Collaborative Care

Independent study: How to be constructional and teaching anchor behaviors to modify fear.

Hesper glowing
Hesper wearing her collar on a hike.

A set of descriptive terms that behavior consultants and trainers use, is: constructional vs pathological. The terms can seem intimidating, but the difference is really pretty simple. Constructional trainers train the skills they need BEFORE they need to use them. Pathological trainers try to train what they need at the moment they need it, often in stressful or less than ideal learning situations. It’s obviously easier for everyone, dogs, humans, horses or birds to learn a behavior ahead of time, so that when they need the skills they are available and already familiar. But really, what does that mean in practice?

For Hesper’s education to be constructional, it meant there were a lot of behaviors I needed to teach her before I could consider her  prepared to take even on a trip to my friend’s farm just a few miles away. It seems silly, but she hadn’t left the farm in over a year and I really didn’t know who she was or how she would react to new things. So, I needed to control the variables I could for her comfort. What sort of skills did she need in her repertoire to go on a short trip to a new place?

  1. Actively collaborate in putting on her collar
  2. Actively collaborate in her leash being attached
  3. Give to pressure on leash
  4. Jump into the car
  5. Lay down quietly in the backseat
  6. Positive expectation of seeing new people from in the car (receive food on sight of people.)

Hesper had developed an odd phobia of her collar around the age of 8 months old or so. Before that, she had allowed a collar to be put on quite eagerly, but as an adolescent became very fearful of anything over her head or above her eyes and would dash away in a panic the moment you walked even nearby with a collar in your hand. Real panic, fast and bumping into walls, panic. Obviously, I didn’t push it!

But, before I could take her out into the world, I needed to be able to keep her safe by having her wear a collar and leash, and, just as important, I needed her to feel safe and happy about putting her equipment on. So, how to proceed? Rather than just using a very large collar to thread her head through for very high value food, I wanted to break down the component pieces of putting on a collar and teach her to be a willing participant in each step. Rather than just having her be passive in the process, I wanted her to be engaged in an active, previously learned behavior. Hesper already knew a basic chin rest behavior where she would rest her chin on my lap (a chin target), and that was the perfect base behavior to build the “collar on”/”collar off” behavior. (This chin rest behavior has been developed beautifully as an anchor behavor by Laura Monaco Torelli of Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago with her own dog, Santino, for a wide range of vet care.)

Let’s looks at how we approached this particular puzzle:

In the video above, you can see Hesper rehearsing her chin rest behavior with duration. Initially, when I taught the behavior, it was just a brief slide of her chin onto my legs. Over time, I withheld the click until she could perform the behavior for longer and longer. Once she understood that part, I added in the component of touching her around her neck and shoulders, the same places I would touch her while putting on her collar. Once she could easily accept those things, she had achieved the prerequisites for introducing the collar.

In the video above, you see Hesper performing a chin rest behavior while I put her collar on and off, as well as move onto some rehearsal for vaccinations. A few details that are important to me that indicate comfort, beside her ability to maintain the chin target:

  1. She blinks throughout the process. Blinking indicates relaxation. When we are nervous, we keep our eyes open wide to not miss a thing. Some dogs don’t blink when really high value food is available, so that’s something to be aware of for individual dogs.
  2. Her tail wags throughout the process, wide and at spine level. A low, loose wag means relaxed muscles along the spine and positive emotional affect. A tucked tail or high, fast wag would indicate increasing fear or tension, respectively.

After watching these videos, it is easier to understand the concept of an anchor behavior. Hesper’s ability to engage or not engage in this highly reinforced chin target behavior functions as a barometer of her overall relaxation for me AND gives her a something to do in a process where we normally expect our dogs to be still and do nothing. If at any time she had lifted her head or backed away, that would be a cue to me that I had gone too quickly in the process of re-introducing the collar and to go back a step. Note: Even though Hesper’s chin is “anchored” to my lap, the concept here is an emotional anchor, keeping her calm and giving her a focus.

Going through all of these steps took longer than just shoving a large collar over her head for some steak and ignoring what would have been varying levels of discomfort and questions on her end. But luring her nose through a collar would be pathological, trying to train the behavior at the moment I needed or wanted it. Taking the time to teach Hesper the behavior of presenting her neck for collaring and maintaining a chin rest for buckling and unbuckling ensures she is not stressed by any part of preparing to go out AND allows her to build a reinforcement history surrounding me and the collar. Each piece of the going out routine that she feels confident in and reinforced by keeps her calm and relaxed and avoids triggering stress hormones just before we go out into the larger world. Being constructional in our approach to our dogs’ education takes time, but the results are increased comfort and confidence for Hesper AND me. A total win!

To meditate on: How are you constructional or pathological in your dog’s education? Are there some new skills you could teach that would benefit you and your dog in daily life?


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