I’ve mentioned before that we live in a townhouse. In the “pros and cons” breakdown, “landscaping” goes firmly on both lists. On the one hand, I don’t have to do it myself. On the other hand, it gets done with a regularity and vigor that I think is really unnecessary.
Practically this means that every Tuesday afternoon the landscapers come, with a full range of power equipment.
Silas, as you can imagine, does not approve of Landscaping Day. It starts out with some generalized anxiety, as we can occasionally hear the work from the other end of the townhouses. Then it picks up in intensity as they get closer, until we have full on hysterical barking while they run the leaf blower near the door.
The one thing I try to be the most careful about with Silas is not to reinforce his inappropriate reactions. More importantly, I try not to let the environment reinforce his reactions. Barking dogs love to bark, because eventually the thing they’re barking at goes away. “Look what I did! I made that thing go away!” they think. “Barking is awesome!”
We’ve tried a few things to get around this phenomenon with the landscapers. There was some scolding (I never said I was perfect), there was some rewarding for being quiet, and then there was, finally, some throwing up of hands. It’s not like it’s a nuisance for my neighbors; they can’t hear him over the power equipment.
For the last month or so I’ve been doing something different, though, with a page straight out of classical counter-conditioning. Silas barks at the landscapers because he’s afraid of them. So, the second that they start running their machinery near our house, treats begin raining from the sky. Miraculously! We don’t use as much counter conditioning as you would think, with a dog like Silas, because he refuses to eat in 90% of the circumstances where it would be useful. In our own house he’s amenable.
The exact mechanism of treat delivery took a while to perfect. Silas’s special allergy treats are pricey, so I can’t be as willy-nilly with them as I would like. If I handed them to him, he would either 1) gobble them all up instantly or, if I moved more slowly, 2) have time to start reacting while I got another treat out. Instead, we go for the good-old scatter method. I toss three or four treats on the ground, in a small but not tiny area. I want him to take a few steps going from treat to treat, but not to lose sight of that yummy thing over there. The goal is to slow down the delivery, but to keep him feeling like he has an endless supply of goodies. By the time he eats the last treat, I have a new handful ready to go.
I wish I could say that we’d already seen a miraculous turnaround. We haven’t. But it’s less stressful for everyone this way, which is a very promising first step.