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Changing an Emotional Reaction

Baxter and Bizzie are very smart lab mixes who needed help with recalls, polite leash walking, anxiety, and “boundaries,” – especially during the arrival of guests. 

We worked with them for weeks on focus exercises, leash walking, and recalls. Their human parents, Wendy and Carl, were committed to the training, and the two Bs were rockin’ it. The leash walking was going very well, and even when Baxter was barking at something at the far end of the yard and heard his recall word (“CHEESE!”), he would turn and race back to the house. We chose the recall word “cheese,” because it was a new word for the dogs, and it was fun to say. You can’t say “cheese” without smiling.

One day the rain kept us inside for training, and I asked Carl and Wendy if there was anything that we could work on inside. “Well… if someone knocks on the front door, or rings the bell, both dogs lose all control, charge the door barking, and they’re all over the guests when they come in. Do you want to see what I mean?”

‘No, I’d rather not see it. I know what you mean, and the more they practice doing that, the longer it will take to change…” I replied. “Let’s pull out some very high value treats and  play the ‘Cheese!’ recall game for a bit.”

Baxter and Bizzie loved racing back into the kitchen when they were called (and getting a treat!), and were having a great time with the exercise. I said, “Let me add something to the exercise. I’m going to knock on the door, and then you give the cue for them to come into the kitchen.” 

I walked over and knocked on the front door and both dogs raced to the door, barking their heads off. The Cheese word was called out, but the dogs kept barking art the door and looking out the window checking for intruders. Wendy called “Cheese” again, and Baxter paused his barking, looked into the kitchen, and slowly made his way over there, with Bizzie following him. We smiled. It was a start. 

We played the game about 25 times, with the knocking, the barking, and the cheesie recall. Each time, the dogs would turn and go back into the kitchen a little faster. Then I said, “Watch this. Don’t say the recall word right away.“

I knocked on the door, and both dogs started running to the door barking, but then turned and raced back into the kitchen! The knocking on the door had become the new cue for them to run and see Wendy and Carl in the kitchen! 

The stress of the knocking had been almost eliminated, when it became part of the recall game. Then we changed the cue to ringing the doorbell. It was tough at first, because the sound of the doorbell had always been a very overwhelming stimulus for them. After a few tries though, they were running into the kitchen when they heard the bell ring! 

When we take a stressful stimulus, and make it part of a game, that stimulus becomes something the dogs will almost look forward to. They know now, that when they hear the doorbell ring, something good happens in the kitchen (They get treats!). Instead of punishing the barking, we changed the dogs’ emotional reaction to the doorbell sound, and everyone was happy. We made it part of a game, and we know that dogs love games. 

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