breakfast (rolled dog food, not kibble this time) in the kitchen just a few feet from the terrifying noise makers.

Credit to Matilda and Paige for being my helpers.