I promise, I haven't fallen off the blogsphere, I'd hoped to post half way through my Reactivty Research with Chico, but I just couldn't seem to make it all happen. The Research ended up being quite hard to document, and admittedly I fell off the documenting band wagon. Even though I didn't complete the project as I planned I learned much more than I ever thought possible, and I feel like I'm a much better trainer and dog mom because of this project.
During the months of March and April, I logged how many triggers Chico reacted to, and triggers that he didn't respond to while we were doing our daily run. Typically on leash a trigger would consist of dogs, people (specifically runners), and bicyclists. In addition I logged the approximated distance from the trigger and the duration of the reaction. In addition I specified what type of reaction Chico displayed: barking, lunging, growling or all. The same treats were used throughout the study. The treats were counted prior to our daily run and when we complete our run. I included this information along with other pertinent observations and notes in a spreadsheet. I planned to run most nights as Chico and I have for several years unless the conditions were unsafe. The difference between the month of March and April was that in March I used the marker word "yes" when Chico looked at me, offers or performs any behavior other than barking, lunging, or growling. In April I used a Clicker to mark any desirable behavior.
To Click Or Not To Click, That Is The Question....
The weather was unseasonably warm in both March and April and because of this Chico didn't wear his Thundershirt but a handful of times. For Chico, the Thundershirt seems to ease his anxiety an estimated 5-10%. He looks darn cute wearing it too! With the warm weather there were more people out than a normal soaking up the unseasonable mild Midwest spring. Our March runs were just like any other month, the only thing that changed in our training was the fact that I was documenting Chico's reactions to triggers.
Voice marker word "YES" for desirable behavior followed by treats
Although I always knew bikes were a huge point of anxiety for Chico, my documentation really proved this. 50 percent of the time Chico would bark and lunge at a biker 40 feet away. (That's approximately the distance of a road we run on.) The other 50 percent of the time, Chico remained at his threshold for functioning without barking/lunging and extremely excited and aroused seeing the biker. So what does this mean? It means that 40 feet is still too close for Chico to be around bikes, he's simply past his threshold and he is freaking out, panicking. The results from March proved that walkers are nonthreatening. He could handle walkers from 10-20 feet away focusing and functioning happily. Signs of stress like lip licking, head turning and leash pulling start to occur closer at 10 feet, which means he's not ready to get closer to walkers he's unfamiliar with. Chico has come a long way with not reacting to runners. He could reliably work with not reacting anywhere from 20-30 feet away from a runner. The faster the movement the more exciting the stimulus was for Chico. Finally, my March research showed Chico could handle people walking dogs anywhere from 10-30 feet away. If the dog was calm, uninterested in Chico, he could walk right next to it. However, if the dog was all jazzed up, jumping, barking, or growling we needed more space.
Clicker marking desirable behavior followed by treats
I wish I could say the using a Clicker changed the results that I had above. But the truth is, Chico's threshold for reactivity, whether I use a Clicker or my voice, is the same. Now, before you go off saying Clicker training is silly, and too much work.... Let me finish by saying this: Since I completed my experiment I have continued to use a Clicker when exercising my dogs. Chico proved to recover much quicker from reactive episode when I use the Clicker. The reaction time is shorter, less intense and his desire to work through an fearful situation is much stronger. There's science and real studies coming out stating that the Clicker calms a dog's brain. And I believe that to be true. Since I completed this study Chico's success rate has increased to about 75 percent successful bike encounters at 40 feet. I strongly believe this is due to the calming effects of Clicker training while out exercising, keeping Chico under threshold of fear/panic, and giving him lots of yummy treats (counter conditioning.) Another important thing that I noticed was that Chico is much more successful when I specifically asked him for a very easy behavior before the scary stimulus approached. (Sit, hand touch, find a treat, look.) If I waited for him to perform a default behavior or for him to look to me, it's a given, he would make the wrong choice and react.
Not All Clickers Are Created Equal
Both of my dogs are Clicker trained. When we do trick or agility training, I always use a Clicker, along with any classroom training I have my Clicker on hand ready to go. When I started my research I was using the i-Click. The i-Click is a quiet Clicker, perfect for sound sensitive dogs. It's small and the button is easy to "click". Chico isn't sound reactive. In fact, sounds don't effect him at all. His hearing is fine, but when he runs he is often times in the "zone" completely focused on moving forward. This is one of the reasons I love running with him, his pure joy of running. Although the i-Click is what we use when we train, he didn't respond when I clicked. At first I thought that he was past threshold or overstimulated, but many times there was nothing but open roads ahead of us.
I decided to try a different Clicker, one that had a louder "click." The StarMark Clicker is slightly larger with an easy push button. The sound is much louder and can even be heard over passing cars. As soon as I started using this Clicker, Chico responded to the Click every time I clicked. Chico simply couldn't hear the i-Click. (I still use the i-Click for all other training, just not out of walks/runs.)
If you don't like the push button style of Clickers, you might try a box clicker.The sound is somewhere between the two Clickers, louder than an i-Click softer than the StarMark Clicker. Personally I find it easier to use a Clicker with a raised button.
Adding Space When There Isn't Any...
Knowing that Chico needs more space when encountering bikes has required me to get a little creative on making space where we don’t actually have any place to go. I want Chico to be 100% successful when encountering bikes, so I decided to take some liberties and found space by using people’s yards or driveways when I see a biker coming. If they have a nice big tree, I take Chico behind it to obstruct his view of the bike. If there isn’t a tree, we play games and I ask him to perform simple behaviors. So far, he’s been much more successful, raising the success rate to approximately 80-85%. I’ve not been kicked out of anyone’s yard, yelled at, or had the cops called on me yet. So hopefully people don’t mind our little pit stop on our runs.
Can a Clicker calm your dog? Absolutely. The Clicker, knowledge, training, and patience has helped my frightened Fido.
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Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to be used as a training guide. Please contact a local positive based trainer for hands on help.