Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Getting a dog to behave around fireworks: treat therapy

It's year three of using treat therapy to combat my dog's extreme anxiety about fireworks and this year, we've had a major break through.

The bad behavior
Fireworks go off. My dog leaps from where ever he may be, barking, hair raised and bee lining it toward the nearest door or window. Barking only increases. He goes from one window to the next, checking every opening in the house, barking and barking and barking. He does not pay attention to anyone or anything. Anxiety does not diminish, but only increases in intensity. It's awful.

The past two years
We live across the street from a lake. Lake people love fireworks. The first year, Sensi damaged a window beyond repair. We had to do something about his anxiety. I started using treat therapy — year one, not a whole lot of progress. Year two, showed good progress — it was easier to calm him down, he began anticipating treats. But progress is a relative term.

This weekend
With four people around to help distract and dispense treats, we made great progress. Fireworks started going off Saturday at dusk and continued for a couple hours. As quickly as possible after every firework, we called Sensi, asked him to sit and gave him a treat. By the end of the night, even if he ran to the door or window to bark, he would stop himself just prior to barking and instead turn around to look for a treat. This means the association is finally gaining strength — he is actually connecting, in his head, that those big booms can equal treats and all he has to do is find a person and sit before them. The downside? Boy is it ever a lot of work. The night is basically dedicated to treat therapy. That's why having a couple friends around to help pitch in as treat dispensers really helped. I don't think we could've made such good work on the boom-treat association if we didn't have the help.

A better idea
When fireworks go off outside, we have no idea that it's about to happen. We aren't watching the people setting them off and we have no way to anticipate the exact moment a firework will go off.
This means we can't have perfect timing.
Timing is everything with training and behavior modification, and if your timing isn't perfect, your training won't be easy.
With something like fireworks, you want the dog to be eating the treat as the firework is going off — not a second later after the dog has taken off to bark out the window.
My plan to fix this is to create a DVD of a fireworks show I filmed over the weekend. It's really all the same to him, anyhow. He barks just as much for that pesky furniture store commercial that has fireworks in it as he does for the fireworks outside.
With the DVD, we'll be able to work on this more than just a couple weeks out of the year and we'll really be able to nail our timing and get the message across to Sensi with a whole lot less wear and tear on the both of us.

Watching his coping mechanisms change
One of the most interesting parts of this whole behavior mod process is seeing the change in how he copes with the anxiety brought on by fireworks.
He previously went right into a threat display, which would continue relentlessly. In the worst of times, he became destructive — as in the case of the scratched-beyond-repair window.
Last year we saw that threat display decrease substantially. He only used it for the really loud booms. I saw him actively engage in treat therapy — during a long session of fireworks, he had nose buried in the food I was shoveling toward him. As soon as the helpings ran out, he wasn't running away to refocus on the fireworks as you'd think would happen. Nope, he was nosing the food bowl with the intensity of a crack addict on a crime spree. I could see willingness on his behalf to learn a different way to cope with fireworks.
This year, he's gotten so much better that he no longer wants to run to the doors/windows at all — he wants to stay lying down by us to get his treats — but lying down conflicts with the anxiety he feels for the fireworks. When a loud boom goes off, he gets his treat and then has to cope with the "I want to get up, but I know it doesn't yield the best reward" scenario. So he whines like he's in pain until the next firework pops off.

We still have a long ways to go. He is still under a lot of anxiety about the fireworks, even if treat therapy has done wonders to modify his behavior.

It's one of those situations where changing the behavior comes much more easily than changing the underlying emotional state, which he is clearly still struggling with.

I'll take some video of us doing the fireworks DVD training. In the meantime, wish us luck!

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