The plumber coming was apparently more traumatic than I realized.
Silas has always barked at people going by in front of the house or people opening our front gate. We didn’t like it, but nothing we did about it helped, so there it was. I say that it’s his only real behavioral problem at home. The rest of it is just regular dog stuff–absconding with stray socks, or carrying off the couch pillows. And truth be told, the barking is also pretty typical dog stuff. The Westies who live around the corner are just as bad. I don’t like it, in part because it’s loud but mostly because it’s fear driven.
Since the plumber came, though, the barking has been serious. Over everything. None of this “just a bark or two if someone opens the gate and walks the other way” stuff.
Apparently, the plumber moved a hypothetical danger–that is, someone is out there and might do something–to a very real threat that someone will invade the house and I won’t be able to stop them.. And because Silas’s default fear behavior seems to be “get it before it gets me,” the result is crazy, terrified barking.
In that timely way that you run across things when you need them, I’ve been watching Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog DVD seminar. I read the book ages ago, back when Silas was a wee pup without many problems.
One of McConnell’s discussions is about fear. Think about what happens when something startles you–you hear a loud noise, you jump, and then you think, “oh, it’s just a car on the road out front, nothing to be afraid of” McConnell pulls from Temple Grandin the idea that dogs are comparatively lacking in the ability to take that last step. That action depends on an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that just isn’t incredibly developed in non-human animals.
In cases of genuine (or perceived genuine) danger, even the human brain is capable of skipping the step where we decide what to do. People being attacked, for instance, don’t think, “Ok, I’ll hit here, and then kick there.” People with snake phobias don’t stop to decide if that thing on the ground is poisonous; they just run.
Those snake=run type pathways in the brain are incredibly strong. They’re also difficult to change, because your brain is deliberately not engaging the part of your brain that has the capacity to say “Stop running, idiot, that was just a stick.” And that’s in a human brain, where that rationalizing capacity is incredibly well formed to begin with.
But what if you were biologically incapable of that thought process? What if it was almost impossible for you to ever say, “Just a stick, keep walking” or “I’m afraid, but I don’t have to run” or “Oh, that’s just the dog walker going next door”? While it isn’t absolutely impossible for dogs to do those things, it is a difficult and incomplete process at best. (Stop and think about what kind of life you would lead if you couldn’t talk yourself out of your fears.)
McConnell’s proposal is that classical conditioning is the only way to help a dog out of the loop. Through many, many, many repeated pairings, you can retrain the purely illogical impulse of “snake=run” into the equally sub-logical “snake=cookie.”
The trick of using classical conditioning to modify a fear is that it does not matter how the dog is behaving. You are not rewarding the barking or the cowering; you are attempting to reprogram a neural pathway. Scary thing=cookie is the only goal. The dog is, whatever we might wish to the contrary, not in control of the barking or the cowering.
The other good thing about scary thing=cookie is that the cookie can redirect attention. Not only is the process of eating inherently satisfactory, on a neuro-chemical level, it takes the dog’s attention off that scary thing for at least the microsecond it takes to locate and chew the treat. For certain kinds of fears, especially for something transient, that diversion of attention can be enough to stop the whole process.
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