Sneakers = Cookies: Transforming the frustration of one little terrier
Have you ever gotten ready to take a walk or hike and noticed that your dog knows he is coming with you? How about when you get ready for work–does your dog know he is not coming with you? I’ve noticed this for years. Based on what clothes and shoes I put on, my dogs knew whether or not they would be part of the activities and responded accordingly. When I started running as a way of exercising, my dogs would ‘complain’ when I didn’t take them with me. This was because running shoes used to mean we were going to play or train in the backyard together. I started leaving through the front door instead of the back door and that resolved that.
Dogs are clever and quickly pick up associations and patterns in their day to day life. A dog quickly associates the leash with going outside and a bowl with mealtime. I remember thinking it was precious when Tricky, at 12 weeks old, first responded to the rustling of a plastic bag–she associated that sound with treats!
So how do dogs naturally pick up these associations without formal training? Classical conditioning is the reason. My dogs have had multiple walks that were preceded by me putting on sneakers. Based on that, they have concluded a relationship between walks and me putting on sneakers. They think that when I put on sneakers, we are ALL going somewhere together. Dogs learn through trial and error along with association and repetition. Classical conditioning, simply put, is learning by association. Ever see a cat running into the room when he hears the can opener? Or see a dog tremble once he steps into the veterinary hospital? Those are examples of classical conditioning. This type of learning is happening all of the time, everywhere, whether we intend to teach something or not. Just by observing and experiencing what’s happening around them, dogs are learning through association.
This knowledge plays a significant part in dog training and behavior modification. This helps a dog trainer to understand what events happen that a specific dog associates with anxiety or fear. These emotions sometimes cause a dog to behave in an aggressive manner. Dog trainers can modify the behavior by changing the association a dog has with the currently anxiety provoking event. Over time, the dog might even feel comfortable or excited about those triggers! By focusing on a dog’s emotional state, behavior can be modified for the long term.
As a person who sees the world through the filter of ‘behavior,’ it is so interesting to me that my dogs have learned certain shoes and outfits I wear pertain to them or not. Marvel, my Jack Russell/Yorkshire Terrier mix, used to bark and carry on when he saw me put on a pair of sneakers to go for a jog without him. The emotion he was likely experiencing is frustration.
Here’s what I did to change his emotional response: I tossed a handful treats into his crate right before I left for my run. After doing this multiple times, he started to associate my sneakers with treats and good feelings instead of frustration. As a result, he figured out that my putting on sneakers meant treats for him. He now runs into his crate to get treats instead of barking. I have changed his behavior by changing his emotional state.
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